The Basics of Rewards Credit Cards

Some credit cards simply charge you interest for using their product. Others offer incentives in the form of credit card rewards.

Credit card rewards come in different forms, but they all provide a benefit for using your card more. The value of the rewards you earn and the types of purchases that earn rewards can vary by credit card.

Types of Credit Card Rewards

Rewards generally fall into one of three categories: cash, points, or miles. The cash rewards can help reduce your credit card balance. Travel rewards can help you earn free trips for yourself and your loved ones. You can use rewards to purchase holiday and birthday gifts. You also can invest the rewards you earn. For example, the Fidelity Investment Rewards Signature Visa puts your rewards into an investment account. The Wells Fargo Cash Wise card uses your rewards to reduce your Wells Fargo mortgage.

Cash Rewards

Cash rewards are the most straightforward and easiest to use, but they don't always result in cold, hard dollars in your hand. Some programs allow you to redeem your cash rewards only as a credit to your account.

Rewards paid as a statement credit reduce your balance, but the redemption doesn't count as a payment to your account.

Other cash rewards credit cards give you the option to cash in your rewards for a check or direct deposit to a bank account. You also may be able to redeem your cash rewards for gift cards with your card issuer’s merchant partners. There may be a minimum redemption amount—$25, for example—or a requirement to redeem your rewards in certain increments.

Points Rewards

Points rewards are based on how much you spend. For example, you might earn one point for every dollar you make in purchases. Depending on the card issuer, you may be able to redeem your rewards for gift cards, cash, or even travel. Redeeming your points for gift cards may give you more bang for your buck since many merchant partners give you 10% to 20% off the gift card price. Examples of points rewards cards include auto rewards cards and hotel rewards cards.

Travel Rewards

Travel rewards cards earn you miles that you can redeem for airline tickets. The number of miles you can earn varies by credit card, and the number of miles you need to purchase a flight varies by frequent flier program. You may be able to convert miles between programs, but you may lose some points in the conversion process.

Tiered vs. Flat Rewards

Rewards programs generally are structured in one of two ways. You might earn a flat rate of rewards on all your purchases. For instance, a credit card may pay a 2% cash back rewards or two points for every dollar you spend. You also may earn rewards in different amounts based on different categories of spending. Some travel credit cards, for example, pay higher rewards on travel purchases and a smaller reward on all other spending.

What to Look Out For

Qualifying for a rewards credit card generally depends on having a good credit score. If your credit score needs improvement, you may have a harder time getting approved for a rewards credit card.

Rewards cards may have higher costs than other credit cards. For example, annual fees are common with rewards cards, sometimes even more than $500 per year for higher-tier rewards. Not only that, rewards cards often have higher interest rates than other credit cards, which means you shouldn’t carry a balance on a rewards card.

There may be stipulations for earning rewards buried in the fine print of your credit card terms. For example, a program may advertise 5% cash rewards, but there may be a limit on the rewards you can earn at a higher rate. Restrictions, caps, or minimum redemption amounts can make it difficult to redeem your rewards.

Credit card issuers might change their rewards programs without warning, so make sure you read everything that comes with your billing statement.

Not all rewards are forever. Some reward programs expire your rewards if you don’t use them within a certain amount of time. The best reward programs don’t let your rewards expire, but most programs will forfeit your rewards if you fall behind on your credit card payments.

Choosing the right rewards credit card can allow you to earn major perks on your credit card spending. But keep an eye on your purchases. If you’re always chasing rewards and bonuses, you could rack up a credit card balance that you can’t afford to repay.

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