As a lead-in to looking at the pros and cons of rewards cards, I have to admit that this is the first year ever that I did not go to the annual Hickey Freeman Factory Sale, walk into a store on Black Friday, or look for anything online on Cyber Monday. I realized that, first, I really don’t NEED any more stuff for myself, and, second, if I did those things, even I (the King of “needs vs. wants” — it’s going on my tombstone), would probably have found any number of items that I wanted, didn’t need, but might purchase. Then I would have more “stuff” that I didn’t need, and I would also have to find a place for them. Since my wife does all the shopping for family and friends — because she is much, much better at it — no one, other than the merchants, suffered from my heightened aversion to impulse shopping.
Why is that a lead-in to our discussion of rewards cards? It’s because, as we noted in the last column, there are still plenty of studies and surveys that indicate that people with rewards cards, even though they all deny it, often charge things that they otherwise would not, because they are earning rewards.
After speaking with my rewards-cards-expert millennial nephew, and doing some research online, I have to say that, if you are looking to play the rewards card game and to maximize all of the rewards you can for your particular lifestyle, it’s like going back to graduate school. You have to put in some real time and effort to research the best cards; initial, quarterly, and anniversary bonuses; annual fees; rewards expirations; the timing of redeeming rewards, and so, so much more.
That being said, if you really only use a credit card for convenience; you pay the balance off in full every month (never carrying a balance); and you are pretty disciplined and sophisticated about your spending, that whole needs vs. wants, wishes, luxuries and conveniences thing? A no-annual-fee, cash-back card that gives you decent cash-back rewards on the things you buy all the time, like gasoline and groceries, may be just right for you. That is especially true if you can redeem your cash back rewards frequently as credits to your monthly credit card statement. Beyond that, as I indicated, be prepared to go online and really study up. Fortunately, there is a lot of information.
Here are a few things that I learned from my research.
1. Just like joining a buying club like BJ’s, if you get a rewards card with an annual fee, be sure that the value of your rewards will cover and exceed that annual fee.
2. If you carry a balance on the card from month to month, and are paying interest, does the value of the rewards you earn actually exceed the interest you are paying?
3. Rewards cards may have monthly, quarterly or annual earning limits, either in certain spending categories or across the board. An example from wallethub.com is a card that offers 6% cash back on supermarket purchases up to $6,000 annually. If you only spend $4,000 annually on groceries, those limits make no difference to you. However, if you spend more than that on groceries, perhaps a different card would be better for you. For me, however, if it’s a no-annual-fee card and you can save $360 annually, and not do any impulse buying with that card to get other rewards, that’s a pretty good deal. The bottom line is to carefully read the terms, know if there are spending limits, and analyze if that card is still the best one for your spending habits.
4. Just like everything else, keep updating your research. A rewards card that makes sense this year, because of its level of rewards and bonuses, may not be as good for you as a new product being offered next year. Similarly, if your lifestyle and spending habits change, a different rewards card may be more beneficial. In that regard, it is important to periodically review where you are on your rewards — are you getting your “full money’s worth”?
5. If you have a travel rewards card and you often use your rewards to travel outside the U.S., and/or you often shop online on outside-the-U.S. websites, make sure that your rewards card does not charge foreign transactions fees, which are usually in the 3% range.
6. Make sure that you stay on top of the requirements to redeem your rewards, whether they are travel, points or cash back rewards.
7. Analyze how you can maximize any opening, quarterly, annual or anniversary bonuses, but without spending on things you really don’t need and would not otherwise purchase but for the bonus.
8.This is one that I had not heard about. Certain high-end rewards programs enable customers to qualify for some “unique experiences,” like exclusive access to event tickets or celebrity meet-and-greets.
9. Keep in mind that using shopping portals, coupon apps, and coupon codes on top of your cash back rewards can mean even more savings.
Once you have done all the research, and you are managing any rewards cards to receive the maximum benefits — while ensuring that you are not buying or doing more than you can afford, or would otherwise buy or do — REWARD YOURSELF. Have a nice dinner or do something special, and make up a diploma that says you have earned a Ph.D. in rewards card management. Believe me, you will deserve it.
John Ninfo is a retired bankruptcy judge and the founder of the National CARE Financial Literacy Program. Find his previous weekly columns at http://www.mpnnow.com/search?text=Ninfo or at http://www.monroecopost.com/search?text=Ninfo.