If you have a credit card in your wallet, chances are it comes with some type of rewards program. Maybe you earn cash back on every purchase. Maybe you earn miles every time you book a flight. Maybe you have access to perks like travel insurance or free checked bags. You can get a lot of value out of the best rewards credit cards—if you know how to use them.
However, you might not be taking advantage of everything that rewards credit cards have to offer. To maximize your credit card rewards, you need to know which credit cards offer the best rewards and how to decide which rewards cards are best for you. Once you’ve applied for a few of the top rewards cards, it’s time to learn how to use them effectively — without ending up in credit card debt.
Here’s our step-by-step guide to getting the most out of your rewards credit cards.
Identify your spending habits
If you want to earn as many credit card rewards as possible, you need to make sure you’re choosing the right cards. That means asking yourself what you buy most often, and which cards offer the best rewards on those purchases.
For example, do you direct most of your card activity to travel-related purchases, like plane tickets and hotels? You might want to look at the best rewards credit cards for travel. If you spend less time traveling and more time commuting to work or running a household, consider applying for one of the best gas credit cards or best grocery credit cards.
Once you have an idea of your spending priorities, research the cards that will offer you rewards in those categories. If you like seeing your rewards in the form of cash, you could be earning anywhere from 3 percent to 5 percent cash back on your purchases. If you’re a frequent flyer, you could take advantage of travel card loyalty programs.
Some cards offer rotating rewards categories, which allow you to switch your rewards earnings every quarter or so. This option is great if you have diverse spending habits — although they do require you to stay on top of the rotations, and plan your spending accordingly, to get the most out of every quarter.
Pick a card to use for everyday spending
If you want to maximize your rewards, you need a minimum of two high-earning rewards cards in your wallet. One of these cards should be a top cash back credit card that you use for the majority of your everyday spending. This will be your “default” credit card, and you’ll use it on any purchase that doesn’t earn better rewards from one of the other cards in your wallet.
Make sure your default credit card is earning the highest percentage of cash back that your credit score allows. If you have good credit, look for a no-annual-fee credit card that gets you 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase, like the Chase Freedom Unlimited or the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card. Each comes with built-in benefits as well as spending rewards — both of which can add up to more cash in your pocket.
Pick a card to use for special category spending
Once you have the best default card in place for everyday spending, you can supplement it with a card that earns maximum rewards for the kind of “special category” spending you do on a regular basis. Think travel, restaurants, gas and so on. The key is to find a card that delivers more than 1.5 to 2 percent cash back on those spending categories, either with no annual fee or with a fee that pays for itself (and then some).
If you do a lot of cooking at home, for example, the $95 annual fee for the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express will quickly be covered by its unmatched 6 percent back on groceries (up to $6,000 a year, then 1 percent), not to mention the 3 percent cash back at U.S. gas stations and 1 percent on all other purchases. That said, if you want to avoid an annual fee and you eat out just as much as you eat in, the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card might be better suited for your needs, with 2 percent cash back at grocery stores and another 3 percent cash back on restaurants.
If you use a budgeting app, you can quickly check how much money you spend in a certain category, do the math on how much cash back you could earn and decide whether a credit card’s annual fee is worth it. If you spend an average of $500 per month dining out, for example, you could earn $20 cash back each month with the unlimited 4 percent cash back on restaurants from the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card. In five months, you’ll have earned back the cost of your $95 annual fee.
If you don’t do enough spending to justify a credit card with an annual fee, don’t worry — there are plenty of excellent no-annual-fee rewards credit cards that’ll help you earn great rewards on your purchases.
Claim your sign-up bonus
Once you have your default credit card and your special category credit card(s) in place, make sure to earn your sign-up bonuses. These bonuses are often the most valuable rewards the card offers, and you can only take advantage of them for a limited amount of time.
Most sign-up bonuses require you to spend a certain amount on qualifying purchases before receiving your rewards. The Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card, for example, offers $200 in online cash rewards to cardholders who make $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of card ownership. Your online credit card account is a great way to keep track of how much you’re spending and ensure you’re on target to earn your sign-up bonus — and don’t forget to check out our list of the best credit card sign-up bonus offers.
Activate your quarterly rotating rewards
If you have a rotating rewards credit card such as the Chase Freedom® or the Discover it® Cash Back card, make sure to activate your rewards every quarter. The Chase Freedom bonus categories and the Discover it Cash Back bonus categories both require you to click or tap a button before you can start earning cash back on rotating rewards—which, in 2019, includes everything from home improvement stores to PayPal to Amazon.com.
Don’t let this extra step keep you from getting a rotating rewards card; it’s really easy to do, and you won’t even have to keep track of it on your own. You’ll get plenty of activation reminders from Chase and Discover, and the actual process is as simple as logging into your online account and confirming that you want to activate the next quarter’s rewards.
Take advantage of all your card’s perks
A good rewards credit card offers a lot more than cash back, points or miles. Many top rewards credit cards come with additional perks, from extended warranties to airport lounge access. Learn which under-the-radar perks your credit card offers, and then take advantage of them. You might have access to online discounts, rental car insurance, TSA Precheck or Global Entry reimbursement and more!
Avoid carrying a revolving balance
Try to pay off your credit card in full as often as possible. Avoid getting stuck with a revolving balance, meaning a balance that you carry forward on your credit card every month. Revolving balances may seem small at first, but they can easily snowball into serious credit card debt.
Plus, people who keep revolving balances aren’t getting the most out of their rewards and are usually paying a higher interest rate. Most issuers fund credit card rewards programs by charging higher interest rates on rewards cards, says John Ulzheimer, a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring and identity theft.
“If you keep a balance, you’re really funding your own rewards program,” he says. “Whatever you’re earning in points, miles or cash back, you’re likely giving it right back to the issuer in interest.”
Keep an eye out for new rewards
Once you’ve got a few credit cards that you really like, start using them for as many purchases as possible. Get used to swapping out your default and special category cards to take advantage of rewards in certain spend categories. Don’t get complacent, though; credit card issuers are always updating and upgrading their rewards cards, and there may be a new credit card in the next year or two that offers even better rewards than the card currently in your wallet.
Keep your eyes out for new credit card options that will give you new benefits. Don’t apply for too many credit cards because that might prevent you from being accepted for new card offers, and don’t close your old credit cards after you open new ones because that could hurt your credit score. (It’s okay to close an old credit card that has an annual fee, though; there’s no reason to pay a fee on a card you’re not using.) Be choosy about which cards you apply for, and only go after the cards that offer rewards and perks that are better than what you already have.
The bottom line
Rewards credit cards are a great way to earn cash back, points or miles — and many top rewards cards come with additional perks as well. To get the most out of your credit card rewards, apply for a credit card that rewards everyday spending as well as at least one card that rewards a unique category of spending. Use your credit cards responsibly, pay off your balances regularly and make sure you take advantage of every reward your credit card offers, from sign-up bonuses to special warranties and discounts.