A 2017 study from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed some troubling statistics about military finances. Among the most worrisome findings is the fact that veterans ages 55 to 64 years old had a lower median net worth their non-veteran counterparts. For some age groups, including the age 35 to 44 cohort, households led by a veteran also carried more credit card debt.
Like any other segment of the population, veterans and active-duty military may have some work to do when it comes to their finances, including the way they use credit and credit cards. The truth is, the path to good credit is the same for everyone — veteran or not. But military members may have extra challenges when it comes to building wealth and avoiding debt, including the fact that they often have to move every few years.
How the law protects service members seeking credit
Before shopping for the best credit cards for the military, be aware of the legal protections that apply to service members.
One factor that impacts the credit card scene in particular for active-duty military members is the Military Lending Act. This act includes specific rights for active military and their dependents, including:
- A 36% Military Annual Percentage Rate (MAPR) cap on all credit cards, which considers finance charges, credit card fees, and add-on products in conjunction with credit cards
- No mandatory waivers of consumer protection laws
- No prepayment penalties on credit cards or loans
- No mandatory allotments
Also note that the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) enacts its own standards for credit cards offered to military members.
Due to the SCRA and its implementation, lenders cannot charge active-duty military more than 6% interest on any amount owed with a credit card or loan before they enter active-duty service. Lenders have the right to apply this rate retroactively, and the SCRA prevents creditors from reducing or denying credit (or from reporting negative information to their credit report) based on the fact a military customer requests the 6 percent interest rate.
This act applies to existing debts only. The SCRA doesn’t require lenders to apply the 6 percent rate to new purchases once a military member enters active service.
Most military-friendly credit cards
Now that you understand how laws protect military members, it’s important to know which cards offer the most perks or benefits. When it comes to rewards credit cards specifically, military members will be happy to know that some card issuers waive the annual fees on their cards for the military. This makes some of these cards an exceptionally good deal — particularly when it comes to rewards and travel credit cards.
Chase, for example, waives annual fees for military who signed up for one of their credit cards after Sept. 20, 2017. American Express, on the other hand, annual fees are waived on all their credit cards for the military no matter when they were opened. Barclaycard waives fees on credit cards opened prior to active duty and so does U.S. Bank, Citi and Capital One.
With these details in mind, some of the best rewards and travel credit cards for military members include:
Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is ideal for military members since it offers lucrative rewards and perks but doesn’t require them to pay the $450 annual fee. This card gives you 50,000 points, worth $750 in travel when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, after you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening. You also get an annual $300 travel credit, Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership, Global Entry/TSA Precheck credit and other perks. Earn 3x points on travel (after earning the travel credit) and dining and 1x points on all other purchases, and redeem your rewards for gift cards, statement credits, merchandise or 1:1 transfer to airline and hotel partners.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
The Platinum Card® from American Express becomes especially lucrative when you can skip over paying the $550 annual fee. This card offers a welcome bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $5,000 within 3 months of account opening, plus you get 5 Membership Rewards points for each dollar you spend booking airfare direct or through AmexTravel.com, and for prepaid hotel bookings made through the portal. Perks include airport lounge membership (Priority Pass Select, Centurion and Delta SkyClubs when you fly Delta), up to $200 airline credit each year, Hilton Honors Gold Status, up to $200 in Uber credits each year and more.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is another winning card for military members — particularly ones with large families to feed. This card only has a $95 annual fee that can be waived for military, yet it offers 6% back on up to $6,000 at U.S. supermarkets each year (then 1%) and on select U.S. streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. You’ll also get 3% back at U.S. gas stations and on transit including expenses like parking, tolls and Uber rides in addition to 1% back on other purchases. A final benefit is the initial $250 welcome bonus you can earn by spending $1,000 on your card within 3 months of account opening.
Best credit cards for military members paying off debt
We already mentioned how the main steps to build credit and improve credit are the same for veterans and non-veterans — open credit and loan accounts in your name, pay all your bills early or on time and keep your account balances low. In some cases though, military members and veterans can benefit from debt consolidation — or the act of combining several old debts into a new one with better terms.
Some credit cards can help in this respect since they come with 0% APR for a limited time — usually 12 to 21 months. The best credit cards for military members who want to consolidate debt include:
This balance transfer card lets you pay down debt and make new purchases at 0% APR for 15 months, followed by a variable rate of 17.24% to 25.99%. The Chase Slate also comes with no balance transfer fees for balances transferred in the first 60 days, and there’s no annual fee.
This card doesn’t come with rewards, but it does let its customers focus on repaying their debts or paying off a large purchase without any interest for a limited time.
The information about the Chase Slate card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com and has not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.
Citi Simplicity® Card
The Citi Simplicity® Card gives you 21 months with 0% APR for balance transfers as well as 12 months with no interest on purchases, both of which are followed with a variable APR of 16.24% to 26.24%. This card does charge a balance transfer fee of 5% ($5 minimum), but the extended introductory offer may be worth it.
It pays to know your options
If you’re a military member who is thinking of getting a new credit card, it helps to know you qualify for special consumer protections based on your military status. Fortunately, there are many credit cards that offer lucrative benefits or debt consolidation opportunities that can be a boon to your finances as well.