In the world of personal finance, the couple hundred bones a year you might earn from credit card rewards isn’t a big deal. I’ll bet you can find five ways to better optimize your finances.
Still, if you’re like me, you probably enjoy playing the game…”How much can I get back for stuff I’m already gonna buy?”
DISCLAIMER: If you pay interest on credit card balances or you buy more than you ordinarily would in order to earn rewards points, you might want to reconsider using credit cards at all–you’re falling into the credit card companies’ traps. You need to get out of debt, not worry about rewards.
For everybody else, you might be wondering, am I getting the most from my credit card rewards? Consider the different ways you can redeem credit card rewards:
When all is said and done, credit card points are worth, on average, a penny a piece.
Many traditional “point-based” rewards credit cards make you spend more points to get cash or a cash equivalent rewards (e.g., a Visa gift card) than to get branded gift cards or merchandise, lessening the points’ value. No thanks.
The value of credit card “miles” is a mixed bag. Can you snag an award ticket for 25,000 miles that’s worth $300 or more? Perhaps, although it’s not easy, and the majority of tickets you’ll find for so few miles may cost less than $200 in cash. If, however, you use miles to travel internationally—or, in first class seats—credit card miles can actually be worth $0.05 or more a piece.
Then again, at the end of the day, cash is cash. You know what you’re going to get.
WHY MILES CREDIT CARDS EXIST
Since I started writing about personal finance nearly eight years ago, I’ve become fascinated by the well-oiled credit card marketing machine. (For example, did you know you might get an offer for a credit card offering a 0% intro APR for six months and 18% regular APR when you could apply for the EXACT SAME card online and get a 0% APR for 18 months and a 12% APR?) It happens all the time.
Years ago, the best credit cards were the ones with the lowest interest rates, longest grace periods, and lowest annual fees. Today, those features are still important, but the rewards a credit card offers plays a much bigger role in how we choose credit cards.
Unfortunately, many consumers (those who carry credit card balances) will choose credit cards based upon rewards when they should be looking at interest rates.
I have this theory that credit card companies created miles credit cards because the idea of a earning a “free” vacation is more titillating than simply getting cash back and, therefore, is apt to get us to spend more (in the name of chasing rewards) for miles that are actually worth less than the credit card would pay us in pure cash back. Take the miles credit card du jour, the Captial One Venture Card, with its ads starting the somehow endearing Vikings plowing their way through Las Vegas and a beach resort.
Capital One and other credit card issues are trying to sell you a credit card based upon the fantasy of a free vacation.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this:
- It takes a lot of rewards to earn a vacation, or a even a flight.
- The value of a mile all depends on how you decide to cash it in…for most people, miles are only worth about a penny.
- In which case you could choose a credit card that gives you a penny or more back in cash for every $1 spent.
Even a few years ago, only a few credit cards offered cash rewards…now you have several options—here are a few major credit cards that offer some of the best cash rewards (though this list is not exclusive):
TOP CASH REWARDS CREDIT CARDS
|Credit Card||Cash Rewards and Bonus Offers|
|Discover® it Card||0.25% cash back on all purchases until you spend $3k a year, then 1% cash back. 5% cash back in categories that change each quarter (enrollment required) up to a certain limit in each promotion. $100 bonus when you make $500 in purchases within 3 months. No limit to total cash back.|
|Citi® Dividend Platinum Select® Visa®||1% cash back on all purchases, 5% cash back in purchases in categories that change each quarter. $100 cash bonus after $500 in purchases within 3 months.|
|Chase Freedom®||1% cash back on all purchases, 5% cash back in up to $1,500 of purchases in categories that change each quarter (enrollment required). $100 cash bonus after $500 in purchases within 3 months. No limits to cash back.|
|Blue Cash Everyday Card® from American Express||3% cash back at U.S. stand-alone grocery stores, 2% cash back at U.S. stand-alone gas stations and select major department stores, and 1% on other purchases.|
With these and other cash-back cards, the question I have to ask is: why wouldn’t you choose the CASH REWARDS card?
WHY MORE PEOPLE ARE CHOOSING CASH BACK
Apparently you agree. I recently asked my Facebook fans to chime in on the question of miles versus cash rewards, and the response was about 75% in favor of cash. Here’s a peak:
Surprised? I’m not. After all, cash is cash. It doesn’t expire, and there are no blackout dates.
WHEN MILES DO MAKE SENSE
If your a miles guy or gal, relax, I’m not trashing the concept of credit card miles altogether. There are places that earning miles make sense. Primarily: If you take frequent international flights (preferably trans-Pacific ones) and/or you like to fly first class.
Whatever do I mean?
The fact is, frequent flyer miles (including credit card miles) are worth much more per mile when redeemed for long-haul flights and business or first class seats. Take a look at the following examples:
The Value of Frequent Flyer Miles by Route and Class
WHEN AIRLINE CREDIT CARDS MAKE SENSE
If given the choice between a no-fee credit card that pays miles and one that pays cash, I’ll take the cash…unless, perhaps, I’m gearing up for frequent trips to Australia.
That said, if you fly frequently enough on one particular airline (most likely for work), then carrying that airline’s branded credit card may make sense, even if you pay an annual fee. In addition to the miles, some of these cards offer other perks like free checked bags, discounted access to airport clubs, or even accelerated membership into elite loyalty programs (the kind that earn you free first class upgrades). Here’s a look at a few of the leading U.S. Airline credit cards that DO and DO NOT offer attractive additional perks:
|Airline/Credit Card||Fee||Perks (In Addition to Miles Earned)|
|Continental Airlines OnePass® Plus Card*||$85||Free checked bag, free lounge access. *Being phased out now that Continental and United merged.|
|Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Card||$150||Free checked bag, accelerated elite status, annual companion ticket.|
|United MileagePlus® Explorer Card||$95||First checked bag is free for you and a companion when you fly United flights, up to a $50 value.|
|Citi® AAdvantage® Visa||$95||1st checked bag is free|
|U.S. Airways MasterCard||$89||Priority check-in & boarding, free lounge access, accelerated elite status.|
(If you’ve never been a frequently traveler and don’t understand why anybody would pay $150 a year for a chance to get “elite status” faster, no worries…but these cards probably aren’t for you. If you STILL want to earn miles, however, then check out cards that let you earn miles good on any airline like the Chase Sapphire Card, Blue Sky from American Express, or the Capital One Venture Card.
What about you? What rewards do you chase? If you’re loyal to a mileage credit card…why? Are their perks you get (besides cash or miles) that make you loyal to a particular card?
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This content is not provided or commissioned by American Express. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of American Express, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by American Express. This site may be compensated through American Express Affiliate Program.