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Getting your first credit card is a financial rite of passage. That little piece of plastic is more than just a shopping convenience—used wisely, it’s a financial building block that helps you establish a credit profile and develop good money habits that can strengthen your financial future.

Be aware that making mistakes with a first card can hurt your credit and result in less financial flexibility. Before you apply for a credit card, research your options! Here’s what you need to know to make the most of your first credit card.

How credit cards affect your overall financial profile

Having a credit card—and how you use it—affects your credit rating and credit score. This credit history can have a big impact on your future financial choices, because landlords, lenders, car dealers and even utility companies will use it to decide whether they want to offer their products or services to you.

Paying your credit card balance each month and staying under  your credit limit helps build a solid credit history that makes you a better potential customer to other financial service providers. Making late payments or running up too much debt will hurt your credit profile, making it harder to use other financial services in the future.

How to get a first credit card

People with no established credit history may have trouble getting a first card, but there are some options available:

  • Apply for a gas station or retail store credit card. They tend to be easier to get, and making a few regular purchases and paying off your bill each month builds credit.
  • Get a secured card. Secured credit cards are attached to a savings account, and carry a limit that’s based on the amount of money in the account, or a predetermined percentage of it.
  • Find a cosigner. A parent or another relative with good credit can cosign a credit card with you. Both of you can use the card, and both are responsible if you don’t pay your bill.
  • Become an authorized user. Ask someone you trust—and who trusts you—to add your name to an existing credit card. If this bill it paid regularly, it can help build your credit. On the other hand, though you generally won’t be responsible for all the debt on the card, late payments could affect your credit score.

Establishing good credit card habits

Once you get your first credit card, here are a few tips to help you use it responsibly:

  • Pay your bill in full and on time each month to limit interest charges. If you can’t pay off the entire bill, pay as much as you can and don’t charge anything else until you’ve paid off the balance.
  • Keep a low debt-to-credit ratio. Using less than 30 percent of your total credit card limit each month positively affects your credit score.
  • Read your credit card statement carefully each month to look for any fraudulent charges. If you find any, contact your credit card company right away.
  • Avoid cash advances. They come with a fee and an interest rate that’s typically higher than the rate you’ll pay for regular charges.
  • Don’t fill up your wallet with plastic. Once you have your first credit card, you’ll likely receive offers from other card issuers. But having multiple credit cards can complicate your financial life and make it easier to overspend or miss payments.

Following these tips will not only help you build a good credit history, but they’ll also create the solid financial habits that can help you use other financial products wisely. That way, a first card truly becomes a building block for a solid financial future.