Five Ways to Maximize Credit Card Rewards

Credit card issuers are no dummies. They know by sweetening the deal with tantalizing rewards, you'll be more inclined to spend, spend, spend.

It's true rewards programs can be great for racking up perks on the purchases you'd make anyway. Still, it's wise to be a savvy (even skeptical) consumer.

Here are five easy ways to maximize your credit card rewards — and stay out of trouble.

1. Pick a card that fits your needs

Don't be sucked in by the promise of exotic vacations or piles of cash. Start by choosing a card that fits your lifestyle and financial habits overall.

That means paying attention to more than the rewards program. You need to look at APR, limits, annual fees, balance transfer fees, and customer service. You also need to make sure the card you're considering is accepted at the places you usually shop.

If you're not looking to get a new credit card, you can amp up the rewards of your current cards with a new program called Reward Boost. It analyzes your spending to determine which of your credit cards should be used for different purchases to maximize rewards.

2. Choose the right rewards program

Not all credit card rewards programs are created equal. Rewards come in all shapes and sizes, including (but not limited to) airline miles, cash, gift cards, discounts, hotel stays, merchandise, and rebates.

Look for one that will give you the best bang for your buck with your spending practices. Do you spend a lot of money on groceries? Consider a rewards program that gives extra points, miles, or cash on grocery purchases. Drive a gas guzzler? You'll want a card that rewards gas purchases. Are you a frequent flyer? Find a card that bumps up perks on travel.

3. Read the fine print

Yes, seriously. All of it. Too often people are sucked into programs that aren't a good match purely because they didn't get all the information up front.

Many rewards programs have limitations, including expiration dates or caps on rewards. That 3% cash back on groceries might sound great until you find out that it's only valid up to $100 per year.

And those airline miles you're planning on stockpiling? Make sure you know which airlines you can use them for, and whether or not there are blackout or expiration dates.

4. Stay on top of the deals

Many cards will offer promotional deals, so keep a sharp eye out. These might include double- or triple-point periods (especially over certain holidays), giveaways, online deals, or cash back on certain purchases.

These deals are usually for a limited time only, so it's worth checking your card's website regularly and subscribing to updates.

You can also get inside tips on every single purchasing decision with rewards- focused apps like Glyph for iTunes.

5. Be smart with your card

It can be extra tempting to overspend when you know you'll be getting rewards. This is a dangerous trap that even well-intentioned consumers fall into.

Think of it this way: getting 2% to 3% cashback isn't very valuable if you spend so much that you can't pay off your balance and end up paying 20% interest.

Plus, if you're struggling to pay your mortgage or insurance because you're concentrating your spending in a "reward category," it's safe to say that you're doing it wrong.

Spend within your means and do everything you can to pay on time and avoid carrying a balance month-to-month.

Your credit score depends on it, and you may even jeopardize your rewards if you make late or insufficient payments.

 

This is a guest post by Ellen Hunter Gans, M.A., MSc. is a writer, editor and communications strategist who contributes to The Simple Dollar. The Minnesota native has been writing about finance (among other things) for over four years. Find her on LinkedIn.

Image thanks to American Express.

 

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