By Andrew Gates
Rewards Program Consultant for CO-OP Financial Services and CEO of Azigo, Inc.
As consumers, we are faced with so many choices when it comes to credit cards. Not the least of which is what kind of reward we want. This one has miles, the other has cash back, that one has points, and this one gives me a puppy after four purchases. And then comes the earn double points on groceries and gas, get 1.5% cash back on every other Wednesday of an odd number year, etc. It can be overwhelming to those of us in the industry, much less to the average person. So the question is how do you choose the right card for you?
First things first. Credit cards are a responsibility and should be used wisely. Don’t convince yourself that getting that new miles card and spending $10,000 in the first three months to get the bonus makes financial sense unless you are paying that off. These types of offers are fantastic and work for all involved, provided that you are in the financial position to handle it.
Now that we have determined we are ready for a rewards card, I will share with you the steps I take in order to determine the best card for me.
Step 1: No hoops!
There are some people out there who can keep up with all the various hoops to jump through. If you are one of them, then by all means go get one of these as you can earn great bonuses. I am not one of those people, however. Once I select my card I like to “set it and forget”. Meaning I don’t want it to be complicated. Can I earn bonus points for travel? Great. Do I have to go and select that every month? No thanks. I like to have programs that are straightforward and don’t make extra work for me.
Step 2: No limits!
I want to be able to redeem for whatever I want. Sometimes I want a statement credit while other times I want a Banana Republic gift card. I may even want a new iPad. Either way, it is my reward and I don’t like to be limited. So I go for programs that offer variety on the redemption side.
Step 3: Easy bonus
In the industry, we refer to this as the earning ecosystem. Can I earn cash back outside of what I earn for every dollar I spend? Many financial institutions are going towards “relationship rewards” where you are rewarded for your other banking relationships. For example, you get bonuses for applying a home mortgage or signing up for bill pay. You can also earn bonuses by shopping through their online malls, using their apps, and even just by using the card at participating brick and mortar retailers. Full disclosure, this is a part of what my company provides, but it is a growing way for consumers to earn massive amounts of points and cash back, with minimal effort.
Step 4: Check out the extras (and use them)
Most cards offer a wide range of added benefits that never get used. Hopefully you’ll never have to use the travel or luggage protection, but there are other great services that are usually included with your card. I used to work for the company that provided concierge services to many of the rewards programs and I can tell you once you started using it, you never stopped. Most people think of it as a way to get dinner reservations or tickets to a show, but it is so much more. We helped people find a plumber, hire a piano player for a wedding, give them a wakeup call and plan a kid’s birthday party. I even think we helped rescue a cardholder from base camp on Mt. Everest by sending a helicopter (he had to pay for it). You never think of it, but you can’t just dial 911 from Nepal!
Step 5: Breathe
As with many things in life, there is no one answer that is right. There are a lot of cards that offer great rewards and any one of them will work for you. It should be fun and rewarding, not agonizing and stressful. Just as when you buy a laptop and the next day a newer one comes out, if you try and analyze every card to see which one is going to give you the maximum reward, you will drive yourself crazy.
I will leave you with my own personal advice. When you redeem for a reward, at least once in a while, go for something you wouldn’t normally do for yourself. My favorite part of redeeming for a gift card is that I have to spend it and I can do so without any guilt. That’s what being rewarded is all about.