Pay for holidays with credit card rewards
- Credit card rewards can win you big discounts on merchandise.
- Check unused rewards programs for hidden points.
- You can even give to charity with rewards points.
Cash-poor this holiday season? Maybe it's time to dust off those credit card rewards points. They're great for this time of year and can bail out your bank account with big discounts on just about everything you buy.
Almost half of all rewards card holders will consider buying holiday gifts with points this year, according to Capital One's most recent quarterly rewards survey. About 3 in 5 plan to redeem for gift cards, while almost 1 in 5 will buy merchandise. The survey polled 1,045 rewards credit card holders from different issuers.
Your points will go far if you use them wisely.
"You want to have a plan and budget," says Amy Lenander, vice president of rewards programs at Capital One. "Once you know what you want to get for each person on your list, you can look at your rewards program and see what you can check off."
Here are eight ways to get more from your rewards this holiday season.
1. Merchandise: Skip the mall and shop through your credit card's website. Most issuers offer portals to online shopping malls where you can buy merchandise with rewards points. For example, Capital One cardholders can buy electronics, apparel, accessories, toys, health and beauty products, pet products and more. If you don't have enough rewards, you may still want to shop through the portal since you can earn bonus points for doing so.
2. Gift cards: Despite the impersonal nature of gift cards, they have ranked as the No. 1 requested present for the last five years, according to the National Retail Federation.
And guess what? Many credit card rewards programs can buy these perfect stocking stuffers. This holiday season, Bank of America is offering gift cards from major retailers at a special rate -- a $25 gift card for 2,000 points (normally 3,500 points). Gift card amounts range from $25 to $250.
Discover also provides discounts on gift cards from its partner retailers through its Cashback Bonus program. For example, you can buy a $25 Banana Republic gift card for $20 in rewards points or a $50 card for $40.
3. Amazon: If you'd prefer to sit on your couch and shop from your computer this winter, let your rewards points do the typing. Discover, American Express and Chase cardholders can use rewards points to pay for their purchases at Amazon.com. Discover even offers free one-day shipping to anywhere in the continental U.S. on Amazon purchases.
4. Experiences: Buying for someone who already has enough toys? Why not use your rewards points to buy an experience they won't forget? For instance, Chase cardholders can use points for tickets to a Radio City Christmas Spectacular show. You can give Mom or Dad access to a private rehearsal, a VIP backstage experience, or a walk-on role on the show in New York, St. Louis, Dallas, Chicago or Nashville, Tenn., for between 34,600 and 220,000 points.
5. Charity: Don't underestimate the gift of giving back. Most issuers allow cardholders to donate their rewards points to a host of charities. Capital One's Giving Site, for example, will let you donate your points to a nonprofit organization, and it'll chip in by covering the transaction cost. Donations of points most often are tax deductible, too.
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Short of cash this holiday season? If you have any credit card rewards saved up, you might be able to use them for holiday shopping.
Almost half of all rewards card holders will consider buying holiday gifts with points this year, according to Capital One's most recent quarterly rewards survey. If you're one of them, you might want to start by taking an inventory of the rewards you have and making a list of everyone you need to buy for, so you can budget a certain number of points for each person.
From there, you can convert your points into gifts in a couple of different ways. Many credit card companies allow you to spend points directly on merchandise through their websites or on partner websites. If you prefer shopping in person, you can use points to order gift cards and take those to the mall.
Lastly, if you don't need points to supplement your gift budget, someone else might. Some credit card companies allow you to donate your points to charity directly online, and maybe get a little tax write-off in the bargain.
6. Travel: Sometimes the best gift is family. With rewards points, you can help pay for your loved ones to visit during the holidays. Even if you don't have enough rewards to purchase a flight, it still makes sense to buy flights through your credit card issuer. Many cards will pay you bonus points for doing so. For example, Bank of America cardholders can earn up to 1,500 bonus points when they book travel plans through Bank of America's website until the end of the year.
7. Unexpected rewards: Don't think you have any rewards to use this year? Think again. You may have a rewards program you didn't know about. That's what happened to John Ulzheimer recently. The president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com checked his credit and debit card websites one afternoon and discovered that his credit union debit card had accrued 30,000 unused rewards points. He cashed in those points for $300 in iTunes and Fandango gift cards.
You may also want to check what your frequent flier program can buy. "I would bet $50 that half of the Delta SkyMiles members (from American Express) don't know they can use their miles for more than just getting flights," Ulzheimer says. Miles can be traded in for gift cards and merchandise.
8. Gifts that give back: You don't have to be a Grinch to keep rewards for yourself. If you use your credit card to shop at the right stores this holiday season, you'll get a bigger rewards bonus than usual.
For example, Discover cardholders can earn 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 in department store and online purchases from October to the end of December. That's $75 back in your pocket. And starting this month, more than 70 merchants on Discover's online shopping portal will offer up to 10 percent cash back.
Similarly, Chase Freedom cardholders can earn 5 percent cash back for up to $1,500 through the end of the year at Best Buy and Kohl's as well as on hotel and airline purchases. Cardholders who shop at Kohl's through Chase's online shopping portal will receive an additional 10 percent cash back on purchases.
Last, Capital One allows you to retroactively apply rewards to travel expenses up to 90 days after the purchase. That means if you're short on rewards for a flight to Nana's, buy it without them. Then apply rewards you earn from your holiday shopping toward the purchased ticket afterward. Consider it a belated Christmas gift.