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8 ways you miss out on money with rewards credit cards

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Close up woman hands using credit card to buy online on laptop - E-commerce and shopping online concept
Xavier Lorenzo/Getty Images
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Often worth hundreds of dollars annually, credit card rewards are worth paying attention to—especially if you pay an annual fee to use the card.

The problem? You may not even realize you’re not getting the most out of your credit cards. Keep reading to learn which habits cut into your rewards card’s value.

1. You carry a balance

When you don’t pay your bill in full each month, you end up accruing interest and fees. In almost all cases, these costs greatly outweigh the value of any rewards or cash back you earn.

Let’s see how this can work using Bankrate’s credit card minimum payment calculator. In this example, let’s say you have a rewards card that pays 2 percent cash back and has an APR of 17 percent. If you make a purchase for $1,500 and pay it off in $100 monthly increments, it will take you 17 months to pay it off completely. By that point, you will have incurred nearly $200 in interest charges.

In this case, you’re spending more than you’re earning: The $30 you earned in cash back from that $1,500 purchase pales in comparison to the $200 interest charge. The only way to truly pocket your cash back is to pay your bill in full every month. The same is true for cards that reward your purchases with points.

If you can’t pay off your balance right now, don’t worry about rewards. Make your purchases using your credit card with the lowest interest rate or pay cash. If you don’t have a lower interest card, consider getting one with an introductory 0 percent APR offer so you can focus on paying down your balance.

2. You’re not using the perks

If you haven’t taken advantage of your credit card perks in a while, log into your online account and see what rewards are waiting for you. You may find you have a pile of cash back or travel points just waiting to be redeemed. Beyond that, you might also get discounts at major retailers.

Even if you’re patiently letting your points, miles or cash back accumulate so that you can use them for a big redemption, you can probably be using card benefits in the meantime. For example, many travel rewards cards give free access to airport lounges. Other cards offer free memberships to services like Instacart or Shoprunner. If you forget to use perks like these, you miss out on some of the value your credit card offers you. It’s worth reviewing your rewards policy from time to time to remember what benefits you have access to.

3. You’re choosing low-value redemption options

Generally, redeeming cash back is pretty straightforward. Redeeming points can be more complex because the value per point depends on the redemption option you choose. For that reason, you should always do the math to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

Let’s say you have 100,000 points to redeem, and you’re deciding between cash back, a flight and a bunch of gift cards. To determine the best deal, you need to figure out the cash value of each option. Your issuer might offer 1 cent per point for cash back redemptions, which means your points would be worth $1,000 in cash back. That’s a good deal, but say you’re able to score a flight that would normally cost $1,200. That’s even more bang for your buck.

Usually, gift cards are one of the least lucrative redemption methods, but it never hurts to compare options. Plus, there are situations when it makes sense to choose a lower-value redemption. If you don’t have any need for a flight but could use some help paying for holiday shopping, say, it might make more sense to go with a gift card.

4. Your annual fee outweighs the earnings

There are plenty of great credit cards that don’t charge an annual fee, but those that do tend to come with much better rewards. To make paying an annual fee worth it, you have to at least earn so much (or use the benefits enough) that you cancel out the cost of the annual fee.

Not earning enough rewards to balance out the cost of the annual fee is a common mistake. Usually, sign-up bonuses will ensure you’re in the green in your first year, but don’t take that first-year value as a given. Keep an eye on the rewards you’re earning  so you can justify keeping your account open. You can also consider asking your credit card company if they can waive or lower the fee.

5. You overspend to earn rewards

When planning to use your card’s rewards to the fullest, think carefully about what you have to do to make it work. If you find yourself charging more than you want to in order to earn cash back or travel points, then this may not be the card for you—and that’s OK! You can always ask your credit card issuer if you can downgrade to a credit card that doesn’t charge an annual fee.

6. You’re ignoring bonus categories

Of course, if your credit cards offer boosted rewards in particular spending categories, you should use them accordingly. Writing your card’s bonus categories out on a piece of tape and attaching it to your card is one way to help you keep it straight if you have a hard time remembering at the register. You could also make a note on your calendar or notes app on your phone.

This is especially true if your card offers rotating bonus categories. One month you may get twice as many points for restaurant purchases. The next month, travel purchases may get that boosted rate. It can be disorienting, but credit card issuers usually announce their bonus categories months in advance. If this is your situation, plan out big purchases accordingly so you gain more rewards for them.

7. You’re hoarding points

It can be tempting to save your credit card rewards points for a rainy day. While this strategy can pay off if you’re saving for something like an international flight, you don’t want to hoard points for too long. With inflation on the rise, points lose their value as time goes on. Not to mention, you don’t want to risk losing your points if you decide to close out your account or if your rewards expire because your account is inactive.

8. You’re not using the best cards for you

You may have cards that are no longer working for you, or aren’t working as well as they could be. An airline card may have been perfect for you until you quit flying and bought an RV. You may have applied for a card years ago when you were starting to build a credit history, and you could do much better now. Or, new rewards cards are available that better suit your needs.

At least once a year, take time to reevaluate your goals for owning rewards credit cards and see if a new rewards credit card could work harder or better for you.

The bottom line

Even if you aren’t losing money on interest or annual fees, you still don’t want to let valuable benefits and rewards go unclaimed. Take some time to get familiar with your credit card’s rewards program and make a plan for how you can make the most of it. That way, you don’t let rewards slip through your fingers.

If you aren’t feeling rewarded, consider getting a new card. The best rewards credit cards can put hundreds of dollars back into your pocket each year.

Written by
Jacqueline DeMarco
Personal Finance Writer
Jacqueline is a contributor for Bankrate and has worked with more than a dozen financial brands, including LendingTree, Credit Karma, Fundera, Chime, MagnifyMoney, Student Loan Hero, ValuePenguin, SoFi and Northwestern Mutual, providing thoughtful content to give readers insight into complex topics that they likely didn’t learn in school. You can learn more about her work and connect with her on LinkedIn or at JacquelineDeMarco.com. Sometimes she’s even interviewed about her career and running a freelance writing business.
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