From airline miles to cash back, there’s no shortage of credit card rewards. While these rewards are plentiful, a significant chunk of consumers don't benefit from the situation. A study by Princeton Survey Research Associates International found that nearly a third of credit card holders don’t redeem their hard-earned rewards.
A failure to cash in on credit card rewards could end up costing you a small fortune. It might feel like a good idea to hoard points until you’ve saved up enough for a major purchase or a dream vacation, but delayed gratification can create problems. The longer you hold on to unused rewards, the more you expose yourself to reward forfeiture, devaluation, and inflation.
Unlike your stocks, credit card rewards don’t earn you any money if you sit on them. In fact, the opposite is true. Your issuer could even close your account due to inactivity, which means you forfeit your rewards. Those points you’ve been socking away for a free trip to Fiji? Poof! Gone in an instant.
This might seem unfair, but it’s perfectly legal for issuers to close accounts for numerous reasons without advance notice. For instance, creditors closed countless accounts during the 2008 financial crisis to prevent customers from defaulting.
In the same way your credit card issuer can close your account at any time, it can also change your card’s reward rules at the drop of a hat.
Skeptical? Consider how much frequent-flyer programs have changed since they were first introduced. Way back in 1981, these programs were incredibly generous. American Airlines initially offered travelers free first-class tickets and seat upgrades for any fare; at the time, none of the rewards involved economy seating, according to an airline loyalty report by IdeaWorksCompany.
Over the years, those rewards diminished. Blackout dates are commonplace, limited availability is increasingly problematic, and cost-cutting is frequent. American and Delta recently increased award prices on certain flights, and United is set to follow suit this year. Consumers who wait for the perfect time to cash in their credit card miles might be forced to adjust their vacation plans because of devaluation.
Devaluation of your rewards is immediate, but inflation has a habit of creeping up on you. For instance, a $100 reward earned back in 2012 is worth roughly $95 in today’s dollars thanks to inflation. Credit card rewards don’t accrue interest, so you only stand to lose more purchasing power by waiting longer to redeem them.
Making the Most of Rewards
Some of the aforementioned pitfalls are unavoidable, but there are still a few ways to get more bang for your buck when it comes to credit card rewards.
- Different Cards for Different Categories
Maximize your rewards by using a credit card that offers accelerated earnings for specific purchase categories. Just make certain that whatever card you choose fits your lifestyle.
Start by evaluating your purchases. If you don’t drive that much, for example, a card that offers cash back on purchases at gas stations might not be the best choice. Once you’ve evaluated your spending habits, consider that kind of credit card rewards you want. Are you planning a big vacation? Look for a travel card that offers perks on domestic and international trips. If you prefer experiencing the world through food, consider cards that offer cash back at restaurants.
Most people benefit from juggling multiple cards that provide rewards in different categories. To maximize your earnings, work to understand the ideal way to use each card. That might mean using one card for grocery shopping, another card for dining out, and so on. Some credit cards also rotate the percentage of cash back earned on specific categories each quarter, meaning you’ll want to check in every few months to ensure your spending strategy holds up.
- Capitalize on Bonus Offers
Bonus offers are a no-brainer, especially with a new card. For example, the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card gives you 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases within three months of opening an account.
While it’s easy to ignore an inbox that’s flooded with promotional emails, you shouldn’t stop looking for offers after cashing in on your sign-up bonus. Throughout the year, creditors ramp up bonuses as they offer new products. The holiday season is also rampant with rewards promotions. In December 2016, for example, American Express invited cardholders to earn double rewards points at certain small businesses.
- Swipe Often
Your card issuer earns money every time you use your card. To encourage cardholders to swipe as often as possible, lenders sometimes offer rewards bonuses for making a specific number of purchases within a certain time period. For instance, American Express EveryDay cardholders earn 20 percent more rewards points if they use the card to make 20 or more purchases within a billing period.
This incentive can be particularly useful for routine purchases. Use it to your advantage by paying with your card instead of cash or making several small trips to the grocery store instead of one big visit.
- Add Accounts
Banks want more business, which is why they routinely offer additional rewards to customers who have several accounts with them. Take time to research rewards bonuses you might receive if you open additional accounts with your creditor.
For example, Chase customers who have a checking account in addition to a Chase Freedom® card earn a bonus 10 percent on all purchases at the end of the year. Some lenders offer even more bonus points of customers have other accounts, such as a mortgage or personal loan, linked to their checking accounts.
- Redeem Wisely
Another way to maximize your rewards is by optimizing how you trade them in. Creditors often provide several ways to redeem your rewards, and the rates can vary substantially.
For example, cardholders receive $0.01 for every point earned with Chase’s Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card card when they use those points for gift cards or cash back. When they redeem those points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, however, they can earn up to 25 percent more.
Many issuers also offer online shopping portals where you can buy from popular retailers, such as Apple and Gap, and earn extra rewards points. This can be useful when it comes to everyday purchases, but it’s particularly lucrative during the holidays — with increased seasonal spending, you can really rack up the rewards.
While it doesn’t necessarily lead to increased value, some cards also allow you to automatically redeem your rewards at regular intervals. It requires minimal effort on your part, but it can prevent your rewards from expiring unexpectedly. If that option isn’t available, you could always set a monthly reminder to redeem your points.
Credit card rewards sometimes include what seems like a lot of unexpected red tape. While some of that is unavoidable, savvy shoppers can bypass some of the more common issues by using their cards wisely. In addition to more obvious moves like paying your balance in full every month, it’s important to pay attention to your rewards. Maximize your points by registering for special offers, activating as many perks as possible, linking other accounts to your credit card, and regularly redeeming your rewards.
Editorial Disclaimer: Information in these articles is brought to you by CreditSoup. Banks, issuers, and credit card companies mentioned in the articles do not endorse or guarantee, and are not responsible for, the contents of the articles. The information is accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted; however, all credit card information is presented without warranty. Please check the issuer’s website for the most current information.