Airfare to Fiji. A flat-screen TV. A cool $500. Using your credit card can earn you some serious perks—if you swipe strategically. “With a bit of planning and time upfront, most people can dramatically scale what they get from credit card rewards programs,” says Robert Harrow, credit card analyst with financial research site ValuePenguin.com. Here’s how to get the most bang for your credit card buck.
1. PLAY MATCHMAKER BETWEEN YOUR LIFESTYLE AND YOUR REWARDS PROGRAM.
Considering an American Airlines Citi card—but you're not a big traveler? Pass. A Discover It card that can score you up to 20 percent off online purchases—but you’re a brick and mortar queen? No, thanks. Maximizing your credit card rewards isn’t about finding the card with the most possible rewards—it’s about finding the card with the best rewards for your lifestyle.
“Before you start looking at cards, look at where you spend the most of your money,” says Harrow. “Credit cards tend to be targeted at different spending categories—travel, gas, groceries, etc.—and you want to pick one that aligns with your natural spending.” Pull out the past three statements from your current cards and tally up which category was your highest. Then, you can focus on comparing cards that are targeted to that type of spending.
When you’re comparing miles, rewards or cash-back programs, keep in mind that lifestyle matters here, too. If you’re already shelling out a lot of money on travel, then miles can be a great value. But if you tend to be cash-strapped, a cash-back program may be a better bet.
2. SCRUTINIZE THE FINE PRINT.
Many cards require a minimum amount of money to be charged during the first few months before the rewards start kicking in. And if you pick a card based on its sign-up bonus (like, 10,000 free miles) and then don’t hit the minimum spend, you could lose the bonus entirely. Before you sign up for any card, study the minimum spend amount and ask yourself if it’s realistic. Charging $4,000 in the first three months when your balance barely ever tips over a grand could encourage overspending that will cancel out the perks you earn. But if you have the dough to charge—and pay off—the minimum spend, make sure you hit it. Gift cards can be an easy way to responsibly charge now for stuff you actually want later.
3. CARD JUGGLE WITH EASE.
If you’ve got multiple cards, pair each purchase with the plastic that will get you the most rewards. For instance, one card might get you the most cash back at the supermarket, while another earns you the most cash back at the gas pump. American Express even offers double points for Uber rides.
For cards that have rotating bonuses (restaurants will earn you more points in the spring, let’s say, and grocery stores are points-heavy in the summer), set quarterly reminders to reacquaint yourself with the program. That way, you can adjust how you use the card accordingly.
If you only have one or two cards, picking one to swipe won’t be too onerous. But if you have many cards, an app, like Smorecard or AwardWallet, can help. Enter all of your credit cards, and the apps will tell you which card to use at the register to get the most rewards. AwardWallet also tracks expiration dates—because nothing is worse than realizing you’ve let a bunch of unused points expire.
4. CASH IN ON THE NON-OBVIOUS PERKS.
“Too often, people forget to look beyond the obvious swipe benefits of their rewards programs,” says Harrow. In addition to earning so many points or miles or cash back, take advantage of the other rewards you’re entitled to, he suggests. For example, many cards will cover auto insurance if you rent a car, so paying for rental insurance is a waste of money. With a cobranded airline credit card, that typically means free checked luggage and early flight boarding. With Citibank’s Price Rewind feature, you can enter the price details of something you’ve bought and the bank will scan for better details—and refund you the difference—for up to 60 days. Those add-on perks could eclipse the savings that you might earn through the standard rewards program.
5. HIT THE BRAKES ON OVERSPENDING.
The fastest way to rack up rewards is to use your card, but if seeing your statement feels like a punch to the gut, it’s time to slow down. “If you’re not paying off your balance in full every month, that’s a problem—no matter how many miles or points you earned,” says Harrow.
That’s because any interest or late fees you pay will negate whatever value you’re getting from free airline tickets or cash-back checks. And carrying high balances can actually hurt your credit score, which makes it harder to secure a loan or another credit card if you need one in the future. As Harrow puts it: “If you go down the path of paying interest in the name of earning rewards, the banks are going to make money on you, instead of the other way around.”