It’s no surprise that I’m a big fan of using rewards credit cards and loyalty programs to help save money on my everyday spending. The way I see it, if I’m going to spend the money anyway, I might as well put some money back in my wallet in the form of points or cash back.
Other money experts, however, believe that rewards cards cost you money. Gail Vaz-Oxlade is one such expert and she has some strong words to say about how we “delude ourselves” with rewards cards:
- If you are carrying a balance on your credit card you are trading a 1 percent rebate for 19 percent credit card interest rate. Not a good deal.
- Some rewards cards programs have an annual fee and place restrictions on how you can redeem your points. Members need to weigh the benefits of the rewards that are offered against the fees and restrictions in the program.
- You may be spending more money simply because you have a rewards card. According to a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and reported in The Wall Street Journal, “the initiation of a 1% cash rewards program yielded, on average, a $25 reward each month—and an increase in spending by $68 a month…”
I agree with Gail’s first point – you shouldn’t even consider using rewards cards to justify your spending when you’re carrying a credit card balance from month-to-month. Gail is a big proponent of the cash or envelope system (spend what you have, no more).
My take: I prefer to pay for all of my purchases with a credit card to earn free rewards, instead of using my debit card and paying bank fees, or using cash and earning nothing. It’s that simple.
I couldn’t care less about the interest rate on my credit card since I always pay off my balance in full before the due date.
When I first got into rewards cards I preferred a no annual fee credit card with a straightforward, easy-to-use program. I didn’t want to pay $100 or more each year just for the privilege of receiving rewards that may or may not equal what I could earn on my spending.
But there are a number of high quality credit cards, particularly travel cards, which come with an annual fee but offer a very lucrative rewards program without restrictions. The BMO World Elite MasterCard, for example, has a $150 annual fee, but is arguably the most lucrative travel rewards credit card on the market today.
A loyalty program like Air Miles has the potential to lure you into purchasing more of a certain item or brand because of bonus points (such as, buy 5 and get 100 bonus Air Miles). Consumers need to do the math to see if the featured item is worth purchasing. With an item like cereal, for example, buying 5 boxes to get 100 Air Miles rewards can be worthwhile. 100 Air Miles is worth $10 in free groceries or gas.
So, what about the study that claimed consumers spend more money when they use a rewards credit card?
When I first started using a rewards credit card I immediately looked for ways to maximize my rewards, including setting up pre-authorizations to pay bills online. Of course my spending increased – but it was a conscious transfer from one form of payment to another for the purpose of earning rewards, not a choice to spend more just to earn rewards.
Consolidating your spending onto one or two credit cards with the goal of maximizing rewards is just smart budgeting.
Bottom line: If you have credit card debt, or have trouble controlling your spending from month-to-month, then a rewards credit card isn’t for you.
But high interest rates, annual fees, restrictions on how you can redeem rewards, and overspending just to earn more points aren’t a big deal for someone who pays off their balance, chooses a credit card that matches their spending habits, and smartly earns rewards on purchases they’d make anyway.