About a quarter of cardholders didn’t tap into their credit card rewards, leaving money on the table. For those who did redeem, cash back and gift cards were the most popular options across all age groups.
Most people would probably say the thrill of credit card rewards comes from redeeming their rewards rather than the process of earning them. Yet, a recent CreditCards.com survey finds a solid number of credit card holders (23 percent) didn’t redeem their rewards in the past year.
However, there’s been an improvement compared to the 31 percent of survey respondents who hadn’t taken advantage of their rewards, according to a similar Bankrate survey from January 2021. The results may not be comparable, though, considering the 2021 survey covered an unusual pandemic-influenced 12-month period in 2020.
Who is leaving money on the table?
Younger people are more likely to have made use of their rewards, with just 15 percent of millennials and 18 percent of Generation Z not having tapped into them, compared to 28 percent of Generation X and baby boomers, respectively.
Interestingly, more women (27 percent) than men (20 percent) failed to make use of their credit card rewards.
Breaking it down by income, lower-income households were more likely to have left their rewards unused. Those with annual household incomes of less than $50,000 (31 percent) were most likely to not have tapped into their credit card rewards. In comparison, 22 percent of those with incomes between $50,000 and $79,999 and 20 percent of those in the $80,000 to $99,999 range failed to make use of their rewards. And only 12 percent of those with income of $100,000 or higher left their rewards unused.
Cash back and gift cards hold universal appeal
Cash back and gift cards were the most popular redemption categories with cardholders who did make use of their rewards, with 55 percent of respondents choosing those options. Seventeen percent of respondents earned $300 or more in cash back or gift cards, while 38 percent got some value, but it was less than $300.
Travel redemptions were also popular, with 16 percent of rewards credit card holders cashing in their rewards for a free hotel stay and 13 percent for a free flight. The travel category appealed most to young adults, while cash back and gift card redemptions were universally popular across generations (with more than 50 percent of each cohort going for this option).
Gen Zers (28 percent) and millennials (26 percent) were more likely to get a free hotel stay for their rewards compared to Gen Xers (12 percent) and boomers (7 percent). Free flights also appealed more to Gen Zers (21 percent) and millennials (19 percent) and less to boomers (10 percent) and Gen Xers (9 percent).
It makes sense that most people are opting for cash back redemptions, says Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. “Cash back is very simple, straightforward and universal,” Rossman says. “Who couldn’t use more cash, right? Especially with high inflation and rising interest rates squeezing consumers, I believe that now is an especially good time to take advantage of credit card rewards.”
Rossman advises that credit card rewards, when used wisely, can help consumers battle inflation, much like putting your unused gift cards to work.
Waiting for the right redemption opportunity
So, why would consumers not take advantage of their credit card rewards? Of those who didn’t cash in their rewards, 51 percent were waiting for a specific opportunity to make use of them. Twenty-three percent said they didn’t think their rewards points or miles were worth redeeming considering their low value.
There were also those who didn’t know how to redeem (11 percent), as well as others who saw rewards programs as too confusing (9 percent). A few responded “I’m too busy” (9 percent).
Don’t leave money on the table
The average annual expenditure for a household in 2021 was $66,928, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and half of this expenditure (about $33,000) can be put on a credit card (excluding expenses such as mortgage and car payments, for instance, which wouldn’t easily qualify). That means the typical household could put around $3,000 on a credit card each month.
Rossman points out that even if cardholders get a flat 2 percent return on that $33,000 using a no annual fee card (such as the Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card or Citi Double Cash® Card), they would get $660 in cash back rewards each year.
If you want to be more strategic, you could earn 6 percent cash back on groceries at U.S. supermarkets (though there’s a $6,000 spending cap per year, then you’ll earn 1 percent) with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. Alternatively, you can earn 5 percent cash back on various bonus categories with the Chase Freedom Flex℠* or Discover it® Cash Back (both of which cap purchases at $1,500 per quarter, then 1 percent), as well as the Citi Custom Cash® Card (up to $500 in purchases per billing cycle, then 1 percent).
Travel rewards are also good and can be even more lucrative than cash back, but they may not suit everyone. They also tend to be more complicated than cash back, says Rossman. “Still, as long as you’re paying in full and avoiding interest and overspending, rewards are free money. How you use them is your personal preference. I like to use my rewards credit cards for as many purchases as possible,” he notes. This strategy earned him more than $1,700 in rewards last year.
According to a recent Bankrate debt survey, 54 percent of credit card holders pay off their credit card debt in full every month (or are transactors), which makes this group good candidates for rewards. However, with the national average credit card APR at a record 20.35 percent (at the time of writing), you should focus on getting the lowest rate rather than chasing rewards.
This survey was conducted by YouGov Plc on behalf of CreditCards.com. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov. Total sample size was 2,417 U.S. adults, of whom 1,566 are rewards credit card holders. Fieldwork was undertaken from Feb. 21 to Feb. 23, 2023. This survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18 and over).
*Information about the Chase Freedom Flex has been collected independently by CreditCards.com. The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.