Methodology for Credit Card Reviews
A Detailed Look at Our Evaluation Process
At The Balance, we are dedicated to giving you unbiased, comprehensive credit card reviews. To do this, we collect data on hundreds of cards and score more than 55 features that affect your finances.
Our reviews are always impartial. No one can influence which cards we review, the way we present them to you, or the ratings they receive. The scores and reviews come directly from the data we collect and our editorial expertise. Every attribute we score falls into three categories: cost, rewards value, and convenience.
The Cost of a Credit Card
With credit card debt at an all-time high, we believe you should know the cost of using cards and carrying a balance. Because of that, we heavily weight a card’s APRs and fees in determining their overall scores.
Fees. Every credit card has fees, but the big one most people want to avoid is the annual fee. The higher a card’s annual fee, the lower we score it, because a card with no annual fee is the easiest to manage. We also knock cards for having a high number of overall fees and applying surcharges to foreign transactions and authorized-user cards.
Interest. Most people don’t open a credit card with the intention of going into debt, but a massive amount of people end up in that situation. In May 2019, Americans had $1.07 trillion in revolving debt, the vast majority of which is on credit cards. And for credit card accounts assessing interest, the average APR is 17.14%. Given that credit card interest also compounds—you pay interest on interest—when you don’t pay your whole bill, the cost of credit card debt can really add up.
That’s why we give credit cards’ regular purchase APRs significant bearing on cards’ overall scores. We also look at other common APRs, including penalty APR, intro purchase APR, balance transfer APR (intro and ongoing), and cash advance APR. The higher the rate, the lower the score.
The Value of Points and Miles
Rewards are perhaps the most attractive and most difficult feature to assess when evaluating credit cards. Most people want to take advantage of credit card rewards, but about a third of people with these cards don’t know how to best use them.
There are the points, miles, and cash back you accumulate with purchases, but there are also things like sign-up bonuses, insurance policies, extended warranties, and a slew of other benefits to take into account when determining the value of a credit card. Here’s a breakdown of how we analyze each of these features:
Earning Points, Miles, & Cash Back
Credit card rewards values vary widely. To simplify the problem, we built a system that fairly compares rewards and gives them a dollar value.
We start by looking at a card’s rewards earnings rates, how many rewards tiers a card has, and if it has any limits on how much you can earn. We then look at the ways you can use rewards, but to accurately compare rewards programs, we calculate their rewards-to-dollar exchange rates.
When a rewards program allows you to redeem points for cash back, gift cards, Amazon purchases, or airline miles, we figured out how much a point was worth in each of those situations. Fun fact: Many of those exchange rates are terrible. But for the purposes of scoring a card’s reward value, we looked at the best redemption option. (In our reviews, we tell you what that best option is, as well as the option with the worst value.)
The Little Things That Make Your Life Easier
To determine the level of convenience a card offers, we looked at the features it offers to people in unpleasant situations, like trying to rebuild their credit, seeking customer service assistance, or dealing with a lost card or identity theft.
Credit Score. Our scoring system favors cards that accept lower credit scores, because that lower barrier to entry means the card is a realistic option for more people. We also give a nod to cards that allow people to see if they prequalify before applying and request credit limit increases within the first year of having the card. That’s because having a high credit limit makes it easier to keep your credit utilization lower—the amount you use of your available credit—and that’s a big deal for your credit score.
Customer Experience. Things like a mobile application, online chat services, 24/7 customer service and access to a free credit score are quickly becoming the industry standard—and if a credit card doesn’t offer those tools, we’re not giving them full marks.
Security. No matter what kind of card you have, you’ll almost certainly have to deal with fraudulent charges or the fallout of a data breach at some point. A good credit card gives you tools for dealing with these annoyances. Some features we look for include:
- A $0 fraud liability policy
- Text alerts for suspicious activity
- A virtual card number for extra security when shopping online
- The ability lock your card from your online account,
- Alerts about activity on your credit report or with your Social Security number