Credit cards are a fact of life.
You need one to make a hotel or plane reservation, or to rent a car, even if you plan to pay cash. Many stores require a credit card to accept your check. Responsible use of a credit card builds a good credit rating, too, marking the owner as mortgage-worthy.
But people who have never had credit or need to repair a poor credit history may not qualify for a regular credit card. For them, a secured credit card may be the only way to establish, or re-establish, credit.
10 questions to ask about secured credit cards:
If you're in that boat, here are the answers to the top 10 questions about secured credit cards.
1. What is a secured credit card?
A secured card requires a cash collateral deposit that becomes the credit line for that account. For example, if you put $500 in the account; you can charge up to $500. You may be able to add to the deposit to add more credit, or sometimes a bank will reward you for good payment and add to your credit line without requesting additional deposits.
2. Where can I get a secured credit card?
Check Bankrate.com's list of secured credit card issuers. If you're a credit union member, ask about a secured card there. About half of the nation's credit unions offer secured cards to their members and may offer lower interest rates and waive annual fees.
3. What kind of charges will there be?
This is where it pays to shop around. Look for a card that doesn't charge an application fee. Every secured card charges an annual fee, and they vary dramatically. Read the fine print. Some people have gotten secured cards and found their entire limit consumed with fees before they ever used the card.
4. How much money do I have to deposit?
Again, the amount will vary by the card. Most are $300 to $500. Your credit limit will either be the amount of your deposit or some percentage above that amount.
5. Do all banks offer secured credit cards?
No. Linda Sherry, editorial director of Consumer Action, says her organization is seeing a trend in banking away from secured cards and toward unsecured cards with lower limits and higher interest rates and fees. Still, secured cards are a good choice -- and sometimes the only option -- for people who are just starting out or rebuilding after a major life event, such as a divorce, job loss or serious illness. In addition, some issuers only give secured cards to people who are new to credit -- not those who have already had one crack and blown it.
6. Are there any problems to watch out for?
Yes. Howard Dvorkin, president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a nonprofit organization that helps people get out of debt, calls secured credit cards "a Clint Eastwood movie -- the good, the bad and the ugly. Some are good. They have low fees and treat customers as customers instead of as cattle. The bad ones take advantage and extort the clients because of their situations. Then there's the ugly, which are completely despicable. They'll give you the card, but you have to buy this insurance policy for $55 a month."