The best reward credit cards offer bonuses on specific categories of purchases. Your challenge is to first find the cards with the most valuable bonus offers, and then to use them to earn the most possible points, miles, or cash back.
Here are seven ways that you can maximize your rewards across multiple cards:
1. Focus on food
It’s tempting to sign up for every credit card that offers bonus rewards for a particular type of purchase, but you shouldn’t apply for every card that you see. Instead, you have to focus on getting the cards that offer the most valuable rewards for the purchases that you make the most.
Since we all eat, you should always have a card that offers with outstanding returns at grocery stores, restaurants, or both. For example, the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers 6 percent cash back on up to $6,000 spent each year at grocery stores, and the American Express Premier Rewards Gold offers 2x points at both supermarkets and restaurants.
For cards with no annual fee, both Discover it® Cash Back and Chase Freedom typically offer 5 percent back on restaurants during one quarter of the year (max spend in the quarter is $1,500 and activation is required). The Amazon Visa (also from Chase) offers 2 percent back on restaurants (and drug stores) all year round, as well as 3 percent back on all Amazon purchases. The Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card provides 2 percent back on groceries and wholesale clubs and 3 percent back on the category of your choice up to the first $2,500 in combined choice category / grocery / wholesale club purchases each quarter.
2. Reconsider gas rewards
While it seems like a gas rewards card would be a no-brainer, it may not be worth it to have a card that only offers 2 percent or 3 percent back at gas stations.
If you’re looking for gas rewards, the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card again looks attractive because it also gets you the extra rewards on groceries mentioned above.
Why skip a rewards card that’s just for gas? Unless you’re a long-haul trucker, the rewards just aren’t going to amount to much.
Suppose you have a car that you drive 10,000 miles a year and you get 25 miles per gallon. Even if you pay $2.50 per gallon of gas, you will only spend $1,000 year on gas. A card that offers 3 percent back on gas purchases will return $30 in rewards, but that’s just $10 more than you might have earned from a card that offers a 2 percent reward on everything.
3. Think about office supplies and telecommunications services
Many people in their twenties spend a huge portion of their paycheck on telephone, television, and Internet services. Thankfully, there are several business credit cards that offer you 5 percent cash back on these purchases.
Examples, including the Chase Ink Cash® and Ink Plus® cards as well as the American Express SimplyCash® Plus Business credit card. These cards also offer 5 percent back on anything you purchase at an office supply store, including electronics, furniture, and gift cards.
The Chase Ink Cash® card, for example, offers 5 percent cash back on the first $25,000 you spend in combined purchases at office supply stores and on phone, internet and cable TV services each year.
4. Pick just one or two store cards
During the holidays, nearly every store you visit will try to get you to apply for its store credit card. But the key to earning the most rewards is to hold back and just get one or two cards that offer the most rewards at the stores you shop at most frequently.
Good contenders could include the Target RedCard and the Best Buy MasterCard, which both offer 5 percent rewards and some valuable benefits.
5. Watch out for annual and quarterly limits
There are a lot of reward cards that feature some eye catching rates for cash back, but the fine print could include some important limits.
For example, the Chase Freedom and Discover it® Cash Back cards both offer 5 percent cash back at select merchants, but only on up to $1,500 spent each quarter, activation required. If you aren’t sure how much qualifying spending you’ve already done, check your account online or just call the card issuer.
That’s not to say, however, you should necessarily shy away from cards with quarterly reward limits. Earning 5 percent back on even $1,000 in purchases a quarter yields an annual reward of $200. If you combine cards so you’re earning more than 2 percent on a majority of your purchases, the rewards really start to add up.
6. Use a low tech way to keep track of bonus categories
As you might expect, there are apps that you can download that will try to tell you which cards to use for which purchases. Sure, you could download one of these apps, input all your cards, and then let your smartphone tell you which card you should use for which purchase.
Instead, I recommend just putting a small piece of masking tape on the top of your cards, and labeling them with the card’s bonus categories. Ideally, a small piece of tape on the top of your card will stick out of your wallet just enough so you can see exactly which card offers you the best bonus.
7. Dig deep into what’s included in bonus categories
When it comes to marketing their products, credit card issuers use very vague titles for their bonus categories. For example, when Chase says that your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card will earn 2x points per dollar spent on “travel,” but a close reading of the offer reveals that it counts passenger trains, buses, taxis, limousines, ferries, toll bridges and highways—even parking lots and garages.
And when the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card offers 2x points for entertainment purchases, it includes live theatrical productions, concerts, live sporting events, movie theaters, and amusement parks. You even get the bonus at zoos, aquariums, circuses, and carnivals. Finally it also counts museums, art galleries, record stores, and on-demand internet streaming media.
On the flip side, some cards that give you bonus rewards on grocery purchases may not pay out when you buy groceries from Target, WalMart or wholesale clubs.
If you don’t want to bother with carrying more than one credit card, most rewards cards give you roughly the same amount back when you use them for all your spending. To get the most out of rewards cards, you need to optimize for what gives you the most back for the stuff you spend money on most.
Even carrying one additional rewards card can significantly boost your annual rewards. If you’re just getting started, considering pairing a card offering 1.5 percent back or higher on everything with the Chase Freedom or Discover it® Cash Back cards (for rotating 5 percent categories, $1,500 max spend, activation required) or the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card (for extra rewards on your choice category and groceries).