From the March 2011 issue of Entrepreneur

When people learn that I write about personal finance, they naturally assume I'm opposed to credit cards. That's not quite true. I'm opposed to credit card debt.

According to the Federal Reserve's most recent survey of consumer finances, roughly 46 percent of American families carry a credit card balance, and nearly one in four owe more than $3,000 on their plastic.

Because of this, some folks believe credit cards are evil. But credit cards are no more evil than a chain saw. Sure, my chain saw can be dangerous, but only if I use it like an idiot. Used wisely, credit cards can be valuable tools, especially for small-business owners who can earn reward points and manage their cash flow while paying the monthly bills.

Jim Wang, for instance, loves his credit cards. The entrepreneur from Columbia, Md., writes about personal finance at Bargaineering.com. He controls his credit cards instead of letting them control him.

"I carry three cards," he says. "They're all cash-back or rewards cards. One card's for business; one offers rewards at restaurants, movie theaters and bookstores; and one offers cash back on everything else."

Read the fine print. You should read every contract you agree to, and a credit card is no different. Reading the paperwork alerts you to the card's hidden benefits--and its hidden pitfalls.

Review your statement every month. Watch for fraudulent transactions, but also keep an eye out for changing due dates, fees and interest rates. And don't be afraid to speak up. If something seems strange (or you want a rate reduction), call customer service.

Don't buy anything with your credit card unless you already have cash in the bank to pay for it. Don't let your having a credit card influence your shopping decisions. A credit card isn't a license to spend--it's just a different way to pay.

Another bonus? Credit cards make money management easier. "I like that all my spending records are in one place," Wang says.

If you choose to use credit, be smart. This isn't free money. Live by three basic rules, and you can safely use credit without getting burned.

"The idea is to spend within your means," Wang says. "Don't charge more than you're able to pay back in a month. If you carry a balance, you negate most of the benefits."

Not all credit cards are created equally, of course. Some carry high fees and onerous interest rates. In 2009, Congress passed the Credit Card Act, designed to protect consumers from some of the worst credit-card company tricks, but it can still be tough to sort the wheat from the chaff. To find a credit card that best suits your needs, consult Consumer Reports or visit card comparison websites such as IndexCreditCards.com or CardRatings.com.

Small-business owners should be careful, though.

"Business credit cards aren't regulated by the Credit Card Act," notes Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com. "In fact, some companies are issuing ‘professional' cards to get around consumer regulations."

Arnold, author of How You Can Profit from Credit Cards, says that banks are targeting entrepreneurs aggressively with these cards.

"Some small-business owners have switched from business cards to consumer cards to get protection," he says. "To get the same protection, consider applying for a personal card in your business's name. As long as you're not actually mixing your business and personal accounts, you're fine."

Credit cards aren't evil, but they can be dangerous. Just as you handle a chain saw with care, you need to be equally cautious with credit to avoid hurting yourself (and your business). Used wisely, credit cards can actually give you a financial edge.