Having a rewards credit card offers a lot of benefits. Essentially, it’s your way of enhancing the dollars you spend every day so that they work more in your favor. It sounds simple. But how can you make sure you’re consistently getting the most out of the cards you’re currently using?
Start with a credit report
Getting a credit report is a great first step in evaluating your credit options. First, a credit report will give you an up-to-date credit score, which is what ultimately shows your creditworthiness. An excellent or good credit score increases your chances of qualifying for higher tier rewards cards or cards with better perks. A poor or fair credit score might limit your options for a time until you’re able to build your credit score back up. If you have limited credit, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be eligible for a credit card, but will likely mean you have to apply for a secured card that requires some kind of collateral up front.
You have a legal right to a free credit report every year. One way is to go through Bankrate, which offers a free credit report tool that will break down your FICO score factors, give you an up-to-date credit score and offer suggestions for maintaining or improving your credit going forward.
Identify your spending habits
When thinking about using your rewards cards to maximum effect, a good step is to track what purchases are most important to you during the year. For example, do you direct most of your card activity to travel-related purchases, like plane tickets and hotels? Or is getting the most out of your trips to gas stations and grocery stores most important?
Once you have an idea of where your priorities lie, 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. Or, 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.
Use card combos for maximum effect
Once you become an experienced cardholder, consider stacking different cards from the same issuer to use simultaneously. This could allow you to earn rewards from different kinds of cards to pour into one rewards bank.
One popular way to do this is through the Chase Ultimate Rewards points program. This loyalty program has special offers and perks for Chase card users. You can use the Chase Ultimate rewards portal to redeem your points for travel, statement credit or to participate in exclusive experiences.
Here are some of the cards that fall under the program:
|Chase Sapphire Preferred Card||60,000 bonus points after $4,000 spent in the first 3 months||2X points on travel and dining, 1X point on all other purchases|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||50,000 bonus points after $4,000 spent in first 3 months||3X points on travel and dining (after earning your $300 travel credit), 1X point on all other purchases|
|Chase Freedom||$150 bonus after $500 spent in first 3 months||5% cash back on up to $1,500 per quarter for rotating categories (activation required), 1% back on all other purchases|
|Chase Freedom Unlimited||$150 bonus after $500 spent in first 3 months||1.5% cash back on all purchases|
The American Express membership rewards program and the Citi ThankYou points program are also good for combining rewards with different cards. Just remember to stack your cards in a way that benefits your normal spending habits.
Look below the surface at redemption options and perks
Whether you’re a cash back enthusiast or a points and miles connoisseur, knowing your card’s redemption options is important. Some like cards with straightforward rewards redemption, while others like all the flexibility they can get. But everyone generally should know if their rewards have an expiration date. Also, keep in mind that the surface rewards aren’t all there is to it. There are additional perks to consider as well. Maybe you want access to priority seating options for events. Or maybe you would love a card that gives you access to airport lounges.
Think about how you’ve used your rewards and perks in the past and decide how you would like to use them in the future. For example, if you’re planning a trip abroad in the coming year, determine the kinds of rewards that would help you reach that goal – and what kinds of perks would help to enhance your experience.
Make a plan to pay your monthly balance
You can’t maximize your rewards card if you can’t pay off your balance every month. The average interest rates are between 17 percent and 25 percent, with some reaching as high as 28 percent. So, it’s imperative to plan your purchases well.
Travel and financial blogger, John Perri says, “I do my best to treat all purchases like it is a debit card. I want to be sure that I do not add debt because the interest outweighs the miles and points earned on the cards.” He also mentions that he sets up autopay from his checking account to cover his statement balance and keep himself accountable.
If you’re not in a place to pay off your monthly balance, consider looking into a low interest rate card option. While it won’t have all the bells and whistles of a high tier credit card, it will save you money in the long run by lowering the interest on your payments.
If your debt has gotten to an uncomfortable place or maybe you are just carrying more debt than you would like to have, think about a balance transfer card that offers a zero percent introductory APR.
Once you’ve taken inventory of the cards in your stash, think about how you can rotate them often to take advantage of rewards in certain spend categories. Hold on to one or two of your tried and true cards, and then look for new card options that will give you new benefits.
Do this within reason, of course. If it doesn’t make sense for your credit score or budget, consider other options. But if you are experienced enough and have enough rewards card options to make some judgement calls, consider the following: How can you take advantage of the welcome offer after meeting the spending threshold? And what kinds of rewards returns will you get from normal spending with the card?
Being knowledgeable about your spending habits and strategic about how you use your rewards cards is the best way to maximize every level of rewards. Take time to investigate everything your cards have to offer. If your cards aren’t meeting your needs, consider rotating them out for cards that are a better fit. The key is to allow your lifestyle to dictate your rewards, not the other way around.
The information about the Chase Sapphire Reserve card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.