Consumer finance expert, author and “Opening Credits” columnist.
Sharing assets may be essential in a relationship, but it’s not always easy, especially when it comes to sharing credit card rewards.
One person may want to redeem miles or points for a vacation, while the other may be eager to cash them in for a deck full of gift cards. The person who worked the hardest to build the cache of rewards or who actually applied for the account may feel a heightened sense of ownership. But how should they be doled out in a way that makes everyone happy?
A certain amount of possessiveness is understandable, considering the amount of effort it takes to obtain and manage rewards cards effectively. A J.D. Power 2018 Credit Card Satisfaction Survey found that 47 percent of credit card customers who switched to a new card over the past year did so in active pursuit of a better rewards program – which makes sense, since cardholders can earn anything from cash to airfare.
There’s no reason to squabble over the spoils, say the experts and couples who share credit card rewards nicely yet in different ways. Here’s how to know when (and when not to) divvy the rewards.
See related: How couples can double up on card rewards
A guide to sharing card rewards
When the rewards might be ‘yours’ or ‘ours’
Acting as a unit doesn’t mean you always participate equally in the credit card management department. Maybe you laboriously researched which credit card had the most generous sign-up bonus and perks, applied and was approved for the account based on your own high credit rating and income, and then single-handedly met the minimum spend required to get the bonus.
After that, you carefully handled the account so it always remained in good standing and built the rewards with mindful charging. In that case, claiming the goodies for yourself may be reasonable – as long as an understanding is reached early on between you and your partner.
Holly Wolf, a director of customer engagement from Reading, Pennsylvania, takes this individualized approach to credit card rewards with her husband, and it works well.
“His credit card is predominately for work-related expenses since he is self-employed and uses his rewards for things he wants, like hunting trips and flights,” says Wolf. “My credit card is mostly for joint-related expenses, such as appliances, repairs and everyday expenses.”
The separate rewards accumulation and redemption strategy is not problematic for the Wolfs, as both parties are aware of, and have accepted, the arrangement. Nothing is covert; the arrangement clear cut.
See related:Best rewards cards for newly married couples
When card rewards might be ‘ours’
The scenario changes if you both plan to use the rewards for a predetermined goal. Then the rewards are firmly in the “our” category, no matter who opened the card or has done the legwork. If one or both of you have been charging in just the right way so you’ll save enough points to cover the cost of a second honeymoon, do not tap into them for your personal use unless you get the go-ahead from your partner.
Alex Tran, a Seattle travel blogger, and her husband, have taken the couples-approach to rewards amassment and redemption. Although they each have credit cards in their own names, they use the cards the same way and for the same purpose.
“We pay almost all our expenses using reward cards,” says Tran. “We optimize which cards to use when dining out, grocery shopping, shopping online, etc. There’s almost a bonus for every [spending] category now and we love it.” And how do they use those rewards? “One hundred percent of the points go to travel,” says Tran.
See related:How credit cards cut the costs of your wedding
Rewards ownership unclear? Better talk about it
When your lives are merged, what each of you does with plastic affects the other to at least some degree. That goes for liabilities as well as assets, such as rewards points or miles.
As illustrated by the Wolfs and the Trans, rewards points ownership can be perceived in two basic ways. The first is that they’re the personal property of the account owner or the person who toiled for them. The second is a group ownership mindset, where each person is equally entitled to the rewards as they work together toward a goal.
Any difference in perception can cause discord when it comes time to cash out, says Jacquette M. Timmons, a financial behaviorist and author of “Financial Intimacy.” There’s only one way to know where each of you stands and that’s to discuss how you feel about credit card reward point accumulation and division. As soon as a relationship takes a serious, positive, turn, discuss your attitudes and expectations about all things money, including credit.
Prepare for an emotional conversation, even when it’s about something as trite as credit card rewards. Financial talks can bring up feelings of independence and power, so the discussion can turn testy.
“It’s important for couples to realize they’re not fighting over points,” says Timmons. “It’s about transparency, freedom and flexibility. People are often surprised by how different their partner feels and, yes, it creates tension.”
Hammering out attitudinal differences prior to building and using credit card rewards is ideal. “If you know each other’s values and beliefs regarding point ownership, you’re far less likely to bicker about them,” says Timmons. In other words, you can’t manage expectations without being aware of what they are.
Work toward a common redemption goal
Even if one of you can lay claim to a certain credit card or some of the rewards, consider working toward a common goal anyway.
“Trouble comes when you have a large number of points available, but you both want to use them for different things,” says Chip Munn, a managing partner Signature Wealth Strategies, in Florence, South Carolina. “Rather than focus on what you want individually, I recommend couples look at their bigger picture priorities. The points should be used on something they both want.”
For example, says Munn, you can use any cash-back rewards you’ve built up for things like buying holiday presents or to offset the costs of a family vacation. This allows a combined effort to accrue enough rewards for things that benefit everyone. Plus, this allows couples to free up the cash they would normally use for such expenses on items they want without having to clear it with the other person.
“For example, my wife and I might want lots of different individual items, but as a couple we prioritize quality time with one another and our boys,” says Munn. “Rather than using points on an item that either of us wants, we’ll use the points together on flights or hotel rooms that we’d have otherwise had to buy. Then, we can each use the money we saved to buy items that we really want, some of which aren’t available with points.”
If you take the “mine and yours” rewards approach, having an occasional common rewards goal can be positive for the relationship. “I’ve purchased gift cards for restaurants that we both can enjoy,” says Wolf. “We went on a vacation to Mississippi and Louisiana and used our rewards for airfare, hotel and car rental.” As a couple, you’re free to make and break your own rules, too.
Make sure you both know how a rewards program works
A common source of frustration for couples regarding credit card rewards ownership is when one person is confused about how to earn and spend them. Another key finding of the J.D. Power Survey was that 36 percent of credit card users don’t fully understand rewards programs. If your partner does nothing to make the rewards program lucrative because they didn’t take the time to learn how, resentment can build.
For this reason, both parties need to sit down and learn how a particular card rewards program works. In general, you need to decide whether to choose cards that offer travel rewards or cash back (or both!). That means coming up with a plan of which cards to apply for and how their respective rewards will be used.
Tip: A strategic move some couples make to bump up rewards points is to make each other an authorized user on each other’s rewards cards. Some rewards cards even offer extra points for adding an authorized user. With both of you using the same card, the faster you can rack up points. And always pay off the entire balance each billing period to avoid paying interest, which can negate the value of your rewards points.
That can involve a little research and decision-making as well as knowing which cards you’ll most likely get approved for. Some couples enjoy the card rewards game, or one partner will and the other partner could care less. But if both get on the same page of how the rewards will be redeemed, at least some conflict will be averted.
To find out which cards you and your partner are most likely to qualify for, try out CreditCards.com’s Cardmatch tool.
Once you both decide on a card rewards strategy, you can come together on an even playing field, says R.J. Weiss, a financial planner and blogger.
“The majority of my expertise is in maximizing rewards for family travel,” says Weiss. “We agree that this is the best use of rewards. It’s because we both understand these matters. We make it a shared experience, so we get the highest value out of our points.”
See related:7 ways to track your rewards cards like a pro
No matter who signs up for the card, both should install the issuer’s app on your smartphone or tablet to track the number of points you have or the cash that’s available.
Be sure that each of you steers clear of debt while building points, whether on your own or as a couple, since the interest that will be added to an outstanding balance will override any value you glean from the rewards program. Make a commitment to only use the card when you can pay the entire bill on the date it’s due.
“When you’re in a healthy relationship, there shouldn’t be any major surprises about credit card use, including how you’re using them for points or who owns what rewards,” says Timmons. “You should feel comfortable discussing these things.”