One smart way to get a deal on the things you buy this holiday season is to pay using rewards credit cards. If you choose the right ones, you can double the fun: Buy an iPad or two for your spouse and kids, shop for your turkey dinner, and pay for a flight to visit grandma, and you’ll wind up giving yourself a gift, too. We found that if you charge your purchases on two cards instead of one, you could earn 10 to 40 percent more in rewards over time in the scenarios shown below.
Of course, to get the biggest savings you’ll have to use the rewards cards year-round—not just over the holidays. And you’ll need to know the details about the reward programs, such as how much cash back they offer, whether there are caps on the amount you can earn, and what kinds of purchases qualify. One card, for example, might give you 3 percent cash back on gas, 6 percent on groceries, and 1 percent on everything else, and another may give you 2 percent back on all purchases.
To see how this strategy could benefit you, we used our proprietary credit card comparison calculator to review more than 90 rewards-card programs under six spending scenarios based in part on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and market research. We evaluated benefits over a three-year period because certain rewards cards offer a generous sign-on bonus but more limited rewards in subsequent years.
We also considered the actual value of the rewards—whether they come as miles, points, or cash back—and we assumed that cardholders don’t carry balances. A few generous rewards cards came up more than once because they work well for more than one kind of spender. Rewards programs can change at any time, so check them carefully online before you sign up.
The Family Person
You belong to a typical American family. You have a spouse and two kids, and you spend about $300 on gas and $500 on groceries every month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On a credit card budget of $3,500 per month, you’re also spending on clothes, drugstore goods, entertainment, travel, restaurant meals, and utilities.
Your Cards: American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card; Capital One Venture
Your Strategy: Charge your monthly gas and grocery expenses to the American Express card to earn 6 percent cash back on groceries (on up to $6,000 over 12 months) and 3 percent cash back on gas. Use the Capital One card for everything else because it offers 2 miles for every dollar you spend in all categories.
Rewards Total: $3,550 over three years
Whether it’s for work or play, you spend lots of time on planes and in hotels, and you want to earn rewards so that your next trip is free. Seventy percent of your credit card spending is in travel-related categories such as airfare, hotels, rental cars, and restaurant meals, and you charge a total of $3,000 per month.
Your Cards: Capital One Venture; PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express Card
Your Strategy: The PenFed card gives 5 points on every dollar spent on airfare but only 1 point on all other spending. So use it to buy your airline tickets, but charge other expenses to the Capital One card, which gives you 2 miles for every dollar you spend. It also gives new cardholders 40,000 bonus miles if they spend a total of $3,000 in the first three months. The PenFed card gives 20,000 miles if you spend $2,500 in three months. Neither card charges foreign transaction fees.
One caveat, though: To get the PenFed card, you have to first join the PenFed Credit Union. Anyone can join, and costs are low. Military personnel and their families can join free; others must make a one-time donation of $14 to Voices for America’s Troops or $15 to the National Military Family Association. Members must keep at least $5 in a savings account.
Rewards Total: $3,400 over three years.$3,400 over three years.
The Small-Business Owner
Your ongoing expenses include advertising, communications costs, gas, travel, and dinner with clients. You need rewards cards that either give you cash back that you can reinvest in your business or provide travel points that you can use for future business trips. An analysis by Shoeboxed, which tracks small businesses’ spending, found that owners’ expenses average $2,245 per month. But that study was from three years ago, and business expenditures have been rising, according to the National Federation of Independent Business. So we estimate that you’re charging $2,500 per month.
Your Cards: PenFed Platinum Cash Rewards Visa Plus; Capital One Spark Cash for Business or Capital One Spark Miles for Business
Your Strategy: Use the PenFed card for gas because it offers 5 percent cash back. Charge everything else to the Capital One Spark Cash card, which gives you 2 percent cash back (plus a $500 cash bonus if you spend $4,500 in the first three months). To earn free travel perks instead, swap out the Spark Cash card for Spark Miles. You’ll earn an equivalent of 2 miles per dollar spent. You’ll also get the same sign-up bonus you can use for travel. Neither Capital One card charges a foreign transaction fee, and your rewards never expire.
Rewards Total: $2,500 over three years.
The Baby Boomer
You’re closing in on retirement and are at the height of your earning potential. Much of your income goes toward entertainment, groceries, and utilities, though you also spend money on clothing, drugstore goods, home improvements, gas, and restaurant meals. You charge about $4,200 per month.
Your Cards: American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card; Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
Your Strategy: The American Express card gives you 6 percent cash back on groceries (on $6,000 annually) and 3 percent cash back at gas stations and certain department stores. But for other purchases, you’ll get only 1 percent back. So charge everything else on the Barclaycard, which gives you 2 miles per dollar spent that can be redeemed as a statement credit for airline tickets, hotel stays, and cruises.
Rewards Total: $3,800 over three years.
You’re in school, so money is tight, but you’re still charging $250 per month or more on credit cards. Spending by those younger than 25, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, includes food, gas, travel, insurance, clothing, utilities, and entertainment.
Your Cards: BankAmericard Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students; Discover It Chrome for Students
Your Strategy: Charge gas and groceries on BankAmericard. That’ll give you 3 percent cash back per dollar spent on gas and 2 percent on groceries. (The amount drops to 1 percent after you spend a combined total of $1,500 per quarter in those categories.) If you have a Bank of America checking or savings account, you’ll earn an additional 10 percent cash back on rewards you deposit into that account. Put the rest of your charges on the Discover card to earn 2 percent cash back on gas and restaurant meals (up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter) and 1 percent on the rest of your purchases.
Rewards Total: $235 over three years.
The Big Spender
You charge an average of $5,000 per month on your credit cards, so you could be a great contender for a premium card, according to research firm Mercator Advisory Group. In our calculations, we divided 75 percent of your spending among retail, entertainment, travel, and restaurant expenses. Groceries and gas make up a smaller part of your spending, so cards that richly reward you in those categories are not as important.
Your Cards: Capital One Venture; Citi ThankYou Premier
Your Strategy: Charge your entertainment, restaurant, and travel expenses to the Citi card. That way you’ll earn 3 points for each travel dollar spent and 2 points for entertainment and restaurants. Your points are worth 25 percent more when redeemed for airfare, hotels, cruises, and car rentals through Citi’s ThankYou Travel Center. Put all other expenses on the Capital One card to earn 2 miles for every dollar you spend. If you charge $3,000 on the Capital One card during the first 90 days after you activate it, you’ll get 40,000 bonus miles. You’ll get 50,000 bonus points from Citi after charging $3,000 during the first 90 days.
Rewards Total: $4,650 over three years.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the December 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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