Credit Card Rewards

A while back, I wrote about how, if you really wanted to put the effort in, you could be maximizing credit card rewards. If you don’t want to put the effort in that I’ll get to in a second, then you could at least have one reward-earning card that you use for all your purchases and pay off each month.

Important reminders:

We don’t use cash. Everything goes on a credit card unless it’s prohibited or there’s a service charge that outweighs our rewards.

We pay off the balance of every credit card every month. We have never paid interest on a credit card balance.

Let’s dive in.

REWARDS

Credit card companies are offering rewards for using their card for purchases. Some even give a reward for making payments on it too. The rewards can be in a point system, cash back, or incentives for specific companies (e.g., Delta, Disney). We prefer more generic reward options, but some people like to use a specific reward card. The best reward credit card for you is one that matches your spending habits.

An example of a specific reward credit card would be a a Disney card. As you earn money, it goes towards their trip to Disney. Psychologically, they feel that their expensive annual trip to Disney is “paid for.” While this may work for some people, our thought process is that if I earn $1,500, then I have the flexibility to put it towards a Disney trip or can buy something else.

The simplest way to collect rewards is to have an all-category-cash-back credit card (e.g., 1% cash back on all purchases). However, to make the most, you could be using multiple credit cards so you can earn extra rewards in different categories. Then you need to know which card to use when, and also keep track of your statement periods so that you pay it off in full each month. A category type credit card can give rewards in multiple categories (e.g., 4% on gas, 3% of restaurants, 1% on all other purchases), can rotate reward categories (e.g., first quarter is 5% on gas, second quarter is 5% on groceries), or can be geared towards one specific category all the time (e.g., 5% on gas). There are typically earning caps in these categories.

CHOOSING A REWARD CREDIT CARD

Each credit card company has a variety of cards that offer different rewards. You can decide what fits your spending pattern the best. If you don’t want to identify the categories that you spend, then the Citi Double Cash is a great “catch all” with no annual fee and no reward earning cap. You earn 1% cash back on each dollar spent, and then an additional 1% on each dollar paid towards your credit card balance. We deposit our earnings into a checking account instead of a statement credit, because we learned that we don’t earn cash back on the statement credit made.

Some credit cards have an annual fee. We typically shy away from anything that has an annual fee because we don’t like paying money to spend money, but we did have a couple of exceptions. For instance, one card had a $450 annual fee. You earn 3% points (one point is the equivalent of a penny if cashed out) on all travel and dining purchases and 1% points on everything else, but if you redeem the points earned through their travel portal, you get a 50% bonus. One of the rewards was reimbursement of $300 worth of travel costs. The card reimbursed the cost of TSA Precheck too, which as $75, and had a DoorDash credit of $30. Then the last $45 of the fee was offset by the rewards granted through point usage. But the annual fee increased to $550, and we no longer thought it was worth keeping and that the cost would be fully offset by the rewards.

We also look for a sign on bonus. If we’re going to have our credit checked, we want to capitalize on it. Sign on bonuses are typically additional cash back or points once you hit a certain spending threshold. For example, the card may say “once you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months, you’ll earn a statement credit of $300.”

In addition to a sign on bonus, we would also prefer opening a card that offers a 0% introductory rate. I’ve shared before that we most often look for a new credit card because we have a large expense coming. When faced with paying for in-vitro-fertilization out of pocket, we opened a new credit card that had 15 months worth of 0% interest. This way, when we paid the tens-of-thousands owed, we gave ourselves an interest free loan. That particular credit card was only used for that expense because the reward categories were worse than other cards we had. However, we didn’t close that card because it helps our credit by having more of credit line open.

OUR REWARD USE

Besides the Citi Double Cash, we’re partial to the Chase options out there. We use different cards for different categories, and then use the Citi for anything that doesn’t fit into a category.

Between 5 credit cards, we brought in $4,232 worth of rewards last year. That’s money in our pockets that we did nothing except spend other money to get. In the past, it’s usually about $1,500 per year that we bring in with credit card rewards. The amount in 2021 was higher due to sign-on bonuses that were earned in a previous year, and then the credit card changed their reward redemption options, allowing us to pay ourselves back for restaurant purchases. We had previously been using the rewards to purchase travel needs through their portal, but we were able to dwindle down our rewards with this reimbursement change.

What could you do with a “free” and “extra” $1,500?

If you’re smart with credit cards, they can be a powerful tool to create financial flexibilities.

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