Maximize points by shifting spending to a rewards card

Some types of purchases are hard to put on a card


Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
Can I use my rewards card to pay my cellphone bill or mortgage and receive reward points? In fact, can I use it for any bill-paying and receive points? – Vikki

Answer Dear Vikki,
One of the easiest ways to rack up reward points is to shift spending onto your cards. I’m not talking about creating new expenses, or charging more than you can afford.

Rather, I’m saying examine what you are now paying directly from your bank account, and see if you can instead charge those expenditures onto a rewards-earning card. Then pay off that card every month from your bank account.

Over time, this approach will pad your reward balances. Of course, you actually have to pay off the charges on time every month.

Even the smallest expenses can add up. If you’re accustomed to paying cash twice a week for a $5 latte, you receive no rewards for that caffeine injection. In a year, you spend $520 on lattes. For most cards, that’s 520 points you won’t receive. Or on a card with double points at restaurants, that’s 1,040 points gone. You do that over 10 years, and that’s thousands of points you have left on the table. You get the idea.

I try to charge everything I can, including coffee, tips and utility bills. My electric company charges a convenience fee of about $2 for credit card payments, but I’m OK with that. Most other bills, including cellphone bills, can be paid with a credit card for no fee.

The major exceptions, though, are mortgage and rent payments, car payments, investment payments and credit card bills – those typically cannot be paid by credit card. Or if you find a way, like a service that pays those bills for you, the fees are usually prohibitive.

If you look at government data on average household expenditures, you’ll see that many expenses can go on a credit card. The average household spends just shy of $55,000 a year. Here are the major categories, with annual average spending, and the prospects for paying by credit card.

Spending category Average annual cost Card outlook
Housing $18,128 Poor. Generally can’t charge mortgage payments or rent.
Transportation $9,315 Good. Vehicle maintenance, public transit tickets can generally be paid by card, and possibly auto insurance.
Food $6,887 Good. Restaurants and grocery stores widely accept credit cards.
Personal insurance, pensions $6,048 Poor. It’s generally tough to charge life and disability insurance premiums as well as retirement savings.
Health care $4,379 Mixed. If you have health insurance through a job, premiums likely are deducted from your paycheck. But any share you owe a doctor or hospital can usually be paid with credit.
Entertainment $2,782 Good. Depends on what you do, but most can probably be paid with credit.
Gasoline $2,094

Excellent. Paying at the pump with credit is nearly universal.

Apparel and services $1,885

Good to excellent. It's rare to have a clothing store that does not accept cards.

Education $1,362 Mixed. Some schools allow you to charge tuition bills, but others pass along hefty fees.

This analysis suggests that nearly half of the expenditures of an average U.S. household can be placed on a credit card.

To see if you’re charging as much as you can every month, look at your checking account statement and identify any expenses paid from it that could go on your card and earn you greater rewards.

See related: Which colleges accept credit cards for tuition

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Published: August 2, 2016

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Updated: 10-25-2016

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