How I got more than $3,000 in value from my credit cards in 2021

1
Photo by Getty Images/Illustration by Bankrate
Bankrate Logo

Why you can trust Bankrate

At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here's an explanation for . The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date; however, some of the offers mentioned may have expired. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page.

This year has been the year of credit cards for me. In 2021, I’ve opened three new cards, adding to the two I already had in my wallet.

As a result, I got $3,026 in value from all the cash back, statements credits and free travel I booked with my credit cardsand that’s after annual fees.

Sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it?

If you’re wondering how I’ve been able to do that, I’m happy to share. We’re going to take a look at the actual monetary value I’ve squeezed out of my plastic (and metal). This means that we’re ignoring the value of some subscriptions included with cards, as well as deals and promotions I’ve used. Here, I’m only focusing on real money and free travel.

Without further ado, here’s the list of my credit cards, including how I’ve managed them and how much value I’ve gotten from them this year.

How much value I’ve gotten from my cards in 2021

Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card: $78

The Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card was my first rewards credit card, which I product-changed from the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card in 2020.

It’s a classic no-annual-fee flat-rate cash back card earning 1.5 percent back on all purchases. While not awe-inspiring on its own, this rate can complement a well-rounded credit card strategy. For example, I use the Quicksilver on all purchases that fall outside of bonus categories on my other cards.

Cash back trickles in somewhat slowly but effortlessly. I usually treat it as a small self-care fund I can use without any guilt, redeeming rewards on Amazon purchases.

I’ve earned $78 in total cash back this year with the Quicksilver, $70 of which I spent on clothing at Amazon.

Total value in 2021: $78

Discover it® Cash Back: $458

The Discover it® Cash Back is a popular cash back card that offers 5 percent back on purchases in rotating quarterly categories after activation (up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter, then 1 percent).

I applied for the card during the holiday season in 2020, and I’m happy with how much I’ve been earning with it.

Rotating categories can be hit or miss. For example, in spring this year, the Discover it Cash Back earned bonus cash back at gas stations and wholesale clubs, as well as on select streaming services.

I spend less than $30 on streaming services per month, and a wholesale club membership doesn’t make sense for a one-person household. I also don’t spend much on gas as I work from home and drive a hybrid.

As a result, I was nowhere near the $1,500 spending cap that quarter.

Luckily, I did much better in winter, with bonus cash back at grocery storesand in summer, when the bonus categories included restaurants and PayPal. I found the latter an especially versatile category.

On top of regular cash back, I’ve also earned a sign-up bonus. On the Discover it Back, it comes in the form of Cashback Match, meaning the issuer matches all the cash back you earn in the first year with the card.

I earned $189 in cash back this year, as well as $80 in the last few months of 2020. Discover matched that $269 cash back to bring my total first-year earnings to $538. Minus the rewards from last year, that brings my total value from this card in 2021 to $458.

Cash back earned in 2021: $189

Cashback Match (for my first year): $269

Total value in 2021: $458

American Express® Gold Card: $997

In February, I applied for my first annual-fee cardthe American Express® Gold Card. I must admit, the idea of paying $250 every year felt somewhat scary. However, as soon as I started reaping the card’s benefits, that fear was gone.

The Amex Gold makes it easy to earn rewards, paying 4 points per dollar at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets and 3 points per dollar on airfare booked through the American Express Travel Center or directly with airlines.

It also keeps you fed with $10 in monthly credits on Uber Eats purchases and $10 in monthly credits on dining in select restaurants (or ordering with Grubhub or Seamless).

All in all, I’ve earned almost 128,000 points with the Amex Gold this year. Let’s break this amount down.

First things first, I made sure to earn the welcome bonus. I received a targeted welcome offer a bit higher than the standard bonus: 75,000 points for spending $4,000 in the first six months. I was able to meet the spending requirement in half the time.

Next, I referred my friend to the card and received 30,000 points when she was approved. Then, I earned about 23,000 points on my regular spending.

Now, onto the fun part.

I redeemed close to 77,100 points on a round-trip flight to Russia at 1 cent per point, getting a total value of around $771 for this trip.

Later, I used Amex to book a hotel for a spontaneous trip to Washington state. I spent about 37,000 points at 0.7 per point. Not the best use of my points, sure, but I didn’t even think about it, as that magical trip wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I let myself be happy with the meager value of $256 I got out of that redemption.

Overall, I used $220 in dining credits and redeemed my points for about $1,027 in travel. I still have about 14,000 points left in my account, but I’m not going to consider them in calculations speculating on the potential value.

Who knows? The future me may reap amazing value by transferring to one of Amex’s partners or decide to be spontaneous again.

Value from statement credits: $220

Value from travel redemptions: $1,027

Total value in 2021 (minus $250 annual fee): $997

Affinity Cash Rewards Visa® Signature: $177

Meet my cash back darlingthe Affinity Cash Rewards Visa® Signature from Affinity Credit Union.

I applied for this no-annual-fee card in March. I’ve got to admit, the process was grueling. The way the credit union verifies potential cardholders makes one think it suspects everyone of being on the FBI’s top wanted list.

Fortunately, after a month of attempts to prove I was indeed just a harmless Ana Staples, I got the card and soon became a fan.

The Affinity Cash Rewards earns 5 percent cash back at Amazon and eligible bookstores, 2 percent back at supermarkets, restaurants and gas stations and 2 percent back on streaming and rideshare services. All other purchases earn 1 percent back.

But that’s not all. This gem of a card also has quarterly categories that require no activation. These extra rewards allow you to get 5 percent bonus cash back in rotating categories on up to $3,500 in combined purchases per quarter. Sometimes these categories repeat existing bonus categories, and the cash back rates stack up.

For example, this quarter, Amazon and bookstores are a rotating bonus category, so overall, I earn 10 percent back on these purchases.

I couldn’t use the Affinity Cash Rewards to its full potential this year, since for three months, I charged everything on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (more on that later). Overall, I only spent $2,610 on this card in 2021 and earned $177 in cash back.

That’s a return of almost 6.8 percent. This is incredibly high for any credit card, let alone one with no annual fee.

Total value in 2021: $177

Chase Sapphire Preferred card: $1,316

When the Chase Sapphire Preferred began advertising a sign-up bonus of 100,000 points for spending $4,000 in the first three months (unfortunately, no longer available), I knew it was time to get into Ultimate Rewards.

I applied for the card in September. I’m not going to lie, the spend requirement was tough, but with my friends’ help, I got the bonus.

I’ve also earned around 29,000 points from my regular spending. The card offers 3 points per dollar for restaurants, select streaming services and online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs), as well as 5 points per dollar on Chase Ultimate Rewards travel and 2 points per dollar on all other travel. General purchases earn 1 point per dollar.

On top of that, I took advantage of the $50 hotel credit almost immediately, booking yet another trip to Washington state.

So far, I’ve spent about 109,000 of my points. I booked a vacation to Mexico through Ultimate Rewards for my mother and me, including:

  • Round-trip ticket from Moscow to Cancun for my mother: around $760 (60,864 points)
  • Round-trip ticket from Austin, Texas to Cancun for me: around $319 (25,502 points)
  • A partial hotel payment: around $282 (22,580 points)

With the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you get a value of 1.25 cents per point for all travel redemptions through the issuer’s portal. So, this time, I didn’t have to worry about losing money when paying for lodging with points.

I still have almost 20,000 points left in my account. That’s $250 worth of travel if redeemed with Chase. But, since I haven’t used these points yet, we’re not going to include them in total value.

With award travel and the hotel credit, I got around $1,411 in value from the Chase Sapphire Preferred in the four months that I’ve had it—or $1,316 after the $95 annual fee.

Value from statement credits: $50

Value from travel redemptions: $1,361

Total value in 2021 (minus $95 annual fee): $1,316

The bottom line

Juggling multiple credit cards and chasing sign-up bonuses can require serious strategizing, but it can also be exciting—and wonderful for your budget.

This year, I’ve been able to get more than $3,000 in value from my five credit cards. If you aren’t earning hundreds or thousands of dollars with your credit cards yet, consider this your sign to try.

Just make sure you pick cards that fit your spending (I recommend CardMatch for browsing card offers) and never, ever carry a balance (unless your new card has a 0 percent APR offer and you have a solid repayment plan).

Here’s to more credit card rewards in 2022!

Written by
Ana Staples
Credit Cards Reporter and Young Credit Analyst
Ana Staples is a reporter for Bankrate and an expert on all things credit basics and personal finance for the younger generation.
Edited by
Senior Editor, Credit Card Product News