family around the christmas tree while parents hand gift to daughter
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The holiday season is well under way, which means your wallet will likely feel the pinch over the next few weeks.

While many people may be using their credit cards this season to put off paying for holiday gifts and travel until after the new year, credit cards can also be a valuable tool for saving on expensive year-end purchases.

As you continue to book last-minute flights and search for the perfect presents for your loved ones, double check your credit card rewards to make sure you’re not missing out on any great savings. Consider online shopping through a shopping portal for extra cash back, taking advantage of limited time discounts offered by your issuer and booking for less through a partner airline or hotel.

To give a better idea of the creative ways you can pocket a bit of extra savings, here are just a few real-life examples from people who have used their credit cards to save money during the holiday season.

1. Pairing rewards with cash back sites and coupons

“Using my Discover card, I have been able to save 5 percent cash back on qualifying purchases,” says Becky Beach, money saving expert and blogger at MomBeach.com. “When used in conjunction with Rakuten, I have been able to get even more cash back to reduce my holiday gift costs.” The Discover it® Cash Back earns 5 percent on rotating categories, up to the quarterly maximum, then 1 percent, with activation required.

Additionally, “I enjoy using the Target REDcard to save 5 percent on purchases at Target,” she says. “When I combine their Cartwheel app, I save even more money on holiday gifts.”

Taking just a few minutes to look for store coupons or searching for cash back offers from sites like TopCashback and Ibotta can quickly build your holiday savings, especially if you stack them with the rewards you’re already earning with credit cards.

2. Doubling up on cash back rewards

“I saved money all year to use for Christmas presents, but it ended up working out that I had enough cash back to cover all of my purchases,” says Marisa Eikenberry, a web developer. “And since I used my credit card [the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card] to begin with, I still got cash back on those too. We were totally prepared to pay for it, but since we were able to use cash back, it ended up being completely covered.”

Always shop smarter by completing purchases with the card that’s going to earn you the most cash back or rewards points on your purchase. Make sure your cards align with your spending habits so you can maximize rewards throughout the year.

3. Smartly timing rotating cash back categories

At the recommendation of a financial adviser, James Pollard, founder of TheAdvisorCoach.com, opened the Discover it® Cash Back card, which earns 5 percent cash back on rotating categories up to $1,500 in spending a quarter, then 1 percent, with activation required.

“From October to December of this year, they’re offering 5 percent cash back at Amazon, Target and Walmart,” he says. “So, I got 5 percent cash back on all of my Black Friday and Cyber Monday purchases. Plus, when I go to Walmart and Target to get groceries, I also get 5 percent cash back there.”

A credit card with rotating categories can help you earn higher cash back percentages than many flat rewards cards. Look up the categories that were offered in past years to help you decide whether a rotating card could work well for you — and don’t forget to activate them every quarter.

4. Preparing throughout the year

“Last year, my husband and I used our American Express cards with Membership Rewards points for many of our purchases,” says Krista Goodrich, an author and blogger at thebossladyinvestor.com. “At the end of the year, we pulled up our Membership Rewards points balance and had over $1,000 available for gift certificate purchases. We were able to get gift cards from places like Amazon, Home Depot, Bath & Body Works and more to use as gifts and stocking stuffers. We ended up spending less last Christmas than we ever had, yet gave more than we have in years past. This was all because of smart use of our credit cards throughout the year.”

A bit of pre-planning upfront can go a long way.

Start planning as early as January for the holiday season so you don’t take on higher balances than you can afford. Solutions like stocking up on cash back and points throughout the year or even putting a few dollars into a dedicated savings account each month can help you spread the financial commitment throughout the year so the cost doesn’t hit your wallet all at once.

5. Booking with points and miles

“As my family of five travels to visit family over the holidays, we always book our travel using credit card rewards,” says R.J. Weiss, CFP and founder of thewaystowealth.com. “We just returned from a Thanksgiving trip to Florida, where we were able to book round trip airfare from Chicago. A trip like this would have normally cost us well over $1,000, but as we used miles [and] booked months in advance, we did the entire trip with rewards.”

Weiss’ family has extended travel savings even further: “Beyond just Thanksgiving travel, we’re set to visit San Diego over Christmas break for another trip. Again the airfare was booked 100 percent with points, and we saved a significant amount of money on lodging, using Capital One’s Purchase Eraser.”

Always book your holiday travel as early as possible to get the best prices. You won’t maximize your mileage earnings by redeeming them during the holidays, but you can subsidize pricey tickets during the busy season using miles if you don’t mind forfeiting potential higher redemptions.

Especially for families, using points and miles to book flights can save hundreds of dollars during the holidays when budgets are already stretched thin.

6. Saving for vacation on one card, gifts on another

“With my American Express rewards card, I like to save up my rewards points throughout the year and then cash them in for gift cards during the holiday season,” says Shawna Newman, founder of Active Weekender. “People love getting gift cards and it doesn’t cost me anything to get these.”
For even more savings, Newman uses a different card for holiday travel.

“This year, I’ve been saving up my air miles that earn with my United MileagePlus credit card [the United Explorer Card] and I cashed those in for a flight to Zurich to check out some Christmas markets this month,” she says. “The only cost for the flight was the taxes and the seat reservation.”

When you find the right cards that work with your everyday spending, you can easily rack up rewards throughout the year to ease your holiday spending burden. And as long as you’re able to keep up with balances and pay your statements in full each month, using multiple cards can bring in even more lucrative savings for costly end-of-year purchases.

The information about the United Explorer Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.