If you have a cash back credit card, you may think that your best redemption option is cash. But that's not always the case. Here's how to get the most out of your rewards credit cards.

The best credit cards reward you for doing something you would have done anyway. And whether you have a travel, cash back, or generic rewards credit card, knowing how to maximize the benefits you get from the card can help you get the most bang for your buck.

To help you make sure that you don’t miss out on the best rewards out there, we’ve put together a list of five ways you can get the most out of your credit cards’ rewards programs.

1. Choose the right cards

There’s no best credit card out there for everyone. The right card for you depends on your spending habits, your personal preferences, and your credit score.

Spending habits

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Let’s say you have a large family and spend a lot on groceries and gas. It might make sense then to get a card like the Citi Rewards+® Card offers a generous 2x ThankYou® Points back per $1 spent at supermarkets and gas stations for the first $6,000 spent annually, and 1x point per $1 spent thereafter.

On the flip side and stating the obvious – getting that kind of card wouldn’t make much sense for someone who has a low grocery bill and doesn’t own a car.

Personal preferences

The biggest decision you need to make is whether you prefer travel rewards or cash back rewards. If you choose travel rewards, then you’ll need to decide if you want a general travel card or an airline or hotel card.

You’ll also need to decide whether you want flat-rate rewards or the opportunity to earn bonus rewards, and so on. This can get complicated if you let it, so try to simplify this process as much as possible.

Credit score

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You can’t get most of the best rewards credit cards unless you have good or excellent credit, which typically starts with a 700 credit score. If you’re not there yet, get there before you start applying.

Go through this process not with just one card, but with a few. By using two or three rewards credit cards regularly, you can take advantage of their different rewards programs based on your spending habits.

For example, you could use the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card for travel purchases and the Discover it® Cash Back for its great cash back program.

2. Use your cards for everything

The more you put on your credit cards, the easier it will be to rack up rewards. No, this isn’t an invitation to start spending money on things you don’t need. Rather, it’s an encouragement to use your credit card instead of cash or a debit card whenever possible.

For example, some utility companies allow you to use a credit card without paying a fee. Even car dealerships may allow you to put some or all of your car down payment on your card.

Start looking for situations in which you can use a credit card instead of another payment method. But if a merchant charges a fee to use your credit card, do the math to see if you’re paying more in fees than you’d earn in rewards. If the fees exceed the rewards rate, it’s not worth it. Also, be sure to use the card only when you have the cash to pay off the balance.

3. Know what doesn’t generate rewards

It’s easy to get carried away with trying to use your card for everything, but don’t let it go so bad that you start doing things that don’t earn any rewards at all. For most credit cards, this includes cash advances and balance transfers.

It’s also important to note that both of these activities typically come with fees. And there’s no grace period with cash advances, so interest starts accruing immediately. Do yourself a favor and leave these out unless you absolutely need a balance transfer.

4. Pay off your balance in full

The worst thing you can do with a rewards credit card is to pay interest. It can reduce the value you get from the card’s rewards or even neutralize it entirely.

To help you avoid carrying a balance, create and maintain a monthly budget, only spend what you can afford to pay off, and keep an emergency fund to cover any unexpected expenses that arise.

5. Redeem your rewards the right way

If you have a cash back credit card, you may think that your best redemption option is cash. But with some cards, that’s not the case. For example, the Discover it® Cash Back offers a $5 bonus when you use your rewards to get gift cards on over 100 brands.

If you have a travel rewards credit card, you’ll have an even better chance of maximizing the rewards you’ve already earned. If it’s a general travel card, you can seek out the cheapest hotels and flights for your trip. And if it’s a hotel or airline card, you can book your trip at a time when your points or miles are worth the most.

This part of the game can take a while to get good at, but it’s worth the time improving your skills.

Summary

Rewards credit cards have a lot to offer, but it may require a little extra legwork and brain power to get the most out of yours. And if you do it right, you could score hundreds of dollars, if not thousands, worth or rewards each year.

Start by comparing the top rewards credit cards and finding the right ones for you then start looking for ways to maximize the rewards you can earn from them.

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About the author

Total Articles: 28
Ben Luthi is a personal finance and travel writer who covers credit cards, debt, credit, investing, and more. He's currently studying to become a CFP® and trying to keep up with his two young kids. You can connect with Ben on Twitter or his website.

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