People love credit card rewards, but some types are more appealing than others, according to CreditCards.com’s latest poll. Find out what rewards Americans like best and read professionals’ opinions on why.
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Everyone loves credit card rewards. But Americans love one type the best.
In a new poll from CreditCards.com, 31 percent of consumers said 3 percent cash back on all purchases was their No. 1 credit card feature.
And that’s across all age groups, income brackets, Census regions and education levels.
Although that 3 percent cash back perk might sound too good to be true, it exists:
- The Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card offers 3 percent cash back on a select category of your choice, up to $2,500 in spending per quarter.
- The Alliant Visa Signature Card offers 3 percent unlimited cash back in your first year of membership, then 2.5 percent after that.
America’s second-favorite feature, according to 17 percent of those surveyed, is a sign-up bonus worth $500 in cash.
Keep reading to find out more about what rewards people want from their credit cards – and why experts think that’s the case.
Why people like 3 percent cash back the best
Experts agree that consumers probably like 3 percent cash back the best because it’s an ongoing benefit, while sign-up bonuses are a one-time thing.
“Knowing you’re saving a bit of money every time you make a purchase is a good feeling, and it’ll add up over time,” said Nathan Grant, credit industry analyst at Credit Card Insider.
And cash back rewards can easily be credited back to your card account through statement credits, unlike more complex point redemption processes, he added.
“While some cards may offer huge sign-up bonuses or better rewards in a specific category, such as travel purchases, a general 3 percent cash back card lets consumers continue making regular purchases without shaking up their spending habits,” Grant pointed out.
Andrew Marshall, principal at Andrew Marshall Financial, agreed with Grant.
“The issue with credit card rewards and reward programs in general is the difficulty in claiming the reward. For example, a big sign-up bonus isn’t worthwhile if it still takes three times the bonus to get a free flight. A cash back bonus is instant and guaranteed to be useful,” Marshall said.
Judith Corprew, executive vice president and chief compliance and risk officer at Patriot Bank, noted that sign-up bonuses often require additional steps to collect, which might be a reason people prefer cash back rewards.
For example, you typically must spend a certain amount of money in a given period of time to get the bonus.
Or deal with redeeming the bonus through an airline or a retailer.
These additional steps take time and, if you make a mistake, you might not be able to collect the bonus.
“Cash back awards are generally much simpler. You charge a certain amount and get a percentage of that back. Often, you only need to make a few clicks on your credit card’s website,” Corprew said.
See related: Best credit card sign-up bonuses
Cash back rewards: pros and cons
Jared Weitz, CEO and founder of United Capital Source, said getting cash back rewards isn’t best for those carrying debt.
“Many candidates likely see the 3 percent cash back as free money and don’t realize that 0 percent interest is a better financial route to go, especially if they already have debt to manage,” Weitz said.
But, Weitz conceded, “When you compare cash back with, say, a flight reward, cash back feels less restrictive. Many people think they’ll see their cash back sooner than, say, a potential $1,200 on a trip later.”
Weitz also said cash back rewards don’t encourage people to churn credit cards — applying for cards solely to earn sign-up bonuses — like other rewards cards do.
And that’s a good thing.
“Churning cards can have a negative impact on your credit score. Too many inquiries can lower your score and might result in higher interest rates not just for credit cards, but other credit needs you might have, such as home loans,” Weitz said.
Credit card features poll: key findings
Here are some other major findings from our credit card features poll:
- People also like 0 percent interest: Fourteen percent of cardholders said their third favorite reward was 0 percent interest on new purchases for 18 months or billing cycles (the Wells Fargo Platinum card (then 16.99%-26.49% variable APR) and the BankAmericard credit card (then 14.74 percent to 24.74 percent variable APR) both offer this); 12 percent said 0 percent interest on balance transfers for 21 months and 11 percent said a sign-up bonus worth $1,200 toward an airline ticket or hotel stay.
- Respondents with debt chose unwisely: Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com, said respondents with credit card debt chose the wrong answer for their favorite card feature. Twenty-seven percent of those who carry balances month-to-month chose 3 percent cash back, which Rossman thinks is a bad idea if they’re paying close to the national average of 17.71 percent interest. A 0 percent balance transfer for 21 months would be a much better deal for someone with credit card debt, Rossman said.
- Non-travelers chose wisely: Twenty-eight percent of people who haven’t flown or stayed in a hotel over the past year chose sensibly, however, by going with the 3 percent cash back reward, Rossman said.
See related: Best balance transfer credit cards
The survey of 2,522 U.S. adults was conducted online between April 10-12, 2019. See survey methodology
Why would people prefer 3 percent cash back if they’re paying close to 18 percent interest?
One reason people might love 3 percent cash back – even if their interest rate is near 18 percent – is that they pay off their balances each month.
Many of those who qualify for higher rebate credit cards are also the same customers who pay their balances in full each month, said John Madison, CPA and personal financial counselor at Dayspring Financial Ministry.
“There is little, if any, concern about the interest rate on the card,” he said.
But 42 percent of survey respondents – and 51 percent of cardholders — are carrying debt, so why would these people want cash back if they’re paying a high interest rate?
Marshall said he’s seen people who need more than a year of consistent payments to pay off their credit card debt because they don’t have enough cash flow.
“Three percent cash back for them is still attractive. Maybe they just don’t understand the benefit of a balance transfer card, or they don’t believe they will qualify,” Marshall added.
Morris Armstrong, founder and owner of Morris Armstrong EA, said he personally never carries credit card balances so the interest rate wouldn’t be a consideration, either — and the same holds true for most of the clientele he serves at his tax presentation and representation firm.
“I can say, though, that if you are running balances and don’t have a good deal on the rate, that the higher cash back cards might ease that burden — just use the cash to pay the card,” Armstrong added.
Why people often choose the wrong cards
Mark Wilson, founder and president at MILE Wealth Management, isn’t surprised that people don’t always choose the cards that are best for their financial situations.
“Most people are not good with these numbers and aren’t thinking the choice through. And there might not be one best card; a combination of cards is probably best,” Wilson said.
He gave an example of a client who ran up $20,000 in credit card debt from one-time medical bills, which he was looking to pay off in the next three to five years.
Outside of these debt payments, the client averaged $3,000 in monthly spending on food, gas, travel, etc.
Wilson recommends moving that $20,000 balance to a “0 percent for 21 months” card (being careful about the transfer costs) and getting a second, 3 percent cash back card for purchases.
Wilson told the client to pay the cash back card each month in full and pay $500 to $1000 each month on the 0 percent card. He also warned the client not to mix the cards.
Corprew said she often talks about why people — particularly big spenders — choose the wrong cards in a financial literacy program run by Patriot Bank.
Using a credit card too often doesn’t feel like you’re spending. You swipe the card or insert the chip and you get what you want. So, when people use credit cards, they sometimes feel like they’re getting something for free, Corprew added.
“Cash back cards can exacerbate that problem, because credit card users who love to spend feel they ‘earn’ money by spending even more, regardless of high interest rates,” Corprew said.
Make sure you get the most benefits
Like any other financial product, credit cards have important uses.
But it’s essential to figure out how to get the most benefits out of them while avoiding potential pitfalls.
If you use a credit card, you should plan to pay off the statement balance every month to avoid interest charges.
That way, you can build your credit – and claim rewards – without paying to use your own money.
The most profitable way to go is to resist jumping at every new sign-up bonus or rewards offer and instead, get only the cards that fit your spending habits and financial needs.
CreditCards.com commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. The survey of 2,522 U.S. adults was conducted online between April 10-12, 2019. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults (ages 18 and older).
The Bank of America content of this post was updated on Oct. 1, 2019.