A credit card isn’t just a convenient payment method with nice perks, rewards and fraud protection. It’s also an effective, low-stakes credit-building tool.

In 2018, my credit score was infuriatingly fair, hovering around 620. It seemed as though nothing I did could help it. But then I got a credit card.

Fast forward three years and my credit score is finally good (above 670). I’ve added some of the best credit cards to my wallet, refinanced my car to significantly save on interest and kept more money in my bank account using a 0 percent APR offer.

It’s hard to believe that just three years ago, I only had one vanilla credit card with a mere $200 credit limit. But if it wasn’t for that card, who knows where my credit would be now?

Here’s how I used my credit card to build my credit.

Picking the right card

It’s 2018. I’m shopping for a credit card, not yet the credit card nerd I’ll later become.

I know enough to realize I don’t have the most exciting options. At this point, I think I’d be happy with any card issuer who would have me. (I’m wrong. There are plenty of fish in the sea of bad or fair credit card options.)

Fortunately, I come across Capital One, which promptly approves me for the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card.

Maybe the Capital One Secured isn’t the best secured credit card out there, since some secured cards offer decent rewards these days. But it’s definitely not a bad card. Bad cards, unfortunately, are also abundant. Clueless as I am, I’m lucky I haven’t come across one of those. And Capital One is a top issuer, meaning it’s good to start a relationship with.

Having been burned in the past, I barely use my credit card. And if I do, I pay it off right away. As a result, in six months, I get a credit limit increase from $200 to $500.

Keeping credit utilization low

It’s 2019. My career leads me to working in personal finance. It’s then that I start consuming countless articles about credit and learn from credit experts.

Now I know that my cautious approach has been a good one. I learn about credit utilization ratio — how much balance you carry compared to your credit limit, expressed in a percentage. It turns out that you shouldn’t use more than 30 percent of your credit line to keep your credit in good shape.

I do the math. If my credit limit is $500, I can carry a balance of up to $150 without hurting my credit.

That’s what I proceed to do.

Paying bills on time

It’s 2020. I’m still watching my credit like a hawk, and it’s been faring better. I’ve taken out a car loan, used Experian Boost to help my FICO score and begun learning more and more about credit cards. A lot more, considering I’m now working for Bankrate and CreditCards.com.

I realize how many amazing credit cards there are, of all different types. My credit score isn’t high enough to qualify for them yet, so I keep my card balance low and religiously pay it off on time. Now, I know that a late payment is like a curse put on your credit reports for seven years, doing the evilest things to your scores.

Capital One sees my effort. The issuer triples my credit limit to $1,500, and my credit loves it.

Upgrading to a better card

It’s still 2020. I decide it’s time to start being proactive. Capital One knows I’ve been a responsible and loyal customer, so I call the issuer to ask to graduate me to an unsecured card.

Capital One is happy to do so. Moreover, a customer service representative tells me I’m preapproved for the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card.

My first rewards credit card. I’m so ecstatic, it feels like Christmas morning.

Staying strategic with credit cards

It’s 2021. After some fluctuations, my credit score is finally good — meaning I’ve crossed the 670 threshold.

I now have five credit cards, including some I only dreamed about, like the American Express® Gold Card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Discover it® Cash Back. I’ve gone beyond just making on-time payments. I’m keeping my utilization low to raise my score. I’m collecting rewards in the top points programs and juggling multiple cards to earn higher rates on all of my different kinds of purchases.

I don’t think I’ll be getting any new cards for a while. All the ones I have serve a purpose. They’re a mix I’ve created for my specific spending patterns.

I’ve come to the conclusion that credit cards are like pills for your financial health. If you know what you’re doing and follow what’s in the prescription, your credit and budget will be well. If not, side effects may include credit card debt and financial distress.

So, I keep following the prescription: Only apply for a credit card that you really need, keep your balances low and always pay on time.

My credit is healthy and so is my budget.

How you can implement these learnings in building your credit

Before I became intentional about credit building, some steps I took were intuitive and some of my successes were pure luck. Nevertheless, you can use my takeaways and build your credit with a credit card, too.

First, find the right credit card to become your credit-building tool. No matter where your credit is now, there are excellent products that can earn you rewards while improving your scores.

Once you get a credit card, make a point to keep your balance low — under 30 percent of your credit limit. Pay your bills on time and eventually, you’ll see your credit scores climb up. Once you get to the next credit tier (for example, from fair credit to good credit), contact your issuer to upgrade you to a better card.

Track your credit to monitor your progress and stay strategic about your credit cards. Each of your cards should have a purpose and fit your spending.

It may take a while to build your credit but with these tips and some patience, you’ll see it grow soon enough.

The bottom line

A credit card can offer many benefits but one of the most crucial ones is its ability to help you build credit with responsible use. Never miss a payment, watch your card balances, be proactive and you’ll see your credit grow.

Use CardMatch to pick a credit card that’s tailored to your credit and fits your needs. Checking the offers won’t impact your credit and you’ll get card matches you have a good chance of being approved for.