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In the days before credit cards were invented, merchants offered rewards programs such as Green Stamps. You’d earn little postage-sized stamps by buying groceries and would paste them into a savings booklet. Once you accumulated enough you could cash them in for gifts or prizes. Later ATT&T issued a pioneering credit card that let users earn credits that could be applied toward their telephone bills. Finally, in 1986, Discover introduced the first true cash rewards credit card. That particular innovation radically transformed the whole landscape of the industry, and today there are thousands of different credit cards that offer a chance to earn cash back or other valuable rewards and perks.
You can carry a card that shows your support for a sports franchise, like the NFL card, or you can opt for any rewards credit card. There are even cards available that benefit your favorite charities or help you save for college tuition. A great example of how innovative some rewards programs have become is the new plastic designed to benefit artists who provide their artwork displayed on the card. Each time a cardholder makes an eligible purchase the artist earns rewards as high as 1% of the transaction amount. That’s a pretty good deal for those artists, but for the rest of us who rely on more traditional programs, it helps to know what to look for -and what to avoid- in a rewards credit card.
Not all charges put on a credit card are eligible for rewards, however, and it is important to understand that. Know the terms of the card agreement beforehand so you’re not disappointed when you don’t get the rewards you thought were coming your way.You will hit a snag, for example, if you try to pile payments for such things as phone and utility bills or mortgage payments.
Credit card companies generally do not allow you to use your card for those types of purchases (although some are coming around now), so cardholders who hope to earn tons of easy rewards by making high-dollar car and house payments are probably out of luck.One card to check out that’s also great for travel -as noted by Money Magazine- and allows reward earnings on utility purchases is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard (with annual fee). Cardmembers will earn twice as much on all purchases, everyday, including gas, grocery, and utility purchases. Furthermore, there’s no cap on the number of rewards earned.
Capitalizing on Rewards
To leverage the greatest benefit from a credit card tied to a cash-back or rewards program, pick one that is tailored to your purchasing habits and needs. The good news is that there are many to choose from, including those without annoying restrictions, like the Capital One QuickSilverOne Cash Rewards Card that has no rotating categories and earns you 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day.
One way to accumulate more points and perks is to schedule recurring payments with plastic, rather than paying by check or with cash. Consider using your rewards card to make payments to providers of monthly services such as movie rentals, internet access and fitness center memberships. When performing home repairs or improvements – even with high-ticket items like appliances – you may also be able to put those charges on your plastic. Ask contractors if they accept credit cards, too, because that may be another convenient way to tack on home-related expenses to a rewards card.
What to Look for in a Rewards Card
- Be sure to read the small print, because banks market credit cards in clever ways that often obscure the facts while highlighting the hype. If a card boasts that you can earn lots of cash back, for instance, there may be important restrictions on how much cash you are allowed to earn during a period of time.
- You may think you’re going to earn 3% back on your annual credit card purchases of $100,000, but the reality could be that you are only entitled to earn on the first $10,000 purchases. Sometimes premium rewards are also reserved only for purchases made through the card’s online store or from merchants who partner with your credit card company.
- Check to see if you are able to earn points for additional cardholders that you add to your account. That’s an especially critical feature if you have a business credit card account and want to issue cards to each of your employees so you can earn rewards whenever they use the plastic.
- Check for expiration dates attached to your rewards. If there is one, you need to know what the limitations are so you can cash in your points before they expire and become worthless. Some examples include rewards that expire after one year, or card inactivity after a certain time; rewards that expire if you are late on one payment; or rewards that can’t be cashed in until you reach a certain total amount-that will make you think twice about the card if you aren’t able to earn enough rewards due to your purchasing habits.
- Categories can be a bit tricky too. Some cards advertise that you’ll earn 5% back in a category of expenses that appeals to you, such as gasoline purchases, but those categories often change every quarter. They may also require that you select a category and sign up for it in advance if you want to be eligible for its rewards.
- No matter how generous a rewards program may be, it won’t benefit you unless the rewards are appropriate to your lifestyle and spending habits. If you only fly on United Airlines, for instance, carrying a Southwest Airlines card doesn’t make sense. Similarly, using a hotel and travel card may not help if you cannot manage to schedule time to get out of town.
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*Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.
*The content in this article is accurate at the publishing date, and may be subject to changes per the card issuer.