Which Credit Card Rewards Program Is Best for You?

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Credit card companies are increasingly trying to appeal to the consumer desire for free stuff with bonuses and higher rewards for people who sign up for new credit card accounts. The average sign-up bonus is at an all-time high, according to Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub.com and WalletHub.com.

If you are good at handling credit card debt, taking advantage of these offers "is a no-brainer," he said. "Otherwise, you're leaving money on the table."

The challenge then becomes finding the right rewards, which include cash back offers, airline mileage and membership points. Some cards offer sign-up bonuses, often mileage. United (UAL) Mileage Plus Explorer just came out with a limited time offer of 50,000 miles, almost double its previous bonus. But the cards that give lucrative bonuses usually offer less after that initial bonus is paid out.

Going for Cash Back

"Don't be greedy," said Jelena Ewart, NerdWallet.com's general manager of credit and banking. "Think about a lifetime of rewards. I think a long-term vision is much more appropriate for most people. Consumers can get really excited by these offers, but you may end up with a card that you don't get a lot from."

Start by reviewing your spending habits. Some of the best cash-back offers require that you identify two or three categories for the biggest rewards. For instance, you can get a larger rebate on restaurant spending, if you identify that. Some card issuers choose the categories for you (say gasoline, hotels, airlines and groceries) and rotate them every few months.

The experts say you should be able to get 1.5 percent cash back, sometimes more. "The Capital One (COF) Quicksilver card is the gold standard there," according to Ewart. "There are no hoops to jump through. You can use the cash back for whatever you want." You also get a $100 bonus if you spend at least $500 in the first three months.

Other cards sport richer rewards, but they often come with an annual fee. If you spend enough though, the larger rebate will more than offset the fee. NerdWallet, CardHub and other sites have calculators that help you do the math. They also list the best card deals available in each category, with all of the pros and cons, the fees and explanations of the fine print.

"If you're a high spender, more than $2,000 a month," says Papdimitriou, "it can save you hundreds of dollars a year."

Building Up Miles and Points

If airline mileage and travel points are your thing, you may want a card that rewards you with frequent-flier miles at a certain airline. You can earn free trips or upgrades to first class, but be aware of the many restrictions imposed on how and when they can be used.

Papadimitriou also warns that not all miles are really frequent flier miles. He says some cards offer mileage points that can only be converted into travel benefits, but there can be lots of restrictions and the conversion rate isn't always favorable. Membership points can also redeemed, at certain levels, for merchandise and other desirables.

Balance Transfers

Another reason to apply for a new card is to transfer your balance for a lower interest rate. Maybe you're paying a 16 percent annual percentage rate on your current card. Some card issuers will waive the interest payment for six months to get your account.

It's a great deal, but you have to ask yourself why they are so generous. They're betting that you will fall back into your bad old habits. If you carry a balance after that initial period, or if you miss a monthly payment, your APR could jump above 20 percent. A recent National Foundation for Credit Counseling survey found that 34 percent of consumers carry over credit card debt from month-to-month.

"A person can win at the rewards game, but you'd better play by the rules and you must know the rules," said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the foundation. "If you carry over a balance from month to month, you're not going to win."

All of the experts also warn that you're not going to win at the rewards game if it encourages you to spend more than you would have done otherwise. But "if you're a disciplined spender and have a track record of paying your monthly bills in full each month," Cunningham said, "then why not take advantage of the rewards?"

7 Costly Myths About Banking, Credit Cards Debunked
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Which Credit Card Rewards Program Is Best for You?
Yes they can.

The CARD Act did get rid of the most outrageous abuse: they can no longer increase the interest rate on existing balances unless you go 60 days past due.

However, you need to remember that:
  • Most credit card interest rates are variable and are linked to the prime rate. Your high rate will only go higher when interest rates increase.
  • Based upon risk, your credit card company can still increase your interest rate on all future purchases. Your existing balances are protected, but future purchases would be at the higher rate. And determining risk is not limited to your behavior on your existing card. If you miss a payment with another lender, that could lead to an increase on all of your credit cards.
  • After 12 months, they can increase your rate for almost any reason. But the increased rate only applies to future purchases, and they need to give you 45 days notice.

Credit cards are incredibly expensive ways to borrow money. If you use a card, your goal should be to pay off the balance in full every month. Then, the interest rate doesn't matter.

Bottom line: If you do have debt, you should never be paying the purchase APR. Look for a balance transfer, or get a personal loan to cut your interest rate. And take a long hard look at your spending to put more money towards paying off that debt.

No, they are not.

There is a big difference between a 0% balance transfer (where the interest is waived during the promotional period, discussed above) and 0% purchase financing offered at many stores (where the interest is only deferred).

I regularly encourage people to use balance transfers to help them pay off their debt faster. With a balance transfer, interest is switched off or reduced during the promotional period. Once the promotional period is over, interest starts to accrue on a go-forward basis. This can take years off your debt repayment.

But stores offer 0 percent financing at the checkout. With a lot of these programs, interest is charged from the purchase date if you do not pay off the balance in full during the promotional period. So, if you have a 12-month 0 percent offer -– and do not pay off the balance in 12 months -– then in month 13 you will be charged a full 13 months of interest. They retroactively charge interest, and it will be like you never had a 0 percent offer at all.


This is a common practice. Online, Apple (AAPL) does this, via their partnership with Barclaycard (BCS).

And stores like Walmart (WMT) do the same thing.

Bottom line: I don't like deferred interest deals. Most people do not understand the difference between waived and deferred interest, and this practice feels deceptive. If you take one of these offers, make sure you pay off the balance in full before the promotion expires.

Not always.

Credit card companies have different rates for different types of transactions. The interest rate charged on a purchase (high) is different from a balance transfer APR (low).

Before the CARD Act, banks would apply your payment to the lowest APR balance first. Imagine you have a $1,000 balance. $500 is at 0 percent (balance transfer), and the other $500 is at 18 percent (purchase). If you make a $100 payment, banks would apply that to the balance transfer. That way, they reduce the balance transfer (at 0 percent) to $400, while protecting the $500 purchase balance (at 18 percent).

The CARD Act changed that. Banks now need to apply payments to the highest interest rate first. But this only applies to payments higher than the minimum due.

If you only pay the minimum due every month, your payment will still likely be applied to the lowest interest rate balance first.

Bottom line: You should never spend and have a balance transfer on the same credit card. Banks can only "trap" balances when you have multiple balance types on one card.
Not exactly true.

The CARD Act has stopped the handout of T-shirts on the steps of the school libraries, but they can still give sign-on bonuses. And they advertise on campus. For example, Citibank (C) has a "Thank You Preferred" card for college students. If you spend $500 in the first three months, you get 2,500 thank you points as a bonus. That is $25 of value.

Bottom line: I actually find this worse. Before, you got a free T-shirt just for signing up. Now, the credit card companies encourage spend on the card for the "free gift."

In the past, banks would charge you a fee if you went over your credit limit. Today, the CARD Act requires banks to receive your consent to charge an over-limit fee. So, in most cases, banks just eliminated those fees -- which is good news (kind of).

You can still go over your credit limit, if the bank approves your transaction. But the full amount by which you've exceeded your limit will be part of your minimum payment come the next bill, which could cause a payment shock.

More importantly, utilization (the percentage of your available credit that you use) is a big factor in your credit score. Your credit score determines the price you pay for credit. So, if you're over-limit on an account, you are considered riskier. That can result in the credit card company increasing your interest rate. And it could also result in other lenders increasing your rates with them. So you do pay, but it's an indirect cost.

Bottom line: We're glad the fee is gone, but you still need to be diligent and try to avoid going over your limit. If you pay your balance in full every month but are frequently bumping up against your credit limit, ask for a credit line increase.

Completely false.

I have heard from so many people that the way to eliminate overdraft fees is to opt out of overdraft protection. But it is impossible to completely opt out of overdraft.

Federal regulation requires consumers to opt into overdraft protection only for debit and ATM transactions.

But, the regulation does not cover checks and electronic transactions (including bill-pay and monthly direct debits, like gym memberships). The banks have all the power. If they approve the transaction, you would be charged an overdraft fee (typically $35 per transaction at banks and $25 at credit unions). If they decline the transaction, then you would be charged an NSF fee (non-sufficient funds), which is usually just as expensive as the overdraft fee.

Bottom line: You can't opt out of all overdraft fees. To avoid them, keep a buffer or find an account, like Ally, that doesn't charge those junk fees.
Not always true.

To be protected, you need to report the fraudulent transaction within 60 days. Otherwise, you give up a lot of your rights.

On ATM/debit cards, the bank can make you responsible for up to $500 of fraud if you report more than two days (but less than 60 days) after the transaction. On a credit card, you would never be liable for more than $50 (and most banks won't even hold you accountable for $50.)

One area where you will almost always lose is when your Personal Identification Number is used. If someone manages to get your PIN and takes money out of your account, then the bank will almost always assume that you authorized the transaction. Make sure you change your PIN often and never write it down.

Bottom line: Avoiding liability it your responsibility. Track your transactions regularly and call as soon as you detect any suspicious activity. And make sure you never share your PIN with anyone, or make it obvious.
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