[DISCLOSURE: Cards from our partners are mentioned below.]
You are standing at the cash register about to make your purchase when the clerk asks if you’ll be paying with your store credit card. If the answer is “no,” you know what probably comes next: The pitch to open one right now and get a discount on the items you are about to buy. But should you get one of these seemingly easy to get credit cards? The answer depends primarily on how much you shop at that particular retailer, what your general spending habits (and credit score) look like, and whether the card’s terms and conditions would make it one of the best store credit cards out there. Here we break down how to decide whether you should get a store credit card, and name a few of the best store credit cards out there to help you better vet offers.
What’s a Store Credit Card?
Many retailers offer branded credit cards that entitle cardholders to shopping discounts and/or rewards on their purchases. These cards may also tout special financing offers that let cardholders skip paying interest on purchases for a set period of time (more on that later). There are generally two types of store cards: Ones that can only be used at the retailer and store cards co-branded by a payment network like Visa, Mastercard or American Express, which can be accepted anywhere.
Co-branded store credit cards may also offer rewards on standard purchases, making them clearly the more attractive of the two options — but they also can be harder to qualify for. One of the pros associated with standard store credit cards is that they tend to have less stringent underwriting criteria and, as such, can serve as a point of entry for people with thin or bad credit.
Still, no matter the type of card, applying for a store credit card is an important decision, and making that choice under pressure isn’t ideal. Here are five questions to help you evaluate whether you need a store credit card before you hit the mall.
How Much Will I Really Save?
In most cases, the retailer will offer you a discount on that day’s purchases, usually in the range of 10% to 20%. While it’s nice to pay less, it’s not always necessary to open a credit card to accomplish that. You may be able to find coupons or coupon codes that allow you to get the same deal. Or you may get an instant discount or coupon if you sign up to receive emails or text messages from the retailer. Sometimes the new account discount will be extended for purchases made within a short time period (24 hours, for example) as an incentive to get you to spend more. The risk here is that instead of saving money, you end up spending more than you had planned. Plus, the interest rates for department store credit cards are almost always on the high side, often 19% to 22%, or more. If you carry a balance, the interest you will pay will likely exceed the amount you saved with the discount. Strategy: Set your savings threshold ahead of time. Is it only worth it to you if you will save $100, for example? Or $250?
How Often Do I Shop Here?
Note this question is not, “How often will I shop here?” After all, that’s the main reason the store wants you to get the card — to encourage you to come back and spend more. Since a wallet full of credit cards can be an open invitation to overspend and may affect your credit scores, you want to be choosy and only apply for cards at stores you regularly frequent. Strategy: Sign up only if you shop at this store on a regular basis. Again, set the threshold in advance. Is it once a month, or once a week?
Will It Help or Hurt My Credit?
When you open a new credit card, you may see a dip in your credit scores for two reasons: One is the inquiry that is created when the issuer checks your credit score. An inquiry may cause your scores to drop, though usually not more than a few points. In addition, a new account with a balance is often seen as a risk factor. But as long as you pay on time and keep your balances below at least 30%, and ideally 10%, of your credit line, things should even out over time. On the plus side, you will potentially have a positive new credit reference which can prove beneficial if you are trying to build or rebuild credit. If you are declined, the fact that you are turned down won’t hurt your credit scores (beyond the inquiry), but, of course, it can be embarrassing to get rejected. Strategy: Check your credit reports and credit scores now so you know where you stand. If you have good credit, you shouldn’t have trouble qualifying for most retail cards. You can get your free credit report summary, along with two free credit scores on Credit.com.
Is This the Right Time?
If you plan to apply for a mortgage, car loan or any other major loan within the next six months, it’s a good idea to politely decline. It’s probably not worth the risk to your credit to save a few dollars at the register. This is particularly important if you are in the process of getting or refinancing a home loan. In most cases, your credit reports and scores will be reviewed right before the loan closes, and if your scores have dropped — even by a few points — you may derail the loan. Strategy: If you need to protect your credit scores for another important loan coming up, say no.
Is This Store Credit Card Good?
Unless you are reading this on your smartphone or tablet in a store, you are probably not shopping right now. That means this is a good time to think through the answers to these questions and, if you do want a store credit card, to do your homework. Retail cards aren’t all bad. In fact, there are some very good ones that can save savvy shoppers money. Some in-store credit cards, such as those you’ll find at appliance, home improvement or furniture stores, offer 0% financing for a period of time. That can be a great way to finance a large purchase free of interest, but read the fine print carefully. If you miss a payment or fail to pay the balance in full by the time the interest-free period expires, you may be charged interest retroactively from the date of purchase, often at a high interest rate. Strategy: Know which store card(s) you want before you are in the checkout line.
The Best Store Credit Cards
To help you prepare before you head to the stores, the Credit.com editorial team compiled a list of some of the better store credit cards out there, based primarily on their rewards potential.
Why We Picked it: The rewards are pretty top-notch as far as store cards go.
Rewards Details: Cardholders get 5% off of their Target purchases (some restrictions apply), plus free shipping on most online orders and an extra 30 days on eligible returns.
Cons: You can only use the card at Target and Target.com.
Annual Fee: None
Annual Percentage Rate (APR): Variable 24.90%
Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card
Why We Picked It: This card can be used anywhere Visa is accepted — and offers points back beyond those earned on Amazon. Plus, if your credit is in good shape you might not get saddled with an APR beyond 20%.
Rewards Details: Cardholders get 3% back on Amazon purchases, 2% back at restaurants, gas stations and drug stores, and 1% back everywhere else. You can also get $50 off at Amazon instantly upon approval as a welcome offer.
Cons: While it’s still a really nice return, 3% back isn’t 5%, so if you’re really looking to rack up the rewards on Amazon, have a Prime membership and generally don’t carry a balance, you may want to look into the retailer’s Amazon Prime Store Card instead. It offers 5% back on Amazon purchases, plus special financing offers.
Annual Fee: None
APR: Variable 16.24% to 24.24%
TJX Rewards Platinum Mastercard
Why We Picked It: It’s pretty loaded with perks for T.J.Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods, and Sierra Trading Post shoppers. Plus, it’s a Mastercard so you can use it wherever the payment network is accepted.
Rewards Details: Cardholders get 5 points per $1 spent at the aforementioned retailers, plus one point per dollar on all other purchases. (You get $10 rewards certificates for every $200 spent.) New cardholders as eligible for 10% off their first in-store purchase as a swelcome offer.
Cons: Cardholders will want to refrain from ever carrying a balance — the APR is a whopper.
Annual Fee: None
APR: Variable 28.99%
Alternatives to Store Credit Cards
Some consumers may feel inclined to sign up for a store credit card to take advantage of promotional financing offers that let them avoid paying interest on purchases for a set period of time. These offers can certainly be convenient, but shoppers should take advantage of them very carefully. As we noted earlier, most promotional financing offered alongside store credit cards require cardholders to pay retroactive interest on the full balance if they fail to pay it off entirely by the time the offer expires. So, if you need to make a big purchase you can’t pay off right away, you may be better off opting for an introductory APR offer that’s attached to a traditional credit card. The right offer can provide you with a longer window to pay a balance down and won’t penalize you with retroactive interest if you fail to so do in time.
Beyond that, if your spending habits vary and/or you don’t like to think too much about the rewards credit cards in your wallet, you might want to opt for a credit card that offers competitive rewards on all purchases. Here are two alternatives to store credit cards that fit these bills.
Why We Picked It: An alternative for someone who doesn’t want too many credit cards in their wallet, the Quicksilver offers a competitive 1.5% cashback on all purchases, with no caps or changing categories. You can also get a $150 cash bonus if you spend $500 within the first 3 months of opening the account.
Cons: Even though the cashback offer of 1.5% is a competitive offer, most other credit cards will offer greater cashback rewards for certain spending categories, giving cardholders a chance at earning greater cashback rewards for areas that they spend more in, such as travel and dining.
Annual Fee: $0
APR: 0% intro on purchases for 15 months; 15.24% - 25.24% (Variable) APR after that
A few more good rules of thumb: All rewards credit cards, retail or otherwise, are best suited to cardholders who don’t carry a balance. That way you won’t lose whatever points or discounts you earn to interest. Also, it’s important to read the terms and conditions for any piece of plastic on your radar before you apply. You’ll want to be sure it’s right for you. Plus, you don’t want to risk a hard inquiry only to get rejected by the credit card issuer.
At publishing time, the Citi Simplicy and Capital One Quicksilver credit cards are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply and ultimately sign up for these cards. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.
Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.