Think of earning credit card rewards like running toward a destination. With each step you take — and credit card purchase you make — you get a little closer to redeeming that flight or tucking that gift card into your wallet. Now imagine that you’re running on a treadmill, but the treadmill is moving backward. You’re working hard to reach that goal, but you just can’t get ahead fast enough.

Chasing credit card rewards while accruing debt is like running on a backward-moving treadmill. Generally, high interest rates will outweigh the value of any rewards you earn.

According to a new Bankrate survey, 44 percent of credit cardholders carry debt from month to month. Yet 67 percent of Americans with credit card debt still try to maximize credit card rewards.

Sometimes, credit card debt is unavoidable. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t earn rewards while you can — as long as there’s a debt payoff plan in place. But spending money you don’t have just to earn rewards isn’t an effective strategy.

Key insights on credit card debt holders earning rewards

Credit Card
Key Insights
  • Nearly one in three Americans are carrying credit card debt from month to month. That’s 34 percent of U.S. adults who typically carry a balance instead of paying in full.
  • Most Americans who carry credit card debt still try to earn rewards. 67 percent of credit card debt holders make “every effort” or “some effort” to maximize credit card rewards.
  • Higher-income cardholders are more likely to try to maximize rewards, but other income levels aren’t far behind. For instance, 77 percent of over $100,000 earners try to earn rewards, compared to 68 percent of below $50,000 earners.

2 in 3 Americans with credit card debt still maximize rewards

In January 2024, the percentage of people carrying credit card debt was down slightly from 49 percent in November 2023 and 47 percent in July 2023. Even so, 44 percent of credit cardholders are still carrying debt from month to month, so it’s worth looking at how credit cards are being used.

Just over two in three of those Americans with credit card debt say they make an effort to maximize credit card rewards, with 27 percent making “every effort,” and 40 percent making “some effort.”

Credit card rewards often come in the form of miles, points or cash back. You typically earn as you spend, which means you could put rewards toward your next trip or a dinner out while making purchases you’d make anyway. But with credit card interest rates at an all-time high, debt can rack up quickly on an unpaid balance. And it will probably cost far more in the long run than that flight or meal does.

Chasing rewards while you're in debt is a big mistake. The average credit card rate is a record-high 20.75 percent. The typical rewards payout is in the 1 to 5 percent range. It doesn't make sense to pay 20 percent or more in interest just to earn 1, 2 or even 5 percent in cash back or airline miles. If you have credit card debt — and no shame, a lot of people do — it's so important to prioritize your interest rate. For example, taking advantage of a 0 percent balance transfer offer could save you a lot of money. — Ted Rossman | Bankrate Senior Industry Analyst

It’s worth noting that cardholders with no debt also chase rewards. Among cardholders who typically pay in full, 76 percent make an effort to maximize credit card rewards. As long as you’re avoiding interest and not overspending, credit card rewards can be a great benefit.

Chasing credit card rewards isn’t limited by income

While higher-income cardholders are the most likely to make an effort to maximize credit card rewards, other income brackets aren’t far behind. Seventy-seven percent of those with annual household incomes of $100,000+ make an effort to maximize rewards, compared to 75 percent earning $50,000 to $79,999, 70 percent earning $80,000 to $99,999 and 68 percent earning under $50,000.

While spending beyond your means to earn rewards isn’t a smart money move, it’s worth considering whether lower-income cardholders benefit from rewards more than their higher-income peers. Credit card debt may not always be a choice — it can be the result of a tight financial situation. And if a cardholder is using a credit card to make ends meet, then earning rewards on top of their necessary spending doesn’t hurt.

Young adults and Northeasterners are more likely to maximize rewards

Overall, young adults are a bit more likely to chase credit card rewards. By generation, 77 percent of Gen Z cardholders, 74 percent of millennials, 69 percent of Gen Xers and 69 percent of boomers make every or some effort to maximize rewards.

The Northeast also has a bent toward rewards. Seventy-seven percent of Northeastern credit cardholders make an effort to maximize rewards, compared with 71 percent of Southerners and Westerners and 69 percent of Midwesterners.

Dos and don’ts of chasing credit card rewards while in debt


  • If you’re carrying a credit card balance from month to month, you’ll want to prioritize paying it off. As interest accrues, the debt can quickly become unmanageable. And no amount of rewards will mitigate that cost. Plus, missed credit card payments and high credit utilization can have a negative impact on your credit score.

    Common debt repayment strategies include:
  • Even with a repayment plan in place, you still need to make purchases for everyday life. Maximizing rewards as you go can make sense, as long as you aim to avoid accruing any new debt.

    Things like groceries and gas can be top rewards-earning categories. And a cash back card could help you earn rewards in the form of a statement credit or check to put toward debt repayment. If you travel often for work or other reasons, a travel card could help you cover that next trip.
  • It might seem counterintuitive to apply for another credit card if you’re already in credit card debt. But a 0 percent intro  APR balance transfer card offers a window of time to pay off your balance with no interest. This can be a good solution if you want to pay off debt quickly and save money on interest fees.Just keep in mind that once the introductory period is over, the card’s APR will kick in. Balance transfer cards may also require a good credit score to open and the payment of a balance transfer fee.


  • To reiterate, it’s not worth going into debt to earn rewards. The interest costs will likely end up outweighing the rewards’ monetary value. And while it’s one thing to earn by paying for necessary expenses, it’s another to put purchases on a credit card that you can’t afford.Building a budget is a good way to track expenses and make sure you’re living within your means. For instance, some budgeters use the 50/30/20 rule. With this type of budget, you put 50 percent of your income toward necessities like housing and groceries, 30 percent toward fun purchases like clothing and entertainment and 20 percent toward savings. If you track your credit card charges and realize you’re spending more than 30 percent of your income on wants, then you might be overspending.
  • If you want to improve your financial situation, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your credit. Having a good credit score can help you get approved for better interest rates and future lines of credit. There are several ways to check your credit for free.

    You can visit to get a free copy of your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus every week, and some card issuers offer free tools to check your credit score. By making on-time payments and minimizing your credit utilization, you may be able to improve your credit score over time.


  • All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2,239 adults, of whom 1,740 were credit cardholders. Fieldwork was undertaken between 24th – 26th January 2024.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).This survey has been conducted using an online interview administered to members of the YouGov Plc panel of individuals who have agreed to take part in surveys. Emails are sent to panelists selected at random from the base sample. The email invites them to take part in a survey and provides a generic survey link. Once a panel member clicks on the link they are sent to the survey that they are most required for, according to the sample definition and quotas. (The sample definition could be “US adult population” or a subset such as “US adult females”). Invitations to surveys don’t expire and respondents can be sent to any available survey. The responding sample is weighted to the profile of the sample definition to provide a representative reporting sample. The profile is normally derived from census data or, if not available from the census, from industry accepted data.