5 ways to maximize card rewards earning potential

No. 1: Decide what you want to do with the rewards that you'll be racking up

Sienna Kossman
Personal finance writer
Statistics enthusiast focused on data-driven content

5 ways to maximize card rewards earning potential in 2018

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You’ve got a wallet full of credit cards. Some of them may earn rewards, others may not, and you aren’t sure when you last checked your reward balances, let alone redeemed them for a statement credit or free travel.  

Whether you’ve only dabbled with card rewards or just need to get back in the game, here are five tips to help you refine your rewards habits:

1. Set a goal and make a plan to reach it.

Before doing anything else, decide what you want to do with the rewards you will be working so hard to rack up.

“The reason you are playing with rewards is to get something out of them, so take the time to actually make sure you can do just that – and get what you want,” said Herb White, chief lending officer for Sharonview Federal Credit Union.

For example, maybe you want to plan a trip for your family of four and know the average airline ticket costs 50,000 points each. If you need four tickets, that’s 200,000 points you need to rack up.

Use this goal to strategically charge any large planned expenses of 2018. Maybe you’ll be back-to-school shopping for a new college student this summer or paying for a remodeling project this spring. Putting such large expenses on a rewards card will help you more quickly reach that desired point level.

Or maybe both you and your spouse could apply for an airline card to double up on a sign-up bonus.

“Plan ahead,” White said. “Be deliberate with the plastic you pull out of your wallet: What are you doing? What do you want to use it for? How much will this plan cost? If you want to do something using credit card rewards, that’s great, but you have to be mindful of what you need to do to get there.”

2. Focus on the cards that fit your goals and lifestyle.

There is a wide variety of rewards cards, and it can be tempting to apply for the first great card offer you see. However, just because the temptation of an initial generous sign-up bonus of rewards points or cash back sounds great doesn’t mean you should apply.

If you’re in the market for a new rewards card or just reviewing the cards currently filling up your wallet, consider how you can realistically take advantage of them.

“Go back to your budget and find out where you spend most of your money and then look for a card that gives you the most rewards for that category,” said White.

“If you are spending a ton of money each month on gas because you have an hour commute each day, get one that gives bonus points for that.”

If your work frequently takes you out of the country, relying on your favorite airline’s credit card for such expenses will quickly earn you rewards on everything tied to your business travel, provided you are allowed to use your personal card for which you get reimbursed.

However, if you’re a homebody, a general-purpose cash back credit card that rewards you for routine grocery purchases, gas tank fill-ups and the occasional dinner out will better serve you in the long run.

Don’t be so “wowed” by marketing hype and what seems like a great deal if the upside of having that card wouldn’t matter in your life,” said Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, CEO of TheMoneyCoach.net.

3. Get used to using your rewards card for everyday spending.

To quickly bulk up rewards earnings or meet the minimum spend requirement for a new introductory rewards card bonus offer, it’s critical to get comfortable using credit for as many of your everyday purchases as possible.

"The reason you are playing with rewards is to get something out of them, so take the time to actually make sure you can do just that – and get what you want."

“My biggest tip for maximizing rewards is to put large purchases on the card, such as a down payment on a car, furniture and other long-term purchases,” said Conrad Magalis, marketing manager for First Western Bank & Trust.

“Then pay off the purchases immediately, as if you were paying with cash,” he said. “A purchase of $2,000 on a card with 1.5 percent cash back amounts to $30 of free money.”

However, it’s the everyday purchases that can also really add up.

“Did you know that some utility payments can be made online with a Visa or Mastercard?” asked Jeff White, financial analyst for FitSmallBusiness.com. “That means you may be able to use your credit card to pay for something you pay for every month anyway. 

“This can help you max out on rewards,” Jeff White said. “While you shouldn’t charge more than you can afford to spend in any given month, you should maximize the amount you spend on your card by putting every expense you can on those cards.”

Just avoid charging any bills that tack on a convenience fee for using credit. And be sure to have a repayment plan in place, such as paying the card bill online every week or using an app such as Debitize, which instantly repays your card purchases from your checking account.

The No. 1 rule with rewards cards is to never carry a balance as interest charges negate the value of any rewards you earn.

4. Consider using multiple cards to take advantage of spending categories.

To best use your rewards cards, you may want to spread expenses across multiple cards that will reward you more through rotating or periodic bonus categories.

“For example, if you spend a lot on gas, then you could have a card that pays you up to 5 percent for money spent on gas. That could be used as your gas-only card,” Jeff White said.

A variety of cards on the market would fit such a need.

For example, Bank of America’s Cash Rewards Visa offers 3 percent cash back on all gas purchases while Chase Freedom offers rotating 5 percent back categories throughout the year, and includes gas stations from now until March 31, 2018.

Then, “you may have another card that gives you more back for travel expenses than any other purchase,” Jeff White added. This is where a travel-focused card that awards miles, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards card, would come in handy.

"Consumers who are diligently spending on a card each month to earn rewards should set attainable goals and redeem rewards once they are reached."

Switching between cards based on each purchase can get confusing, so consider downloading a free app that will tell you what card in your wallet is best for each transaction to maximize reward earnings.

Free options include CreditCards.com’s Wallet or TPG To Go. To let you know when new rotating or bonus rewards categories begin, set phone calendar alerts to so you don’t miss out on new offerings.

5. Keep an eye on important card dates and details.

Take note of any earnings caps or expiration dates associated with the rewards card programs you’re using.

“Some cards have rules that if you don’t use your rewards in, like, a three-year period, you lose them,” Herb White said.

“Consumers who are diligently spending on a card each month to earn rewards should set attainable goals and redeem rewards once they are reached instead of just sitting on piles of rewards if expiration dates are a concern.”

Start by reviewing the terms associated with each rewards program. Issuers are required to disclose all fees, important dates and stipulations associated with each card program in your cardholder agreement.

You’ll then need to establish a rewards-tracking routine to stay on top of each program.

One option could be creating a simple spreadsheet with card names, reward balances, upcoming fees and expiration dates and update it periodically. 

Also, be mindful of when annual fees are due, introductory rate offers end and spending criteria to obtain a new bonus rewards offer need to be met. Missing the date associated with each of these card terms could cause you to miss out on extra rewards or cost you unnecessary funds.

There’s really no reason anyone should be forgetting to use their card rewards these days with all the resources available. Organizing and tracking this data requires minimal effort.

See related: Maximizing card rewards after you’ve earned the sign-up bonus, 7 ways you can lose credit card rewards points


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Updated: 02-25-2018