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Despite the increase in revolving debt carriers, Americans’ favorite credit card perk has nothing to do with their APRs. Cash back is the most-favored credit card feature, far above low APR, wide acceptance, travel perks, and a slew of other features.
The survey results reveal a potentially troubling trend: Americans are paying too much attention to their credit card rewards and not enough to their debt. But it’s not all black and white, and results varied by generation. Here’s a deep dive into the data, as well as some expert advice about how you can avoid some of the most common credit card pitfalls.
Young adults are least aware of their cards’ interest rates
Over a third (35 percent) of all U.S. adults carry credit card debt from month to month, up from 29 percent last year. Of this group of debt carriers, 43 percent say they don’t know the attached interest rates. This is especially troubling given that the average credit card interest rate is at an all-time high approaching 20 percent, thanks to the series of rate hikes announced by the Federal Reserve throughout 2022.
Interest rate awareness increases with age, though. The survey found that 50 percent of Gen Zers with credit card debt don’t know all of the rates attached to their credit cards, followed by 46 percent of millennials, 43 percent of Gen Xers and 39 percent of baby boomers.
Cardholders value cash back rewards over other card features
Cash back is the best credit card feature, according to 36 percent of cardholders. That was the most popular response, well ahead of “it is accepted most places” (16 percent) and “it has a low interest rate” (10 percent). Only 7 percent said travel rewards, and another 7 percent said low fees.
Cash back topped the list for all generations, its popularity level growing with age: 23 percent of Gen Z cardholders say it’s the best aspect of having a credit card, then 33 percent of millennials, 36 percent of Gen Xers and 41 percent of boomers. Though younger generations ranked cash back first, categories like “travel perks,” “customer service,” and “retail perks” were more favored by Gen Zers and millennials than older generations.
“It makes sense that cash back is number one,” says Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst for Bankrate. “Who couldn’t use more cash, right? Especially amidst the highest inflation readings in 40 years. Cash back cards tend to be simpler than travel cards and are less likely to charge annual fees. Of course, travel cards can be good too, provided that you’re able to pay in full and avoid interest.”
Develop a debt payoff strategy
Cash back is even the favorite feature among people with credit card debt, though by a smaller margin (27 percent vs. 17 percent who said “it is accepted most places” and 14 percent who said “it has a low interest rate”). And while credit card rewards programs can be lucrative, the value of the rewards you earn will be reduced or nullified when you carry debt.
“Forget about rewards for now, because it doesn’t make sense to pay 20 percent in interest just to earn 1, 2 or even 5 percent in cash back or airline miles,” says Rossman.
If you carry debt, knowing your credit cards’ APRs is important because it allows you to prioritize your accounts by interest rate, says Rossman. Pay most to the card with the highest rate, and when that debt is deleted, pay more to the account with the next-highest rate.
Use 0 percent APR balance transfer cards
One way to get ahead of mounting interest is to do a balance transfer, an option that 37 percent of people with credit card debt don’t know about. Balance transfer credit cards allow you to transfer debt from high-interest credit cards to a new card with a 0 percent APR for a limited time.
“My top tip for paying down credit card debt is to sign up for a 0 percent balance transfer card,” says Rossman. “They allow you to pause the interest clock for up to 21 months.” All it costs is a transfer fee, which is typically between 3 and 5 percent of the balance you transfer.
“While this may sound too good to be true, it’s absolutely true, and a balance transfer could potentially save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars in interest charges,” says Rossman. “The best way to use one of these cards is to refrain from making any new purchases. Divide what you owe by the number of months in your 0 percent term and try to stick with that level payment plan. Adding new purchases, even if they’re interest-free, forces you to try to hit a moving target. That’s much more difficult. Once the term expires, you’ll be charged interest moving forward on whatever is left, and the rate could easily jump to 20 percent or more.”
Get a personal loan
Another option is a personal loan to consolidate debt since rates can be as low as 6 percent if you have good credit. If you don’t qualify, consider going to a nonprofit credit counseling agency (such as Money Management International) to find out if a debt management plan can help, or take steps to earn more and spend less so you can make the highest possible payment to your credit card accounts.
Ensure your credit cards are working for you
Many people stick with the same credit card for years. In fact, the survey found that 43 percent of credit card holders have either never switched their primary credit card (30 percent) or it has been at least a decade since they have switched (13 percent).
“Another 10 percent have used the same primary card for the past five to nine years,” says Rossman. “Just 20 percent changed their primary card within the past year, split almost evenly between those who do so regularly and those who swapped cards for the first time in a while.”
Older adults are most likely to have stuck with the same card for a long time: 19 percent of boomers haven’t switched in a decade or more, versus 14 percent of Gen Xers, 6 percent of millennials and 1 percent of Gen Zers.
“I give Gen Zers a pass because they’re relatively new to cards, but when it comes to the other generations, there are a lot of people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond that have never switched cards,” says Rossman.
Yet it’s important to get the correct card match, whether you’re working on paying down debt or earning rewards. Check out Bankrate’s picks for the best credit cards of 2023, and if you do apply for a new card, remain aware of the terms and rewards and charge only the amount you can afford to repay before interest is applied.
Bankrate.com commissioned YouGov Pl to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Pic. Total sample size was 2,458 U.S. adults, including 1,876 credit cardholders and 849 who carry credit card debt from month to month. Fieldwork was undertaken December 7-9, 2022. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a non-probability-based sample using both quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.