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Confessional: Tales of a Credit Card Virgin

Hattie Burgher  |  December 13, 2018

I have a confession to make: I have never had a credit card. And because I’m someone who writes about money everyday, I kind of feel like a fraud.

In my defense, from the moment I got a debit card at 18, I was taught to only spend what I have—nothing more. Fast forward seven years, and I still practice that. OK, maybe not completely, considering I have student debt. But I don’t spend money that I don’t have on things that people typically put on credit cards and don’t pay off the same month, like food, clothing, plane tickets, etc. If I don’t have money in my checking account to swing going on that weekend getaway or buying those new shoes, I won’t go through with the purchase.

A few months ago, however, I realized I’m at the age where I need to start building credit and because I’ve (hopefully) learned self-control with my spending, I figured it’d be a good time to sign up for a credit card. So I did my research, talked to some experts and then filled out my first application.

A week later I got a letter in the mail from the credit card company I applied to. Denied. I thought there must’ve been a mistake. So I filled out another application with a different bank. Again, I got denied. I tried one more time with the bank where I already have a checking account. And guess what? I got denied again.

I knew rejection hurt, but getting rejected three times in a row for a credit card when I’m a personal finance writer? Yeah, that’s another level of feeling like a failure. The good news is I know I’m not alone, and neither are you if you’re struggling getting approved for your first credit card. (Because if we were the only ones then there wouldn’t be alternatives created for people like us and there are. More on that in a moment.)

I knew rejection hurt, but getting rejected three times in a row for a credit card when I’m a personal finance writer? Yeah, that’s another level of feeling like a failure.

Here’s how you can take what I’ve learned and sign up for your first credit card, and what to do if you get denied.

Go for the Vanilla …

No, I’m not talking about ice cream (although I’ll never tell you not to go for ice cream). I’m talking about picking a basic, no-frills credit card that helps you build credit.  When you are shopping around for your first credit card, Ted Rossman, industry analyst at, says you should ask yourself these two questions: How do you spend your money and what do you want out of your card?

Answers will vary from person to person, but if you are in your early 20s (or otherwise seeking a card for the first time), your primary objective should be building credit. Which is why it’s a good idea to start out with a very basic credit card that will let you do that.  

Some more premium cards—which tend to have bells and whistles like frequent flier miles or rewards points—will come with annual fees and high interest rates. Those should be avoided, especially if you are just starting out and don’t have an “I eat avocado toast and a $10 green juice everyday” salary to support it, because the costs will fast outweigh any perks.  

Why Focus on Building Credit?

Credit is one of those frustrating things that you can’t build if you don’t have—and you can’t have if you don’t build. A big (if not the biggest) reason you’ll get turned down for a credit card is because you don’t have any credit history. Your credit history is just that, a backward-looking record of whether you’ve paid your bills on time and how much of your credit lines you’re using. Without it, lenders have trouble deciding whether you’ll be responsible or not and issue you new credit. Which leads me to …

If You Get Denied …

It’s not the end of the world. As I can attest, even the vanillaist of cards may turn you down. What do you do then? First, identify why you got denied. On your rejection letter there will be a few reasons cited for why you got the “no.” Mine was lack of credit history, as well as a high debt-to-income ratio, due to my student loans.

Next, you may want to try to get the bank to reconsider. Michelle Perkins, CEO of, suggests going into your local bank branch and talking in person to a representative. Some face time and human connection could be the key to having them reconsider giving you credit. After I got rejected by my bank (where I already have a checking account), I went into my local branch to talk about my options. The representative offered to set me up with a secured credit card.

What’s that? With a secured credit card, you put down a deposit (minimums differ from bank to bank), and that becomes equal to the line of credit you can use. (Example: If you deposit $300, your credit limit will be $300 every month). The deposit is to protect the bank, since we haven’t quite earned their trust yet with our skimpy credit history.

The secured card acts like a credit card with strings attached. Every month your behavior with that card is being reported to the credit bureaus, and therefore, building your credit history.

And here’s the best news: If if you pay it off every month and, therefore, display good financial habits, after eight to 12 months your caterpillar could turn into a butterfly. In other words, your bank may upgrade your card to an unsecured (aka normal) credit card and voilà. You are one step closer to buying a house, a car or anything else  for which you’ll need a credit history.

Now What?

Since I was denied several times for a credit card, I finally took the hint that I wouldn’t get approved. So I opted to go with my bank’s secured credit card. Within a year I’m hopeful I’ll upgrade to a *real* credit card and prove my creditworthiness, but until then I’m just glad to be taking steps in the right direction.  

I still believe it’s important to spend only what you have, but you can do that while using a credit card. Just make sure you are budgeting for all of your expenses and paying it off on time and in full every month. The purpose of a credit card isn’t to delay paying for that new blouse, those concert tickets or that weekend Airbnb — it’s to build a credit score that will help you qualify for the major things in life like a house and a car. Which is why I’ve done a 180 on my anti-credit card stance because when used correctly, it can be a powerful tool to get what you want.

Looking for a a good resource to use if you want to know what card you may get approved? Check out’s Credit Match tool.

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