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7 overlooked credit card rewards tips

Do you know how to maximize the benefits of your rewards cards? Many people miss these opportunities.

By MSN Money Partner Sep 5, 2012 3:28PM

This post comes from Craig Ford at partner blog Wise Bread.


Wise Bread on MSN MoneyAs someone who advises a lot of people about credit card rewards, I'm often surprised by what the average person forgets to do when it comes to his or her rewards credit cards.


Here are some helpful tips for making the most of your card rewards. (See also: "5 best travel reward credit cards.")


1. Conduct an annual or biannual award card audit.

Image: Female customer handing credit card to receptionist (© PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/PhotoAlto/Getty Images)This is the biggest mistake people make. Ten years ago, you might have done some research and found that card XYZ was the best card (according to your needs) on the market. The result is that 10 years later, you're still using the same card.


Credit card reward earning rates and redemption benefits change. New card offerings can easily make old card offerings obsolete. Recently I was talking with a relative about his use of a certain card, and I realized that by re-evaluating the current card offerings, he would be able to earn an extra $100 to $200 per year.


2. Don't chase after rewards when payments are costing you more.

It's human nature to think that we're smarter than most other people. And it's amazing the number of people who carry a balance on their rewards cards, thinking they are doing something smart because after spending $10,000, they get a $100 reward. The problem is that the $100 award is costing them $1,000 in interest. That simply doesn't make sense.


3. Don't use a point card if the value is less than a penny per point.

I find that our family can easily get a 2-cent to 5-cent value out of each dollar we spend on different credit cards. However, a lot of people will redeem their points at below even a 0.05-cent value. That's a bad idea. If you're not going to redeem your points for valuable items, then you should just use a straight cash-back card that will at least give you 1% to 2% on every purchase. If you're earning less than 1% value from your points, it's time to consider a new card.


When I last checked, you could use your American Express Membership Rewards points to buy an iPod Touch for 71,800 points. The product retails for $359. That means you'd be getting a half-a-cent value out of each point. Interestingly, the iPod Touch is one of the best-sellers at the American Express Membership Rewards site.


Everyone who used Membership Rewards to buy an iPod Touch would have been better off with any card that offered at least 1% cash back. (Post continues below.)

4. Always know the most valuable use of your points or miles.

Free is good, but more free stuff is better.


Remember how I said that it takes 71,800 points to buy an iPod Touch that retails for $359? Here are some other possibilities I found when I wrote this post:

  • You could transfer your points to British Airways and pay 50,000 points plus about $100 in taxes and fees to fly business class between Miami and Lima. That trip was pricing out at Orbitz starting at $1,500.  
  • You could transfer those points to Delta and have enough miles for almost three round-trip tickets anywhere in the U.S. (three tickets would require 75,000 Delta miles). With the average cost of a domestic ticket exceeding $300, that's nearly a $900 value.

It's a bad feeling when you realize you wasted your award points. So, don't spend all your time focusing on how you earn your points. Learn how to maximize using your points as well.


5. Develop a credit card spending strategy.

If you own more than one awards card, do you know which is the best card to use for specific situations? Certain cards offer extra points for gas, office supplies, restaurants, travel, and other specific categories. You must know the best ways to use your cards.


Right now I have three cards that I rotate. How, when and where I use them is determined by the rewards potential of each use. A spending strategy doesn't just consider award benefits, but it also considers other benefits like warranty coverage, rental car benefits, and foreign currency exchange fees.


When used to purchase electronics, American Express cards offer one additional year of extended warranty coverage. When renting cars, you should give consideration to cards that offer primary rental car insurance. And you don't want to spend thousands of dollars on your vacation overseas only to find out that if you had used a different card you could have saved hundreds of dollars in foreign transaction fees. Be sure to use a 0% foreign currency exchange credit card when traveling overseas.


6. Don't overlook a reward card simply because it has an annual fee.

If you can get a good reward card that doesn't have an annual fee, that's great. However, I've known people who could earn a lot more points by using a rewards card with an annual fee but refuse to do it out of principle, even when the rewards value far outweighs the annual fee cost.


Don't pay an annual fee if you're not going to get more awards for doing so. However, I've advised a lot of people to get an award card with an annual fee because they'll actually end up with more rewards value than the cost of the annual fee.

7. Focus on diversity in card brands.

If you have only one type of card -- American Express, Visa or MasterCard -- you'll quickly discover that not all retailers accept all cards. If you're going to have multiple cards, be sure that they are from different companies, as you'll be able to have the most flexibility to maximize the rewards. Often, the rewards are not just spending bonuses, but cards might offer different discounts throughout the year.


For instance, Visa Signature cardholders last month got a free movie ticket when purchasing a ticket on specific days. American Express allows you to sync a card with Twitter to get promotions. By having a diversity of cards, you'll be able to take advantage of all the best current offers each company is promoting.


What other important credit card reward tips do you think people don't follow?


More on Wise Bread and MSN Money:

Sep 5, 2012 4:50PM
Gee - Too bad congress didn't pass the same law for federally insured, or federally owned (Sallie Mae) mortgages.  Perhaps people would have thought twice before buying more house than they can truly afford.
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