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How to Choose a Credit Card if You Have Little, No, or Bad Credit

Jackie Nelson

Jackie Nelson

Feature Writer

5 min. read

Applying for a credit card can seem complicated, no matter what the circumstances. If you find yourself in a season of life where you have low income, have no or bad credit, or are a full-time student, you may be surprised to find out that you can still find opportunities to build your credit with a credit card.

If you’re in the market for a credit card to develop manageable debt, a solid payment history, and more budgeting experience with credit – we have some guidance to get you started.

In this article:

Students – you have options

If you’re in high school or college, it may be close to impossible to have a full-time job while focusing on your studies. Unfortunately, living expenses, savings accounts, and other spending needs don’t go away just because you’re in school. To help build credit and assist with your expenses, it may be smart to start early with your first credit card. Creating good credit habits now will help your future credit score and set you up for success.

Consider cash back

As a student, you may benefit from a credit card with cash back or reward points to build your credit history and positively influence your score and spending habits. Even students with limited or nonexistent credit history may be eligible for cash back on everyday purchases, such as gas, books, groceries, or other college essentials.

Check out secured credit

If you want to focus on building your credit while you’re a student, a secured credit card is a great way to do that. Secured credit cards work a little differently – you pay a deposit up front that serves as your line of credit for use. Making consistent payments on the account can set you up for great financial habits as you build your creditworthiness.

Stay away from annual fees

In school, you have enough expenses. An annual fee should be an automatic disqualifier for any student cards you’re considering. If you have your eye on a credit card with amazing rewards and it has an annual fee, save that for after graduation when you can better afford an annual fee card.

Look for no foreign transaction fees

Considering a semester abroad or taking your credit card with you on spring break? You’ll want to make sure your credit card doesn’t have a foreign transaction fee for purchases made outside of the U.S.

Low income? No problem.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported the median U.S. income as $56,516 in 2015. Even for those below that line, and perhaps those earning much less, it isn’t a deal breaker when it comes to some credit cards. Whether you’re just starting out in the work force or simply getting on your feet with an entry-level job, you can still work toward building a good credit history by responsibly using a line of credit.

Low income threshold

As you search for a great credit card for your financial situation, it’s very important to consider the income threshold necessary for chances of approval. Credit cards are available for salaries as low as $15,000 and even lower if you’re a student.

Look for low interest

To get the most from your credit card, you’ll want to find a low interest rate or at least a 0% intro APR. This can help with balance transfers from higher interest cards, meaning you can pay off your balance quicker and get out of debt a little easier. Low interest rates also mean you pay the least amount for the privilege of using a line of credit. If you don’t have a great credit score, low interest rates may be harder to find.

Alternative options for credit

If you have bad credit and low income, other options include getting a co-signer for a credit card, being added as an authorized user on someone else’s card or – best of all – having your own secured credit card. A secured credit card requires a deposit to be used as your spending limit until you build enough credit to qualify for better credit terms.

Find fewer fees

Nobody wants unnecessary expenses, and for people with tight budgets it’s even more important. One way to be mindful of this is by eliminating card options that have high annual fees. Even better – choose a card with no annual fees.

No credit? Bad Credit? Build it.

Building or repairing your creditworthiness is a journey. It takes time, persistence and dedication. This is true whether you have bad credit, or zero credit history. A great credit score doesn’t happen overnight, but working toward it will be worth it over time.

Take the first step

Perhaps the most important tip for rebuilding your credit is to commit to good spending and payment habits. Consider the option of a secured credit card to set yourself up for success. Secured credit cards are the easiest way to get approved for credit if you have a bad or nonexistent credit score. Secured cards allow you to use a deposit as your credit limit, which shows credit issuers that you can pay on time and be trusted to manage your balance.

Ask for help

Another way to build your score is to ask for help from a close friend or family member who has experience in responsibly using credit. By getting them to co-sign with you or allowing you to become an authorized user on their account, you can both benefit. Everyone wins if you can responsibly spend and make payments on the account while helping them gain more miles, rewards, or cash back on their credit card.

Budget your spending

There are so many opportunities to build up more than just your credit score when you have your first credit card. You can earn points, miles, rewards, cash back and bonuses based on how much you spend. Although these opportunities can be alluring at first, credit card rewards are just incentives for you to add to your balance. As long as you budget your spending based on how much you can reasonably afford to pay back each month, you’ll be smartly building your credit history and rewards points in no time.