With inflation weighing in at 9.1 percent in June, the highest year-over-year increase since Nov. 1981, everyone is looking for ways to save money. Here are a few ways credit cards can help.
As long as you’re paying in full to avoid interest and buying things that you would have purchased anyway, credit card rewards represent free money. I’m on track to earn almost $2,000 in cash back this year.
My favorite credit card is the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. That’s mostly because it gives 6 percent cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 in annual purchases, then 1 percent cash back after that). My family spends a lot on groceries, so these rewards add up quickly. Think of it this way: If you’ve been using cash or a debit card at the grocery store, you could be missing out on hundreds of dollars in credit card rewards.
There are similar examples in other categories such as travel, dining, gas and more. Start by determining the categories in which you spend the most money and prioritize those. You can maximize your benefits by mixing and matching different cards.
The Citi Custom Cash℠ Card is a popular option because it adapts to your lifestyle, awarding 5 percent cash back in your top eligible spending category every monthly billing cycle (up to $500 in purchases, then 1 percent after that). Many people like how the category can vary from month to month and you don’t need to pre-select it.
The Chase Freedom Flex℠ and the Discover it® Cash Back card don’t provide the same level of flexibility, since the card issuers determine the 5 percent categories that rotate every quarter, but they’re still potentially very lucrative. The categories tend to be broad, too. So far this year, between the two cards, they have included groceries, Amazon.com, gas, restaurants, PayPal and more. Note that activation is required and both cards cap the 5 percent rate at $1,500 in quarterly spending (after that, purchases earn 1 percent cash back).
There are plenty of other examples, so shop around to find the best fit for your spending habits. Of course, pay in full to avoid interest. Even earning 5 or 6 percent cash back pales in comparison to the average credit card APR of 17.25 percent.
And make sure you actually use your rewards. It sounds simple, but almost a third of rewards credit cardholders didn’t redeem any rewards in 2020. You might be sitting on significant value.
While earning rewards on your everyday spending is great, strategically signing up for credit cards with lucrative introductory bonuses can turbocharge your rewards strategy even more. Ideally, you’ll find a card with a generous welcome bonus that also aligns with your longer-term spending habits. Note that these bonuses usually require you to spend anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars in your first few months with the card.
Some of the best options available right now include The Platinum Card® from American Express (100,000 points after spending $6,000 in your first six months), the Citi Premier® Card (80,000 points after spending $4,000 in your first three months) and the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card (three free nights worth up to 50,000 points apiece after spending $3,000 in your first three months). The value of these rewards points varies by card and according to how you use them. Each of those could be worth $1,000 or more.
Take care not to open too many cards all at once. I generally advise spreading out your credit applications by at least six months — and that’s for all types of credit, not just cards.
Your lifestyle changes and the market does too, so it’s important to compare cards from time to time. If you’re using the same card year after year, you’re probably missing out on valuable benefits.
Online shopping portals
One of my favorite savings strategies is to stack discounts — that is, combine multiple ways to save on the same purchase. Examples include using a rewards credit card, a store coupon and an online shopping portal. Rakuten is one of my favorites. I downloaded the Rakuten browser extension to easily access discounts (such as 8 percent cash back at Nike.com and 4 percent cash back at Macys.com).
Shop Through Chase is another good one. I often make online purchases by clicking through the Chase portal to a retailer’s website. That simple act, plus paying with my eligible Chase card, can lead to an extra 15 points per dollar at Florists.com and 5 points per dollar at Samsung.com (among many other deals).
A similar tip is to take advantage of card-linked offers, which are digital coupons that you can load onto your credit card. Amex Offers and Chase Offers are two prominent examples. I currently have a couple of enticing Amex Offers for travel: $60 off a Marriott purchase of $300 or more and $30 off a Turo car rental of $150 or more. There are plenty of other retail and restaurant deals, too. Another really good one is $120 off a Dell.com purchase of $599 or more.
0 percent interest promotions
If you have credit card debt — and almost half of active credit card accounts carry balances from month to month, according to the American Bankers Association — then your best “reward” is going to be obtaining a lower interest rate. That’s especially true now because interest rates are rising, which means credit card debt is about to get more expensive.
Forget about cash back, frequent flyer miles and hotel points until you’ve knocked out your credit card debt. The good news is that 0 percent balance transfer cards are widely available, and some of the best balance transfer offers last as long as 21 months. It’s also possible to avoid interest on new purchases for up to 21 months.
It’s important to be strategic about these promos. The interest rate skyrockets after the term ends, so I suggest dividing what you owe by the number of months remaining in your interest-free period and trying to stick to that payment schedule.
Especially in a time of high inflation, avoiding interest for nearly two years is a powerful tailwind that can help you get out of debt quickly at the lowest possible cost.
The bottom line
There’s a saying that credit cards are like power tools: They can be really useful but, used irresponsibly, they can be dangerous. And with the cost of living rising by the month, it’s important to capitalize on how credit cards can help you financially. The aforementioned strategies represent ways that you can get your credit cards working for you.
Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at [email protected] and I’d be happy to help.