A History of Credit (and How to Manage Yours Better)

By Janet Siroto · December 17, 2023 · 9 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

A History of Credit (and How to Manage Yours Better)

It’s hard to believe that Americans ever got by without plastic, but the credit card is less than 75 years old. There’s a good chance your grandparents could tell you about life in the days of nothing but cash or checks.

Today, about 84% of Americans have at least one credit card, which allows them to quickly and conveniently tap or swipe their way towards purchases. Unfortunately, those rectangles of plastic may make spending a little too easy: The average household has almost $8,000 in this kind of debt.

Here, you’ll learn just how the credit card came into being, as well as smart ways to manage your credit card usage more effectively.

The Origins of Credit

Here’s how the story of the first credit card goes: Businessman Frank McNamara was having dinner at a New York City restaurant in 1949 when he realized he forgot his wallet. Rather than dine and dash, he came clean and asked if he could sign for the meal and pay later.

Though some say this legendary dinner never happened, everyone agrees McNamara founded Diners Club, the world’s first multipurpose charge card, in 1950. McNamara sold Diners Club memberships to friends and acquaintances willing to pay $3 for the “sign now, pay later” privilege at participating restaurants and hotels.

Until that point, only individual stores extended credit to customers. If you couldn’t pay for, say, a dress or a new suit at the general store — and the owner knew you were good for the money — you could run up a tab and pay cash later. But the Diners Club card provided the benefit of credit at multiple locations instead of just one establishment.

💡 Quick Tip: Before choosing a personal loan, ask about the lender’s fees: origination, prepayment, late fees, etc. One question can save you many dollars.

Next Came the “Big Four” of Credit Cards

Of course, future entrepreneurs and banks wouldn’t let Diners Club monopolize the charge and credit market for long. Eventually, other cards came on the scene—most notably Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover.

•   Visa: In 1958, Bank of America issued the BankAmericard — the first true credit card — to customers in California. While the original Diners Club card required payment in full at the end of each month, BankAmericard users could pay off purchases over time. In 1976, BankAmericard became Visa.

•   Mastercard: BankAmericard got a run for its money when a group of banks joined forces in 1966 to create the Interbank Card Association (ICA). In 1969, ICA created Master Charge: The Interbank Card, which became Mastercard in 1979.

•   American Express: The American Express Company has been around since 1850, but it didn’t issue its first charge card until 1958. Like Diners Club, the American Express card had to be paid in full each month. That changed in 1987 with the introduction of the Optima card, the first true credit card by American Express. (Fun fact: Elvis Presley was one of the earliest American Express card members.)

•   Discover: Discover is the newest major credit card network on the scene. Sears launched the Discover card in 1986, distinguishing it from the pack by charging no annual fees and offering higher credit limits than other cards at the time.

Discover was also the innovator of cash rewards on credit card purchases—back in 1986. At that time, Discover cardholders could earn rewards of up to 1% cash back on all purchases. Incidentally, Discover Financial Services purchased Diners Club International in 2008.

How Credit Cards Have Changed Over Time

A lot has changed since McNamara’s legendary dinner. Take a look at some of the biggest shifts in the credit industry:

The Ubiquity of Credit

In the early decades, credit was curbed by restrictive interstate banking laws. But credit’s big breakthrough came in 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled to allow nationally chartered banks to charge out-of-state customers the interest rate set in the bank’s home state.

Credit expanded as a result, and today, the average American credit card holder has nearly four cards.

The Evolution of Fees

When Diners Club began, it made money by charging stores a 7% fee on all transactions. Today, credit card companies charge interest on debt, too, so they make money when you don’t pay your bill in full. This is what’s typically known as high-interest debt. How high? At the end of 2023, the average credit card interest rate was reported as 24.59%.

Also, Diners Club used to charge nominal membership fees, but by the 1980s, many credit card companies eliminated annual fees to stay competitive.

The Advent of Rewards

The ’80s also brought tangible rewards for using credit cards instead of cash. Discover pioneered cash rewards, allowing cardholders to get a percentage back on purchases charged. And in 1987, Citibank made a deal with American Airlines to give consumers reward points to use for future flights.

Today, consumers continue to use credit card rewards programs to earn cash or points for future purchases, including travel. In fact, more than 87% of credit card users have rewards programs associated with their cards.

How to Control Your Credit

Credit can be convenient and a real asset when you want to buy something you don’t have enough cash to pay for outright. It’s a powerful tool, and one that must be managed wisely. In the summer of 2023, credit card balances in America hit a new milestone, topping a total of $1 trillion. That likely means many people are carrying a significant amount of debt. To avoid having your balances soar too high, consider these ways to take control of your credit.

Build Your Credit History Wisely

It might sound enticing to pay for everything in cash (and thus stay out of debt), but most of us don’t have the cash flow to pay for college, buy a car, and purchase a home outright. Besides, even if you do have the cash to buy everything you need right now, when the day comes to apply for a loan, you’ll need a solid credit history to qualify.

If you’ve never had a single credit card or loan, your credit history is minimal, which means you pose a higher risk to lenders. In that way it pays to borrow, as long as you do so responsibly. That means spending less than you earn and paying your bills on time, every time. Whenever possible, pay off your credit card in full every month.

Consider Prefinancing

Of course, credit cards aren’t the only way to pay for purchases and build a strong debt payment history. Prefinancing (getting access to a sum of money in advance of a purchase), such as taking out a personal loan, is another option. When you apply for a loan, you’re requesting a specific amount of money from a lender and agreeing to repay that loan over a predetermined period of time.

How credit cards work is a different process. When you pay on credit, the credit card network (e.g., Visa) pays the merchant (e.g., Home Depot) for your purchases, and you pay the network back for your purchases each month. If you don’t pay your balance in full, you’ll be charged interest on future payments.

Between the two options, prefinancing may offer the benefit of lower interest rates and shorter loan terms, helping you get out of debt quicker. After all, if you don’t have a system in place to pay off purchases in a reasonable time frame, credit card debt can haunt you for a long time.

Think about it: If you’ve racked up $15,000 in credit card debt at an interest rate of 20%, and make a payment of $300 each month, it will take you 109 months (9+ years) to pay off your debt, including $17,635.48 in interest, by the way. (You can use a credit card interest calculator to see how your own debt stacks up.)

Understand Your Credit Score

Whenever you borrow money via a personal loan or use your credit card, your lenders and creditors send details of those transactions to three major national credit bureaus (Equifax®, Experian®, and TransUnion®). That information is then used to assess your creditworthiness, which is expressed as a three-digit credit score that represents the risk you pose to lenders.

The higher your credit score, the less risky you are in their eyes. FICO® scores are the ones used most often in lending decisions in the United States, with scores typically ranging from 300 (poor) to 850 (exceptional).

Your credit score comprises five categories, and each one has an impact:

•   Payment history: Late or missed payments drag down your score.

•   Amounts owed: High balances can hurt you; maxing out your credit cards is even more damaging.

•   Length of credit history: A long history can increase your score.

•   Credit mix in use: A healthy mix of credit cards, student loans, a mortgage loan, etc., can boost your score.

•   New credit: Opening several credit accounts in a short period of time can damage your score.

💡 Quick Tip: Swap high-interest debt for a lower-interest loan, and save money on your monthly payments. Find out why SoFi credit card consolidation loans are so popular.

Build Your Credit Score

If your credit score isn’t where you want it to be, there’s good news: Scores aren’t set in stone. Try these tips to build yours:

Do's and Don'ts of Credit Cards

Getting out of Credit Card Debt With a Personal Loan

Sometimes the problem is bigger than a low credit score. Unfortunately, some people get so deep into debt that it’s hard to find a way out on their own. One option: A personal loan to pay off credit card debt. This kind of loan usually allows you to consolidate high-interest credit card debt into one lower-interest loan with a fixed monthly payment.

Balance-transfer credit cards are another potential avenue to get out from under debt. Keep in mind, though, that these likely charge balance transfer fees, and your interest rate will be considerable after the promotional period. On the other hand, if you shop around, you may be able to find a personal loan that doesn’t charge origination or other fees.

You might also benefit from free or low-cost financial counseling from a nonprofit organization, such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).

The Takeaway

Clearly, Americans have become accustomed to and perhaps even reliant on credit cards since they were developed almost 75 years ago. When managed effectively, credit cards are valuable tools to help you pay for the things you need and to sustain the lifestyle you want.

If, however, you feel weighed down by credit card debt, start taking steps to control your credit, rather than letting it control you. Consider your options, such as balance transfer credit cards or using a personal loan, to help you pay off your balance.

Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.

With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.

SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.

SoFi Loan Products
SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Bank, N.A., NMLS #696891 (Member FDIC). For additional product-specific legal and licensing information, see SoFi.com/legal. Equal Housing Lender.

Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

Disclaimer: Many factors affect your credit scores and the interest rates you may receive. SoFi is not a Credit Repair Organization as defined under federal or state law, including the Credit Repair Organizations Act. SoFi does not provide “credit repair” services or advice or assistance regarding “rebuilding” or “improving” your credit record, credit history, or credit rating. For details, see the FTC’s website .


All your finances.
All in one app.

SoFi QR code, Download now, scan this with your phone’s camera

All your finances.
All in one app.

App Store rating

SoFi iOS App, Download on the App Store
SoFi Android App, Get it on Google Play

TLS 1.2 Encrypted
Equal Housing Lender