Make most of credit card cash-back offers

March 11, 2009


Consumer Reports Money Adviser often reports on the credit card industry’s anti-consumer practices like high fees, unexpected interest-rate hikes and difficult-to-understand terms. In this ugly economic climate, many cardholders are facing tightened credit lines and jacked-up interest rates, even as issuers prepare to comply with new federal rules that curb some of their most egregious practices.

But other consumers, specifically people who never carry a balance and always pay their bills on time, can actually make their cards work for them rather than against them. Despite the tough economy, some cards still offer good cash rewards.

CRMA’s experts deemed the following the best cash-back cards: Blue Cash from American Express, Capital One No Hassle Cash Rewards, Citi Cash Returns Cards, Discover More and TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express.

Consumer Reports Money Adviser recently compiled eight strategies for picking the right cards and getting the greatest benefit from them:

1. Put rewards on autopilot. A few cards require calling the issuer to request a rebate, while others automatically send it when the user hits a certain threshold. Still others, like Blue Cash from American Express, credit cardholders’ accounts at the end of the year. Either way, look for a card that gives rewards without any prompting.

2. Pick a card based on habits. Some cash-back cards give you a flat amount based on all your purchases regardless of how much you spend. Others have tiers with different levels of rewards depending on how much you spend and where you spend it. Amex Blue Cash offers 1 percent to 5 percent cash back for purchases at supermarkets, gas stations and drugstores. But the 5 percent reward kicks in only for new purchases made after spending $6,500 in a year.

3. Use rebate cards frequently. Instead of paying cash, use rebate cards when shopping to get the most cash back. Supermarket and drugstore purchases often earn rewards at a higher rate than some other categories of spending. But Consumer Reports Money Adviser warns that people tend to spend more with rebate cards, so be sure to stay within budget.

4. Look at rewards as an investment. Charles Schwab recently introduced a card that gives 2 percent rewards that are deposited into a taxable investment account. Fidelity has a card that offers 2 percent rewards and puts the money into an Individual Retirement Account. Both the Schwab and Fidelity cards have no annual fee and no limits on the amount of cash cardholders can earn. Schwab, however, charges a $50 transaction fee to buy many low-cost mutual funds, like those from Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, or Vanguard.

5. Check out small-business cards. Small-business cards often pay better rewards than consumer cards. And many of the cards are available to people who don’t think of themselves as businesses. Someone who does freelance work or even sells things over eBay occasionally might qualify.

6. Stay away from most points cards. Rewards cards that pay points that are redeemable for other purchases are less generous than cash-back cards, according to the editors of Consumer Reports Money Adviser. Cash-back programs are cheaper to run, so card companies can be more aggressive with the rewards they offer.

7. Avoid most airline cards, but ... With some airlines in precarious financial condition, a card that gives miles or points might be useless if the company goes belly-up. The best tactic is to get a credit card with a great sign-up bonus and then cancel it after earning a trip. And book the trip as soon as the points have been earned.

8. Make use of introductory offers. This is an aggressive move that might make sense for people facing large purchases that might not be paid off at the end of the month. Open a card with a no-interest offer for 12 months, make the large purchase with it and earn the cash-back rewards for that purchase. At the end of the 12 months, transfer that balance to a card offering a no-fee, no-interest balance transfer for six months.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.