How to shop for the best rewards credit card for you
There are plenty of great deals out there, but you must do your homework first
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.
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Dear Opening Credits,
Let's say you have great credit, do everything right and charge a decent amount every month. What credit card(s) should you have? What is the easiest way to get the most points or cash back or whatever? Also, should you upgrade from the AmEx green card? An airline card? How do you get the most bang for your spending in a hassle free fashion? I personally find this completely baffling and tiresome, so I still have the same credit cards I got when I was 18, and don't take advantage of points, miles, etc., because it's too much trouble. Lame, I know. What are your thoughts? -- Heather
Like many successful longtime cardholders, you have taken the easy credit route. You've chosen one vehicle, stuck to the straight road and stayed clear of trouble. Crash and burn? Not you!
By doing so, you've created an excellent history of borrowing and repaying money, which is wonderful. While there is nothing wrong with sticking to your tried and true card, there are some benefits to having a long and positive credit history that you would be wise to take advantage of.
First, check your credit report and credit scores. It's important to know precisely how great you really are before the application process. This way, you can go for the very best account for which you're probably eligible.
Now think about what you want out of a credit card. Clearly, you have a basic product that is offering you few, if any, extras. Are you a traveler? Then, yes, it would be wise to look into a credit or charge card that offers points redeemable for such goodies as airline miles plus seating and hotel upgrades. If you would prefer to have the cash back option -- where your charges earn you points redeemable for currency -- fabulous! That would be the card that would work best for you. And almost all rewards cards let you trade in points for a wide array of goods and services.
Once you know what you want, take a look at the cards that fulfill those desires. I know it can at first seem confusing to examine what each company is offering, but once you begin, you'll find that it's really not. In fact, CreditCards.com has simplified the process with its "Shop by credit card profile" feature to narrow down your choices. For example, it seems you're a "Transactor," which means you use credit regularly and pay your bills in full each month. Click on that profile and you'll be presented with the cards that come with rewards programs.
There really are some exciting deals out there, such as one that allows you to earn two miles for each dollar you spend. American Express is known for its products that offer travel perks, but there are plenty of others. Read the information carefully and pay close attention to the benefits that you will really use. (For example, if you're not a sports fan, why would you care that a card could get you premium seating at sporting events?). You should also be aware of the credit rating you'll need for approval.
When you find the product that has everything you want and for which you're a likely candidate, great. Apply for it. Notice I say "it," not "them." Singular. You do not want to start randomly applying for any old account, as an overabundance of such inquiries will drop your score a bit.
Once you get the card, use it and start building points. Do not, however, close your old credit card. You've established a beautiful history of paying with it. Keep it active by using it every once in a while.
Yes, Heather, all of this takes a bit of work and time, but the effort will pay off. I hate to think that you're missing out on free air tickets, cash, toasters and the like -- all because you're hesitant to verge into the fast lane!
See related: Credit Card Help: Everything you need to know about credit reports and credit scores
Erica Sandberg is a nationally renowned personal finance authority. She’s host of several financial web shows, and a frequent guest for media outlets such as Fox, Forbes, Nightly Business Report and NPR. Erica previously was affiliated with Consumer Credit Counseling Service and was KRON-TV’s on-air credit expert. Her book, "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families," was published in 2008 by Kaplan Press.
Send your question to Erica.
Published: December 15, 2010