In the world of personal finance, the couple hundred bucks a year you might earn from credit card rewards isn’t a big deal. I’ll bet you can find five ways to better optimize your finances.
Still, if you’re like me, you probably enjoy playing the game…”How much can I get back for stuff I’m already gonna buy?”
For everybody else, you might be wondering, am I getting the most from my credit card rewards? Consider the different ways you can redeem credit card rewards — straight 1% cash back, points exchanged for gift cards, or travel points and frequent flyer miles.
Can you beat a penny?
When all is said and done, credit card points are worth, on average, a penny a piece.
Many traditional “point-based” rewards credit cards make you spend more points to get cash or a cash equivalent rewards (e.g. a Visa gift card) than to get branded gift cards or merchandise, lessening the points’ value. No thanks.
The value of credit card “miles” is a mixed bag. Can you snag an award ticket for 25,000 miles that’s worth $300 or more? Perhaps, although it’s not easy, and the majority of tickets you’ll find for so few miles may cost less than $200 in cash. If, however, you use miles to travel internationally—or, in first class seats—credit card miles can actually be worth $0.05 or more a piece.
Then again, at the end of the day, cash is cash. You know what you’re going to get.
WHY MILES CREDIT CARDS EXIST
Since I started writing about personal finance nearly eight years ago, I’ve become fascinated by the well-oiled credit card marketing machine. (For example, did you know you might get an offer for a credit card offering a 0% intro APR for six months and 18% regular APR when you could apply for the EXACT SAME card online and get a 0% APR for 18 months and a 12% APR?) It happens all the time.
Years ago, the best credit cards were the ones with the lowest interest rates, longest grace periods, and lowest annual fees. Today, those features are still important, but the rewards a credit card offers plays a much bigger role in how we choose credit cards.
Unfortunately, many consumers (those who carry credit card balances) will choose credit cards based upon rewards when they should be looking at interest rates.
I have this theory that credit card companies created miles credit cards because the idea of a earning a “free” vacation is more titillating than simply getting cash back and, therefore, is apt to get us to spend more (in the name of chasing rewards) for miles that are actually worth less than the credit card would pay us in pure cash back. Take the miles credit card du jour, the Capital One Venture Card. with its ads starting the somehow endearing Vikings plowing their way through Las Vegas and a beach resort.
Capital One and other credit card issues are trying to sell
you a credit card based upon the fantasy of a free vacation.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this:
- It takes a lot of rewards to earn a vacation, or a even a flight.
- The value of a mile all depends on how you decide to cash it in…for most people, miles are only worth about a penny.
- In which case you could choose a credit card that gives you a penny or more back in cash for every $1 spent.
Even a few years ago, only a few credit cards offered cash rewards, now you have several options for strict cash back cards .
Among Money Under 30 readers, these cards are popular. I recently asked my Facebook fans to chime in on the question of miles versus cash rewards, and the response was about 75% in favor of cash. Here’s a peak:
Surprised? I’m not. After all, cash is cash. It doesn’t expire, and there are no blackout dates.
WHEN FREQUENT FLYER MILES DO MAKE SENSE
If you are a miles guy or gal, relax, I’m not trashing the concept of credit card miles altogether. There are places that earning miles make sense. Primarily: If you take frequent international flights and/or you like the luxury of flying first class (at least when it’s free).
Whatever do I mean?
The fact is, frequent flyer miles (including credit card miles) are worth much more per mile when redeemed for long-haul flights and business or first class seats. Take a look:
If you simply redeem frequent flyer miles for a domestic ticket that normally would only cost a couple hundred bucks, the results are terrible — you get less than a penny per mile! Worse that if you just earned 1% cash back.
But look what happens when you cash in miles for a more expensive ticket. The value per mile goes up to a penny and a half or even 3 cents if you save them up for a trip across the Pacific in business class. (Depending on the route and schedule, these seats can sell for $10K or more).
WHEN AIRLINE CREDIT CARDS MAKE SENSE
I have both a cash back credit card (Chase Freedom ) and an airline card (Delta SkyMiles American Express ).
Why the Delta Amex?
If you fly frequently enough on one particular airline (most likely for work), then carrying that airline’s branded credit card may make sense, even if you pay an annual fee. For me, using this card and flying Delta a few times a year gets me into their lowest level of elite status, meaning I score free first class upgrades when available. It comes with free checked bags and a free companion ticket once a year — perks that are easily worth more than the annual fee.
Here’s a look at a few of the leading U.S. Airline credit cards and their perks: