The ultimate reward: how to make credit cards work for you

What is the ultimate reward?

Picture of a bank card and a stack of crunched dollars on a blue background

Make credit cards work for you by chasing the ultimate reward.

There you are standing at the cash register getting ready to pay with your credit card as you have done many times before, but this time you notice that your plastic buddy has become incredibly worn due to endless swiping. In fact, the little guy has become so worn that the checkout register gives you an error message and the clerk ask you if you can try a different card. You of course happily do so and reach into your wallet to pull out a perfect backup credit card to finish the transaction.

Three weeks later you receive your credit card statement. As usual, it shows your balance owed, and you proceed to pay the bill online. The story is over, right? Not by a long shot. In fact, the story of how you use your credit card in your daily life continues to write new chapters each time you swipe at a cash register, make an online purchase, or even pay a bill.

The truth is that when you don’t exercise strategy when deciding which credit cards to use for specific purchase categories (i.e., gas, dining, travel, etc.), then you are working in the direct benefit of the credit card company. In this case, the credit card company is now only responsible for extending you a line of credit to make a purchase and leaving you without the ultimate reward that you desperately deserve. What is the ultimate reward? The ultimate reward is the cash back, perks, or other intangible benefits you receive from rewards programs, in this specific case, credit card reward programs. Why is this the ultimate reward? It is simple, you work hard for your money, and you should be rewarded adequately for spending it.

The truth behind the plastic

Picture of a woman in a blue hoody from an elevated position overlooking mountains and lakes

Credit card companies have a ton of cash to attract new customers like you. Photo by Jérémie Crémer on Unsplash

You’ve probably heard of programs like American Express Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards. These are just a few, but the list of credit card rewards programs goes on and on. The credit card industry has traditionally had some of the most robust rewards programs. And it’s common for most people to associate rewards programs with credit cards primarily. However, with all this recognition and awareness of credit card rewards, why is it that millions of people are still not taking advantage of the excellent benefits that can come with credit cards? We’re not 100% sure, but we’re here to help and explain how you can maximize credit card rewards and make your credit cards work for you and earn you money.

Make credit cards work for you

The reason why credit card rewards programs can be valuable and have the ability to provide a wide variety of benefits is that unlike most other industries, credit cards are active in a significant portion of day-to-day transactions including bill payments, retail, and online purchases, so credit card companies have a ton cash to try an attract customers like you. To provide an incentive to use their cards, credit card companies can attract customers by offering sweet rewards perks such as free travel, cash back, elite level perks and status, better interest rates, gift cards, redemption for merchandise and more. Even though there are many good credit card rewards programs, not all are created equal or aligned to your specific spending behavior.

The truth is that there isn’t one credit card that can maximize benefits in all spending categories. Credit card spending categories include areas such as gas, groceries, travel, activities, dining, etc. Although most credit card companies usually highlight in television commercials which categories a particular card maximizes, they are banking on the fact that most people will use their credit card for the majority of all purchases, including purchases within categories that receive little to no rewards benefits.

The problem with only having one or two credit cards

Picture of a single US dollar sitting on a white countertop

Having only a few credit cards can often leave big holes in your rewards points earning potential. Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Most people do not have an adequate portfolio of credit credits to reap the benefits of all spending categories. And what ends up happening is that many people will use one or two cards for the majority of their purchases.

For example, you might have one of the Delta SkyMiles American Express cards and use it on all of your purchases. The Delta SkyMiles American Express is an excellent card for spending within the airfare category. However, it has minimal benefits for spending on everyday purchases like groceries. You only get 1 mile per dollar spent on non-Delta related purchases, which isn’t anything special. You instead would be better off getting the Citi Double Cash Card and getting 2% cash back on those everyday purchases.

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. It’s extremely common for people to only have and use one or two credit cards for all of their spendings. The first reason this happens is the myth behind credit card use and its effects on your credit score. Many consumers believe that if you apply and have too many credit cards, that behavior alone will negatively impact your credit score in the long-term, which isn’t necessarily true and is a general misunderstanding of the factors that comprise your credit score.

One or two credit cards is not enough

If you have only one or two credit cards, you likely are not maximizing each spending category and could leave with big holes in your overall credit card portfolio. The second reason why many people have a limited credit card portfolio is that researching credit cards is time-consuming, and not the most fun activity in the world. Many people also have a hard time qualifying for credit cards, which can also be an obstacle towards having even one credit card.

Whatever the reason may be, only owning one to two credit cards is problematic. And you ultimately could be losing out on a lot of money in the form of minimum spend bonuses, cash back rewards, and free perks such as free airport lounge access, statement credits for purchases, free hotel stays and more. In the next few sections, we’ll go over all of the benefits that credit card rewards can offer you and how to choose which credit cards align best with your spending habits.

The true benefits of credit card rewards programs

Picture of a woman holding someone’s hand and pointing to a scenic sunset over fog

The truth is simply having a credit card is nothing special, however making each credit card work for you is. Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

Credit card rewards programs often provide perks and benefits to cardholders. If you don’t currently have a credit card that offers you benefits like the ones we go over in this article, you should strongly consider applying for one. However, as we stated above, not all credit cards are created equal, and the same goes for the benefits they offer. Below, we explore the various benefits that credit cards can provide and some suggestions on which cards might be best for you.

Minimum spend (signing) bonuses

Screenshot of a web page showing the minimum spend bonus miles from a Delta American Express card

Finding the value of hitting a minimum spend bonus will help you decide which credit card offers to go after

Minimum spend bonuses, also commonly referred to as signing bonuses, are perhaps the most lucrative financial benefit for a recently approved credit card and not taking advantage of them could be costing you big money. Minimum spend bonuses usually provide you with a substantial amount of rewards points or cash back statement credits for hitting a spending threshold or having a certain amount of money spent on the card within a given time frame.

One significant aspect about a minimum spend bonus is that in most cases all purchases made on the credit card will count towards the spending threshold. However, some credit cards do have some exclusions on spending, which won’t count towards the spend that you need for your signing bonus. Exclusions can include money spent on the card for payment services like Venmo or Paypal. It’s important you check your credit card terms and conditions to confirm if any exclusions apply to you. 

There are a ton of credit cards that offer signing bonuses. So which one should you choose and how do you make that decision? We recommend taking a mathematical approach, so you understand the cash value of how much the points offered in the bonus are worth.

Breaking down the math

Picture of woman laying in a hammock in a tropical setting

Use the minimum spend bonus to help you travel to exotic places. Photo by Tyler Franta on Unsplash

A new credit card typically offers anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000+ points in a signing bonus. It’s also important to note that most credit card rewards points have an equivalent cash value.  A single reward point could be worth anywhere between 0.005 cents to 0.025 cents per point. The actual value of a reward point will depend on the specific credit card rewards program and how you choose to redeem the points (travel, merchandise, gift cards, etc.). So how you use (redeem), your points can significantly impact the overall cash value of the bonus. We recommend redeeming points in the category where you get the most return on each point and typically redeeming points for travel provides good redemption value.

A real example

Let’s take a look at an example to see how to calculate the cash value of hitting minimum spend bonuses:

  • A credit card offers 60,000 rewards points if you spend $2,000 in the first three months.
  • You plan on redeeming your rewards points for travel, and your points are worth 0.015 cents per point.
  • You can determine the actual cash value of your points by using the following formula:
    • (Total rewards points) x (cash value of a rewards point) = cash value
    • 60,000 x $0.015 = $900
    • So this particular card offers a $900 rewards value with its signing bonus!

Keep in mind that typically the highest minimum spend bonuses in the industry are associated with top-tier credit cards (like the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card or the American Express Platinum Card). These cards have more difficult approval requirements, such as having a good credit score (and annual income requirements, however, approval requirements can vary so don’t let these numbers prevent you from going through the approval process. If you don’t have an excellent credit score or would like to improve a credit score, we recommend services like CreditRepair.com, which can assist you with evaluating areas that are affecting your score and help come up with a plan to address those areas.

How to meet your minimum spend threshold

Screenshot of Plastiq user dashboard showing past payments

If you don’t think you can meet the minimum spend threshold try looking to bill pay services as an option

Hitting your minimum spend threshold can be challenging, mainly if you don’t typically spend a lot of money on your credit card. When planning to hit a minimum spend requirement, you should always have a good idea of your budget upfront, so you don’t have to go out of your way (or spend a ton of extra money) to hit that number.

For example, you may pay rent every month. Instead of paying with a check or debit card, you can use your new credit card to pay rent over the next few months. Often many savvy credit card users take advantage of this great technique for hitting minimum spends. And there are companies, like Plastiq, that can provide bill payment services when you run into a situation where a landlord, mortgage company, or utility provider doesn’t accept credit card payments. Plastiq will allow you to pay them via credit card for a bill you want to pay such as a mortgage payment, and in return, Plastiq will send your mortgage company a paper check for the amount you designated. Services like this do typically charge a small transaction fee; however the value you can potentially receive from hitting a minimum spend bonus should far exceed the fee amount.

Again, we have to reiterate that you should never overspend to meet a minimum spend bonus. Find a bonus offer that will work within your current budget. Also, services like Plastiq are great for hitting minimum spend bonuses, but make sure that when you use any bill pay service, you are receiving more value in return than the service fees that they charge on each transaction.

Key things to remember

We’d be holding back essential information if we didn’t share the following:

  • Most credit cards only offer one minimum spend bonus promotion per specific credit card. Meaning you will not be eligible for that bonus in the future, even if you close the card and re-open it (which we don’t recommend).
  • Minimum spend bonus promotional offers for a specific credit card can vary significantly over time. One month the bonus for a credit card might be 50,000 points and three months later the credit card ups it to 75,000 points. We recommend researching past bonus promotions to see if it’s worth waiting for a better promotion.

Our credit card recommendations for the best minimum spend bonuses

If you’re interested in applying for credit cards that typically have great minimum spend bonuses, we’d recommend the following:

  • American Express Platinum
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred

Cash back rewards

Picture of a woman in an aquarium starring at marine life

Cash back credit cards can reward you on purchases both above ground and below. Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Cash back rewards provide the most intuitive credit card incentive structure.  Unlike a points-based incentive (like minimum spend bonuses), you receive actual cash back for the purchases you’ve made on your credit card. Some cards restrict this to specific spend categories (like you’ll only get cash back for groceries and gas), but some even give you cash back on all purchases made on the card. How much money back you receive will depend on the credit card, which will designate a percentage of cash back for purchases.

Cash back rewards will typically give you anywhere from a 1% to 5% discount on purchases. However, keep in mind that some cash back programs enforce a cap on the amount of cash you can earn in specific categories. For example, a credit card may give you 2% back on all grocery purchases but only up to $1,000 a year. So if you spend more than $1,000 a year on groceries, they will stop giving you cash back once you go over that amount.

Getting approved for cash back rewards credit cards is often easier than the more elite or premium credit cards. So applying for these cards is a great way for newbies to start receiving immediate value on purchases made on a credit card.

Breaking down the math

Picture of a market counter loaded with produce

Cash back credit cards can provide you with money back from purchases. Photo by Mohammad Saifullah on Unsplash

There’s a good amount of credit cards that offer cash back rewards. So again, it’s important to take a mathematical approach to understand the value of the cash back program for a specific card. Let’s take a look at an example to see how to calculate the cash back rewards value. 

You have been approved for a Citi Double Cash rewards credit card. This card offers 1% cash back when you make a purchase, and another 1% cash back when you pay your bill. That’s a total of 2% in cash back rewards. There isn’t a category restriction for cash back earning, so you can earn unlimited cash back on every purchase. Finally, you determine that to maximize value from this card; you will only use it for purchases in categories in which your other credit cards do not already provide a better rewards structure. So because you have a Delta SkyMiles American Express card, you will not use your Citi Double Cash card for flight purchases. Instead, you’ll use it for everyday purchases like groceries and gas. Now for the math:

Let’s take a look at an example to see how to calculate the value of a cash back credit card:

  • Each month you spend $1,000 on your Citi Double Cash card, for a total of $12,000 annually.
  • You can find the annual value of your cash back rewards with the following formula:
    • (Total annual spend on card ) x (Cash back rewards percentage)
      • 12,000 x 0.02 = $240
  • So this particular card offers a $240 rewards value with its cash back rewards program!

How to maximize your cash back rewards

Screenshot from Citi Double Cash card user account page shows how to make credit cards work for you and receive cash back

Proof is often in the pudding and receiving cash back rewards for money that would have been spent regardless is a sweet deal.

One great thing about cash back rewards is that you effectively are receiving a discount across some or all purchases categories. If you are only looking to add one new card to your credit card portfolio, we recommend applying for a cash back card. These cards can be a great “all-purpose” card if you aren’t looking to play the multi-credit card game. You are likely to at least receive some value on many, if not all, purchases.

As we mentioned above, we recommend using a cash back rewards credit card on purchases that you aren’t already getting great rewards through another credit card. If you have a Delta SkyMiles American Express card, you should consider using that card for flight purchases. If you have a Hilton Honors American Express card, you should consider using that for hotel purchases. Then you can use a cash back card like the Citi Double Cash Card for other purchases like groceries or gas if you don’t already have another credit card that gives you higher than 2% in cash back for groceries and gas. Playing the metaphoric game of credit card chess is essential to ensure you’re getting the maximum value from all of your credit cards.

Our credit card recommendations for cash back rewards

If you’re interested in applying for a credit card with a great cash back rewards program, we’d recommend the following:

  • Citi Double Cash Card 
  • Capital One QuicksilverOne 
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited

Complimentary elite credit card perks

Picture of the entrance to the American Express Centurion Lounge at Seatac airport

Elite perks such as airline lounge access can make the airport fun again! Photo by CompareBare

Many credit cards provide a ton of additional perks for merely owning the card. However, in this section, we’ll focus on complimentary elite perks that often come with owning a premium credit card like the American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve card. These elite perks offered by credit cards usually would cost hundreds of dollars out of pocket annually if you didn’t receive them for free by owning a particular card. 

It is important to note that credit cards that offer elite perks can come with high annual fees ($400+ annually). Yes, this is a lot of money, and it may seem like a high price to pay. However, rest assured that you can efficiently maximize your return on investment as long as you frequently take advantage of the perks offered by the card. Let’s takes a look at some of the complimentary elite perks that can offset those high annual fees.

Airport lounge membership

Picture of the American Express Centurion Lounge bar seating at Seatac airport

Airport lounge memberships such as the Centurion Lounge can recharge you by providing free premium drinks, premium snacks, and a break from airport chaos. Photo by CompareBare

If you are a frequent flyer, then you know the headaches that can come with navigating your way through a packed terminal and finding a comfortable place to sit and get some work done. The good news is that airport lounges exist to give travelers a place to relax and unwind in between flights. Airport lounges have long been a secret destination of business travelers. They are now becoming more mainstream for non-business travelers thanks to credit cards. Unfortunately, membership to these lounges is pretty pricey ($400+ a year), which most people can’t justify paying those prices. The good news is that if you have a premium credit card, you’ll get complimentary membership to these lounges. 

You’ve probably heard or seen of some of these lounges: the Centurion Lounge by American Express, Delta Sky Club, United Club, Priority Pass Select Lounges and more. Each club program is unique and can provide a different quality of experience depending on the lounge, lounge destination, and time of day. These lounges all provide member-only access and provide awesome perks such as free wifi, alcoholic beverages, snacks, newspapers, more comfortable seating and modern decor, and scenic views. To give you an idea of the retail cost for some of these programs (if applicable) is listed below highlights current membership prices:

Centurion Lounge by American Express

Picture of Seatac airport American Express Centurion Lounge food bar

Free premium snack choices can be a valuable benefit to a hungry traveler. Photo by CompareBare

  • Only Platinum and Centurion cardholders may access the club.
    • Up to 2 guests may enter with the primary cardholder; $50 Day-Pass for each additional guest.

Delta Sky Club

Picture of Delta SkyClub at Seatac airport

Modern decor and comfortable seating make flight layovers more pleasurable. Photo by CompareBare

  • $495 for an Individual annual membership.
    • SkyClub members may bring up to two guests to the Club at the rate of $29.00 per guest per visit. 
  • $745 for an Executive annual membership.
    • Includes unlimited Club access for the member and up to two guests per visit.

United Club

Picture of United Club lounge sign at Seatac airport

Credit card perks can provide free or discounted access to premium airport lounges. Photo by CompareBare

  • $550 for an individual membership for general members and MileagePlus Silver and Gold members
  • $500 for an individual membership for MileagePlus Premier Platinum members
  • $450 for an individual membership for MileagePlus Premier 1K members
  • $1,100 for an individual + spouse membership for general members and MileagePlus Silver and Gold members
  • $1,050 for an individual + spouse membership for MileagePlus Premier Platinum members
  • $1,000 for an individual + spouse membership for MileagePlus Premier 1K members

Priority Pass Select Lounges

Picture of a the entrance of the Priority Pass lounge The Club at Sea at Seatac airport

Some lounge membership perks are more common amongst different credit cards. Photo by CompareBare

  • $99 for a Standard membership
    • Member and guest must each pay $27 per visit
  • $249 for a Standard Plus membership
    • Member receives first 10 visits free; then $27 per visit
    • Member’s guest must pay $27 per visit
  • $399 for a Prestige membership
    • All Member visits are free
    • Member’s guest must pay $27 per visit

As you can see above, paying for a membership to an airport lounge is expensive. Having a complimentary membership to an airport lounge is no doubt an impressive perk. Missing out on this value, mainly if you travel frequently, could be costing you big. The lounges above currently are complimentary just by owning specific premium credit cards.

Guaranteed elite status

Hilton Honors sign on a Hilton hotel reception desk counter

Some credit cards will provide complimentary elite status to a participating rewards program. Photo by CompareBare

Most premium credit cards, especially hotel partner cards, often provide you with elite status within their rewards program just because you own the credit card. Having elite status is an extremely valuable perk in most travel programs. With elite status, you earn things like seat upgrades on flights, hotel room upgrades, free meals, complimentary checked bags, extra bonus points and much more.

For example, the American Express Platinum card offers complimentary Hilton Honors Gold status and Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status. The Marriott Rewards Premier Plus credit card offers you Gold status in the Marriott Rewards program. With the Hilton Honors Aspire Card, you can earn complimentary Diamond Status in Hilton Honors. With the World Elite MasterCard, you’ll get elite status in Enterprise, National, Budget, and Alamo. These are just a few of the cards that offer you guaranteed status in travel rewards programs.

Gaining elite status in various travel programs generally isn’t an easy thing to do. It usually takes a significant investment to hit elite status. For airlines rewards programs, gaining elite status takes both flying a certain amount of miles or flights and spending a minimum amount of money on flights. With hotels, you need a minimum amount of hotel stays or nights. For rental cars, you need a certain number of car rental bookings to get elite status. All of these things are considered to be a substantial investment — usually worth a few thousand dollars.

So getting complimentary elite status is a huge perk and can save you thousands of dollars that you would otherwise need to spend on flights, hotels, rental cars and more.

Travel credits

Picture of empty TSA pre check line in Kona Hawaii

Travel credits including TSA✓ fees cover the cost and get you through security lines faster. Photo by CompareBare

The top credit cards also usually offer a few hundred dollars worth of travel credits and various vouchers. Travel credits will automatically get credited back on your credit card bill when you make purchases in a specific category. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers a $300 per year travel credit. So when you spend on travel-related expenses, including flights, hotels and rental cars, you’ll automatically get up to $300 back on your statement. This card will also give you a $100 credit to pay off your Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ application fee. These are huge perks and help justify paying the hefty $450 annual fee.

The American Express Platinum card gives a $200 airline fee credit, which will cover incidental costs that are charged to your card like in-flight meals and checked bag fees. They also have a partnership with Uber, in which cardholders can get $15 in Uber credits per month plus a bonus $20 in December. The perk can total up to $200 in Uber credits annually. Again, these travel credits help offset paying the annual fee of $550. They also help give you a better return on investment for owning this card.

Free checked luggage

Picture of inside of an airline cabin

Checked baggage fees can add up quickly on roundtrip flights. Photo by Omar Prestwich on Unsplash

Another great perk that comes with some credit cards is waiving of checked luggage fees. Most credit cards that have an affiliation with an airlines rewards program airline offer the perk of free checked luggage. For example, the Delta American Express and the AAdvantage Platinum Select cards provide cardholders checking in their first bag for free. The United MileagePlus Club card even offers the first two checked bags for free. Depending on how much you fly and check-in luggage, this can be a huge perk as baggage fees typically range from $25-$50 per bag per leg of your flight. That can mean you spend up to $100 for a round-trip flight if you check-in one bag. These fees add up quickly! Having a credit card that offers free checked bags can definitely save you some serious cash. 

No foreign transaction fees

Picture of Stonehenge historical site in England

You should only worry about capturing the best selfie on vacation and not foreign transaction fees. Photo by CompareBare

Most credit cards that make you pay an annual fee will waive something called foreign transaction fees. Foreign transaction fees are charges from a credit card company due to making international purchases on your card. These fees are usually charged as a percentage of the purchase that you’re making, with 3% being typical. For example, let’s say you make a $1,000 purchase in Italy. The card you used to pay was issued in the United States and does not waive foreign transaction fees. In this case, you should expect to pay $30. These fees can surely add up quickly! If you are on vacation for more than a few days and charge everything to your credit card, you’ll definitely pay at least a couple hundred dollars in fees.

And there’s more

We only selected just a few extremely valuable perks that can come with credit cards. There are many more benefits given to cardholders, but it depends on the card you own. You should check the terms and conditions of your credit cards or any card that you’re considering signing up for. This is crucial to understand what perks come with it. And this should no doubt help you decide on which cards to apply for in the future. You have to first weigh out the complimentary perks that come with the card. Then you need to assess if those perks will be beneficial to you.

Our credit card recommendations for getting the best benefits

If you’re interested in applying for a credit card with great complimentary perks, we’d recommend the following:

  • American Express Platinum
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • Hilton Honors Aspire American Express

In summary: make your credit cards work for you

Despite their somewhat negative reputation, credit cards should be considered your ally in saving money. If you maximize all the benefits that credit cards can offer, you will ultimately save money. The essential thing with credit cards is that you have more than one or two of them. If you don’t you could be losing out! You should have enough credit cards in your portfolio. This will ensure you’re earning the maximum amount possible in rewards points for every major category of purchases you make. These categories include things like flights, hotels, rental cars, groceries, gas, and more. Owning and using multiple credit cards is the first step in making your credit cards work for you.

Once you have various cards, make sure you maximize all the earning potential they offer. Take advantage of minimum spend bonuses, cash back rewards and other perks like complimentary airport lounge membership, guaranteed elite status, travel credits and more. We recommend developing a strategy and reading terms and conditions carefully so you can receive all the benefits that your credit cards offer. If you do this, you will make credit cards work for you and secure your share of the ultimate reward.

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