How pairing two cards can boost your rewards

When it comes to credit card rewards, some people double up

Tony Mecia
Personal Finance Writer
Rewards expert who writes the "Cashing In" reader Q&A column for CreditCards.com

How to pair your cards to maximize rewards

When we think of pairings, we often think of what drinks best accompany a certain food. A glass of red wine pairs well with a steak. A cold beer pairs well with pizza.

When it comes to credit card rewards, some people also use pairings. But the idea has nothing to do with food. Rather, it is a concept that relies on using two main credit cards instead of just one to maximize rewards. You combine the strengths of each card and wind up with more rewards than you would if you relied on just one.

Most people primarly use one rewards card that is in tune with the rewards they like to receive. People who enjoy free flights might lean heavily on an airline card. Free hotel rooms? A hotel card. Flexibility in rewards? A bank rewards card. And people who prefer statement credits go with cash back cards. There is nothing wrong with that approach, but let’s look at how relying on two main cards instead of one can increase your rewards.

Let’s say that the card you like the most is the Citi ThankYou Premier card:

Citi ThankYou Premier *

  • Annual fee: $95
  • Earning: 3 points per $1 on travel and gas stations, 2 points per $1 on dining and entertainment, 1 point per $1 on all else
  • Redeeming: ThankYou points can be redeemed for travel, merchandise, gift cards or cash

The card gives you category bonuses on travel, gas, dining and entertainment, and you have flexibility in how you redeem the points. For the sake of illustration, let’s say you spend $12,000 a year on it, and that 20 percent of your spending is on travel and another 20 percent on dining out.

At the end of the year, you would have 19,200 points from using that card. On Citi’s website, you could redeem that number of points for $240 worth of travel.

But let’s look what happens if you were to pair the Citi ThankYou Premier card with a second card. In selecting a second card, the key is to find one that gives more points than just the 1 per $1 on the non-travel and dining spending. Then, you use the Citi card for travel and dining and the second card for everything else.

Let’s say you go with a cash back card, such as the Citi Double Cash:

Citi Double Cash *

  • Annual fee: None
  • Earning: 1 point per $1 on every purchase, plus 1 point per $1 upon payment of card
  • Redeeming: Check or statement credit

This card gives you essentially 2 percent back on every purchase, assuming you pay off your card on time and in full every month. If you were to use the ThankYou Premier card for the travel and restaurant spending, you would have 12,000 ThankYou points at the end of the year, which are worth $150 in travel credits. Plus, you would have $144 in statement credits from the Citi Double Cash. So using the two cards, with the same amount and distribution of spending, you would have earned the equivalent of $294, instead of the $240 if you had only the Citi ThankYou Premier card.

Like food and drinks, there are many possible pairings that make sense. The key is to find a secondary card that rewards you with more than 1 point per $1 on spending for which you cannot earn category bonuses, such as buying movie tickets or charging a copay at a doctor’s office. If you like cash, find a card that gives 1.5 percent or 2 percent back. If you like travel, consider a card such as the Capital One Venture * (annual fee: $95, waived the first year) or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard * (annual fee: $89, waived the first year), which give the equivalent of 2 percent back to redeem on travel.

Everybody has different preferences, but there is probably some combination of two cards that works best for you.

*The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date. Please see the bank’s website for the most current version of card offers.

See related: Earning points when renting a car, Keeping tabs on your rewards cards


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Updated: 11-20-2017