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How to Maximize Your Credit Card Rewards

What are credit card rewards?

  • In the highly competitive market for credit cards, companies are offering rewards like cash back, travel miles, points, merchandise and more.
  • Most rewards are determined by categories.  For example, the Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi pays cash back:  4% on gas, 3% on restaurants and travel, 2% on Costco purchases and 1% on everything else.
  • Some cards have rotating categories that offer different rewards percentages during a certain period (e.g. gas is 5% back this quarter).  Others let you choose a category that has the highest rewards.
  • Some cards offer additional benefits like travel insurance, mobile phone insurance, and more.
  • Other companies offer rewards for access to your credit card transactions, on top of whatever rewards are provided by the credit card company.
  • According to the IRS, spending rewards are really non-taxable discounts as the cost of rewards is built into the price you pay (another good reason not to use cash).
  • You can generally use rewards cards with digital wallets like Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay and still get rewards.  Samsung Pay offers additional rewards.

Why should you maximize credit card rewards?

  • The average person could get rewards of over $1,000 / year from the best cards, according to WalletHub’s 2019 Credit Card Rewards Report.
  • You can use credit cards (and get rewards) for most products and services today, including auto insurance, mobile service, Internet service, in addition to groceries, gas, restaurants and travel.
  • According to a study by Bankrate.com, 31% of people have never redeemed 
  • You can donate rewards / travel miles, especially useful if they’ll expire before you use them, though they aren’t tax deductible (remember, they’re really discounts).

But be careful…

  • Only use credit cards if you have the discipline to pay them off each month. One missed payment can wipe out your reward balance, prevent future rewards, and negatively impact your credit score.
  • Rewards cards often have high interest rates, which is another way companies can afford the rewards.
  • Many rewards credit cards have no annual fees, and some have no-annual-fee versions with lower rewards rates than the annual-fee version.
  • Credit card rewards programs change over time.  For example, Barclay’s Uber card changed rewards levels and from cash back to Uber credit.
  • Like cash under your mattress, credit card rewards lose value over time.  Make sure you use them wisely.  Some cash back rewards can be redeemed automatically to reduce your amount due or directly deposited into a bank account.

How can I maximize my credit card rewards?

  • Use Mint and other account aggregators to identify the categories you use the most.
  • Add credit cards with the most rewards slowly to prevent negative impact to your credit score.  Credit Karma, NerdWallet and WalletHub offer credit simulators to determine the impact of various changes to your credit score.
    NerdWallet credit score simulator
    NerdWallet credit score simulator
  • Find and the best card for your top categories using CardPointers, MaxRewards, Maxivu, NerdWallet, or WalletHub.
  • If you’re willing to give other companies access to your transaction history, you can get extra rewards, including cash back (Dosh, Drop, eBates, GetUpside, NerdWallet), Bitcoin (GetPei), and stock (Bits of Stock, Bumped), and many more.  This allows you to double-dip on your rewards.
  • Use the card with the highest reward for your purchase category.  
  • Use AwardWallet’s Merchant Lookup to identify a merchant’s categories and the best cards to use for that merchant.

AwardWallet

AwardWallet (Android, iOS, web) tracks the value and expiration of all types of affinity programs, including travel miles & points, credit card rewards, and rewards for shopping, dining and more.  The free version works well for most, but you can upgrade to the Plus version for $30 / year to view and export history.  The Merchant Lookup tool shows which categories apply to a merchant, which can be helpful for online merchants.  However, the number of credit cards is limited.  The Reverse Merchant Lookup Tool shows which merchants are included in a credit card and category combination.

AwardWallet rewards tracking
AwardWallet rewards tracking

AwardWallet Merchant Lookup

AwardWallet Merchant Lookup

CardPointers

The CardPointers app (iOS, web) shows the highest rewards credit cards for 16 categories, more than other similar apps. It shows cards with rotating categories, as well rewards specific to a store (e.g. Target’s Red Card that has 5% cash back at Target).  Since this app doesn’t use a GPS to locate stores nearby, uses a significant amount of screen, and only runs as a native app on iOS, it works best on an iPad.  Like most similar apps, CardPointers gets a commission when you apply for a card recommended in the app.  The additional categories not found in other apps, including cable satellite TV, office supply, telephone and more, helped my find the Chase Ink Business Cash to maximize my rewards for mobile phone and Internet services, enough to pay a car payment each year, just by changing the automatic bill pay credit card.

CardPointers - My Cards
CardPointers: My Cards

CardPointers Best Cards by Category

CardPointers Best Cards by Category

Maxivu

Like CardPointers, Maxivu (Android, iOS, web) uses only the credit card name to show rewards for each card in your wallet.  Unlike CardPointers, Maxivu uses the GPS to automatically suggest the best card in your wallet for use in nearby locations.  It can also show the best card to use for online merchants, as well as the rewards and other information for each card in your wallet.

Maxivu
Maxivu

MaxRewards

MaxRewards can also show which card to use at nearby sites and for a number of categories, and it includes store-specific rewards.  Unlike CardPointers and Maxivu, MaxRewards accesses your credit card account to track spending, category and rewards earned.  MaxRewards also enables you to unlock personalized deals, based on your transaction history.  But this service comes with a cost of $5 for every $25 you save (a hefty 20% commission).

MaxRewards Rewards Activity
MaxRewards Rewards Activity

Use Multiple Tools and Multiple Credit Cards to Maximize Your Credit Card Rewards

By using the right credit cards in the right places, you can maximize your credit card rewards to save more than $1000 / year on normal spending.  You can use free tools to help minimize the impact to your credit, identify additional rewards credit cards, determine which card to use for a merchant and to track those rewards.  Which tools do you use?

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