Getting the most from your credit card rewards is a tough thing to do! Credit cards, by their nature, are in the business to make money – and each reward they pay to you costs them. As a result, credit card companies have a genuine incentive to make it challenging to get awards, hard to redeem them, and overall difficult to know if you are getting the best deal.
It is currently estimated that there are over 1.9 million different rewards credit cards in existence! That is a lot of choices! Credit card rewards offer everything from airline miles, to cash back, to points that can be redeemed for stuff. So, how do you get the most from these?
Credit Card Rewards for Your Lifestyle
The first thing you should do when thinking about credit card rewards is what is your lifestyle? Do you travel? Do you shop? Do you have a goal of saving for retirement? Whatever your main financial goal is, get a credit card that aligns with it. For example, if your financial goal is to save for a vacation every year, get a credit card that offers airline miles or hotel points. This will enable you to save for your goal of traveling.
- Travel: There are many cards out there that offer airline miles, hotel stays, even rental car discounts. If you want to travel, here are some tips to maximize your travel rewards:
- Airlines: Every airlines offers some type of credit card with miles or trips after a certain amount of spending. The trick is to maximize your reward. If traveling is you goal, first, make sure you have a card with an airline that gets you where you want to go. If you want to go to Hawaii, then don’t get a Southwest credit card, as Southwest doesn’t fly there, and so you will be out of luck. Second, you need to maximize your airline miles. Not only should you spend everything on the card and then pay it in full, you also need to take advantage of airline mileage specials. A good way to do this is by shopping online through the airline’s mileage mall. Almost every airlines has an online mall that gives you additional miles for every dollar you spend. For example, United gives 4 miles for every dollar at Nordstrom. You then use your card, and get another 1 mile per dollar. Your $100 spent at Nordstrom now earned you 500 miles instead of just 100.
- Hotels: Hotels also offer different programs for earning stays. One of the best cards in this category is the Starwood Resorts card. This card consistently is rated as the best amount of rewards for your spending, so if you travel, you need to look into this card.
- Shopping: Shopping is another area that is dominated by credit card rewards programs. If shopping is your main area of focus, look at your top spending stores, and see what you can save by using their card. Also, you should consider giftcards to where you shop, as payouts in giftcards are usually higher than payouts in cash.
- Retail Store Cards: Many financial experts don’t like retail store cards, but if you do most of your shopping at one or two stores, this could add up to potential savings. Many retail stores offer discounts for using their store cards, which can be 5-10% off your purchase, as well as other specials for card holders. This amount of rewards can typically be higher than a generic credit card.
- Points and Items Are Not The Same: Many cards offer points that can be redeemed for merchandise. However, you will usually lose out on the trade-in value of the points. Make sure that you look at what the item goes for in a store, and what you had to spend to get the points to buy it. If it is less than a 1% reward return, don’t do it, as you are losing out. For example, if your rewards points let you buy a TV valued in a store at $500, but it costs you 75,000 points, that is only a 0.67% return. You can earn 1% or more elsewhere, so it is not the best deal.
- Retirement: There are several cards on the market that now allow you to deposit your rewards directly into a retirement account. This can be a great way to save for retirement. What is also great is that the rewards amount on these cards is usually very high – 1% to 2%. And it is cash available for you to invest. This is a great way to go if you don’t want to touch your rewards, but want to get the most possible.
Cash Rewards Are Still King
I’m still a big believer that cash back rewards are still king, especially if you get a good rate of over 1% cash back. If you go the cash back rewards route, make sure you find a card that pays you monthly, and deposits it into the account of your choice. There are cards out there that offer great cash rewards, but the trick is finding the best cash back credit cards. If you have a good one, maximize the rewards by spending everything on the one card, and then paying it off in full each month. The more you charge, the more rewards you get. Just don’t get yourself into debt!
Readers, what other tricks do you have to maximize your credit card rewards programs?
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him here and here.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.