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- To make the most of rewards credit cards, get cards that match your spending pattern so that you don't spend unnecessarily just to reap rewards
- Pay off your card bill when it's due and don't carry a balance or your interest payments will eat away the rewards you earn
- Some rewards cards offer rotating rewards categories and limited-time offers and you should keep track of them to take advantage and maximize your rewards
This article was originally published on July 14, 2021.
After I got my first rewards credit card, my life hasn’t been the same.
Now, all of my purchases have to reap cash back or points, and I won’t take anything less than 1.5 percent back. I don’t like booking travel if it’s not with points. If I’m going to spend, I want to know how much I can earn back.
Of course, all of this requires a strategy. Read on to learn about my favorite ways to get the most out of my credit card rewards and see which of my methods you could implement yourself.
I tailor my cards to my spending
You can’t really maximize your credit card rewards if your cards don’t fit your spending. Say, if you have a store card from a store you barely shop at or a cash back card with a grocery stores bonus category when you mostly eat out, it’ll be hard for you to earn rewards.
For that reason, before you apply for a credit card, know exactly what its place in your strategy will be.
For example, here’s a quick glance at how I fit my cards to my spending:
- My travel card, the American Express® Gold Card, allows me to eat my way to travel rewards with 4 points per dollar at U.S. supermarkets and restaurants worldwide.
- My Discover it® Cash Back lets me earn 5 percent back in various categories (activation required) that rotate throughout the year (up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter, 1 percent back thereafter).
- My secret weapon: Affinity Cash Rewards Visa® Signature earns 5 percent back where I spend the most (Amazon and bookstores) and gives me a little extra—2 percent back—on everyday purchases like streaming services, rideshares and gas stations.
- My “everything else” card is the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card which gets me 1.5 percent back in all categories not covered by my other three cards. However, I’m thinking of switching it to the Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card which earns an extremely generous 2 percent cash rewards on purchases.
I pay my credit card bills in full
This isn’t a very exciting tip, but without it, earning rewards is for naught. It’s unlikely that you will get more than 5 percent back or 5X points on any rewards credit card, while credit card interest rates are generally in the double-digits. If you carry a balance, it will offset your reward earnings.
Credit card debt is the enemy of maximizing your credit card rewards. The only exception is 0 percent APR credit cards. For example, I carried a balance on my Discover it Cash Back for a few months after I’d used it to furnish my apartment. The card offers a decent intro APR period, so I paid no interest during that intro period and lost no cash back to it.
Just remember that the intro APR is only valid for the length of the promotional period. Additionally, be mindful of your credit utilization ratio (how much balance you carry compared to your credit limit). Using more than 30 percent of your available credit can weigh your credit scores down until you pay off the balance.
I earn sign-up bonuses—when it makes sense
The simple truth is welcome offers provide the best opportunity to score a large number of points. I try not to pass up such an opportunity whenever I can.
I didn’t get this chance with the Quicksilver, since that card was an upgrade from the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card for me.
However, I’ve made sure to earn the Amex Gold’s targeted welcome offer (currently 60,000 points) for spending $6,000 in the first six months. I’m also working on getting the Affinity Cash Rewards’ sign-up bonus, though I’m not as determined to get it. The card offers $200 for spending $3,000 in three months—that’s a modest offer for this kind of spend requirement. To compare, the Chase Freedom Unlimited®* gives you a $200 bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
With my Discover card, I don’t need to put any extra effort in: the Discover it Cash Back comes with CashBack Match™, meaning it matches all the cash back you earn at the end of the first year, no limits or spending requirements to meet.
I stay on top of rotating categories
I’m not going to lie—tracking and maximizing rotating categories requires some dedication. Plus, they can be hit or miss.
Dedication is something I have plenty of, and I love Discover’s rotating categories.
I got the card to furnish my apartment shopping at Amazon.com, Target.com and Walmart.com (that quarter’s categories of 2020) and easily met the $1,500 spending cap. In the first quarter of 2021, I met it again buying gift cards at grocery stores. The second quarter wasn’t particularly exciting for me with categories including gas stations, wholesale clubs and select streaming services, but the third quarter started strong.
Through September, the card earned 5 percent back at restaurants and PayPal (on rotating categories up to $1,500 each in purchases each quarter after activation, then 1%.). I also linked my Discover it Cash Back to my PayPal account and used it to buy a $350 concert ticket. So, as of July 2, I had met over 20 percent of the spending cap.
Is this sort of laborious? Sure.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. I’d earned over $220 in cash back by mid-2021 since I got the card in October 2020. Plus, Discover matched all the cash back I earned at the end of my first year with the card with its generous CashBack Match.
I book travel through Amex
The Amex Gold is my travel credit card of choice, because it allows me to easily earn travel rewards on one of my most common expenses—food.
The card also earns 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or through the American Express Travel portal. For that reason, whenever I need to buy plane tickets, I also use the Amex Gold.
So far, I’ve booked three trips through the Amex portal at the 1 cent per point value. One of them, a trip to Russia, was booked entirely on points, thanks to the welcome offer I’d earned.
Besides allowing cardmembers to earn and spend points on travel, Amex is also excellent at offering assistance with bookings. One of my trips got canceled (thanks so much, COVID) and I called Amex to help me salvage my vacation with the American Airlines credit that I now had. As I requested, a customer service rep booked a trip to Seattle through Los Angeles for me.
Later, I had to cancel the Los Angeles leg of my trip (thanks again, COVID) and deal with scheduling changes on my connecting flights to Russia. Amex made the process as smooth as possible.
I also booked a hotel to stay in Seattle through Amex using points. I wouldn’t call it “maximizing points” because the rate was only around 0.7 cents per point. Still, considering the trip wasn’t in my budget (since I hadn’t planned for it), I’m satisfied with the value. A hotel stay at 0.7 cents per point is better than a lost vacation.
I refer friends to my cards
Speaking of that hotel stay—I had points to spend on it because I’d referred my friend to the Amex Gold and she’d been approved. I received a referral bonus just in time to salvage my vacation.
As an Amex Gold cardholder, I can earn points per referral for referring my friends to Amex cards. They can choose whichever card they like, and I’ll get points if they’re approved.
I check for limited-time offers
Cards like the Amex Gold often offer exciting limited-time promotions. For instance, I earned an extra point on GrubHub orders (5X points total) through the end of 2021. I also got 10 percent back on Starbucks purchases through Aug. 4, 2021, up to $5 back—an offer I maximized in Seattle, the home of Starbucks. I found both of these targeted promotions through Amex Offers, which I check regularly.
The bottom line
Putting some thought into your credit card strategy can be truly rewarding. It’s up to you to decide how much effort you’re ready to put in for extra card rewards, but the key takeaways are the following: Tailor the cards to your spending, not the other way around, and always pay your bills in full.
These two strategies will help you ensure you get the most out of your credit card rewards and avoid credit card debt.
*The information about the Chase Freedom Unlimited® has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.