Have you ever stood behind someone in line at the store and watched him shuffle through a stack of what must be at least 10 credit cards? Consumers with this many cards are still in the minority, but experts say that the majority of U.S. citizens have at least one credit card -- and usually two or three. It's true that credit cards have become important sources of identification -- if you want to rent a car, for example, you really need a major credit card. And used wisely, a credit card can provide convenience and allow you to make purchases with nearly a month to pay for them before finance charges kick in.
That sounds good, in theory. But in reality, many consumers are unable to take advantage of these benefits because they carry a balance on their credit card from month to month, paying finance charges that can go up to a whopping 23 percent. Many find it hard to resist using the old "plastic" for impulse purchases or buying things they really can't afford. The numbers are striking: In 1999, American consumers charged about $1.2 trillion on their general-purpose credit cards.
In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll look at the credit card -- how it works both financially and technically, and we'll offer tips on how to shop for a credit card. (Experts say this should be a project on the scale of shopping for a car loan or mortgage!) We'll also describe the different credit-card plans available, talk about your credit history and how that might affect your card options, and discuss how to avoid credit-card fraud -- both online and in the real world.