Using one rewards card consolidates points, but having several lets you be sure every dollar spent earns you something back
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Dear Cashing In,
Should I get one credit card to do all of my purchases wherever they may be or separate credit cards for things like clothes, groceries and utility bills? I would like to receive frequent flier miles or cash-back rewards. — Jason
You’re raising an important question. Not so many years ago, there was little advantage in holding multiple cards for the purpose of accumulating rewards, since cards earned more or less the same amount of reward points for all purchases. Now, though, there are so many different cards that offer what are known as “category bonuses” that it a wise strategy may be to divide your spending to earn additional reward points, frequent flier miles or cash.
Let’s start with the notion of using a single card for all your purchases. Many Americans rely primarily on a single credit card — one they probably have had for at least several years. They found a rewards program they like and are sticking with it.
The advantages here are that by using a single card, you’re consolidating your rewards in one program. If you charge $30,000 a year on credit cards, that’s probably 30,000 frequent flier miles, which is typically enough for a free domestic round-trip airfare in coach. If you had split that spending among five cards, that’s only an average of $6,000 a year on each card — probably not enough for big rewards.
In addition, relying on a single card is easy to manage, and you don’t have to worry about multiple annual fees coming due and eating into your rewards.
But if you’re interested in maximizing your rewards on every dollar you spend, juggling multiple cards can be an approach worth considering.
That $30,000 you spend a year on credit cards could translate to many more than 30,000 points or miles or significant cash back. For instance, if you spend a lot of money at supermarkets, gas stations and department stores, you could find cards that give bonuses at those places. Depending on how much you spend, you could dramatically increase your rewards. They’d likely be points in a bank’s reward program or cash back — not frequent flier programs (although many bank programs allow you to convert points into frequent flier miles).
Continuing with our example, you could apply for an American Express Blue Cash Preferred card to cover your groceries and gas expenses ($75 annual fee, 6 percent cash back at supermarkets, up to $6,000 a year, and 3 percent cash back at gas stations with no limit) and a U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature card for your department store spending (no annual fee, 5 percent cash back on two categories you choose every quarter, capped at $2,000 per quarter). Just maximizing the grocery and department store spending translates to $760 cash back per year, and that doesn’t include spending on gas or any other category. That $760 is probably greater than the cost of the free plane ticket you earned with the single card, so you come out ahead — even when you factor in the $75 AmEx annual fee.
Those cards are just two examples of the many cards out there that offer category bonuses, so take some time to research ones that line up with your spending habits and reward preferences.
Or, you could use CreditCards.com’s WalletUp tool, which crunches the numbers by examining your spending and recommends reward cards. There are similar tools available elsewhere. Most (including the one from CreditCards.com) are powered by Wallaby Financial, which also offers an app that suggests which card to use to maximize rewards when shopping. (Disclosure: CreditCards.com’s parent company, Bankrate Inc., acquired Wallaby in December.)
Personally, when it comes to a reward card strategy, I favor a balanced strategy, with a few different cards in my wallet that I use to take advantage of category bonuses. But I try not to have so many that my rewards are spread too thinly.
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