Last summer one of my closest friends was hellbent on spending $4,000 on her Chase Sapphire card. A bit of context: if you spend $4,000 during the first three months of opening the card, you’re given 60,000 bonus points (which amounts to $750 toward travel.) There was just one slight hiccup. She couldn’t afford to spend nearly enough to make her goal.
So instead, she begged her friends—myself included—to let her purchase anything and everything on her credit card (and then Venmo her back). A fancy new pair of shoes for her sister? Swipe. Every Lyft we took that summer? Swipe. A pal’s trip to California? Swiiiiiiipe. In the end, she hit the $4,000 mark. Hers was perhaps not the most organized protocol, and, sure, a lot of people don’t want to have to send their friends effective invoices for three months. But credit card points are a great way to help pay for your bucket-list trip to the Maldives, or make a dent in the balance on your card (cautionary tales aside.) Still, when are points worth it and when are the plans cards offer a waste? To answer that question, and some others that we had in the process, we’ve created a guide to some of the most popular options on the market.
It’s time to figure out your credit card personality
No, I’m not suggesting that if you’re an Aquarius that you should apply for an Amex, or ENFJs can only bank with Discover. But before you apply for your next credit card it’s important to evaluate the ways you’re already spending your money—and find a rewards program that most aligns with your habits. “You need to really pay attention to how you’ll be earning the points on your card,” says Jenn Monahan, a trainer at The Financial Gym, a financial planning company that takes a fitness-inspired approach to money management. “For example, if you live alone in New York City, you’re not filling up a gas tank or going grocery shopping as much as someone who lives in a suburb. So programs that offer cash back on gas and groceries won’t make as much sense for you.”
Once you determine your spending priorities, you can find your credit card match. Brian Kelly, the founder of The Points Guy, suggests that “at least one of the credit cards in your wallet rewards you for the types of purchases you make most often.” He notes the Amex Gold card as a good example for people who love to dine out; it earns four times the points at U.S. restaurants. (For more recommendations from Kelly, check out his “Ultimate Guide to the Best Cards for Each Bonus Category”.)
Now start spending, shopping, and splurging smarter
As my friend’s obsessive points game demonstrates, you shouldn’t spend money you don’t have—but it is true that credit card sign up bonus programs offer some great rewards. And it’s not just Chase Sapphire. Capital One, Wells Fargo, Discover, and more have a wealth of bonuses that are worth exploring in this Nerd Wallet guide. Of course, if you plan to take advantage of these bonus programs, budget accordingly. Look at the next six or so months and think about what bigger purchases you have planned. Then make sure to pay for them all on that card, so you reach your limit without resorting to shopping around for things you don’t need.
As you’re spending the amount to hit the bonus goal, or just regularly using you card—there are ways to earn even more from your purchases. “Most cards have partnership programs, meaning that there are certain brands you can shop for your day-to-day purchases that will score you more points than their competitors,” Monahan says. You can, for example, earn more points shopping at Bed Bath and Beyond than at Target with your Discover Card. And when you’re shopping online, don’t just stick to Amazon for all your needs. “Whenever you make a purchase online, make sure to go through a shopping portal,” says Kelly. “This way you’re not just earning points off your spending—but also from using a portal like United MileagePlus Shopping, JetBlue Shop True, or Chase Ultimate Rewards Shopping [if you have their cards].” When you log into one of these portals, it’ll showcase the different retailers you can shop to earn extra points. Like with JetBlue Shop True, if you click on Neiman Marcus—through JetBlue’s redirect to their website—you earn a point for every dollar you spend. Bonus: there are normally huge rewards hauls during holidays like Mother’s Day, so be sure to take advantage while browsing for the perfect gift.
Make sure to avoid these common pitfalls
While there are some very alluring rewards programs out there—they might not all be the best fit for you. “You can get into a really elite travel rewards program, but you may need to rack up $5,000 in expenses in the first four months,” says Monahan. “If you know you can’t do that—and keep in mind, you can’t charge your rent—then it’s not worth the risk of going into debt.” And while most of the time signing up for these rewards programs are free, the high-tier ones typically come with a high annual fee, which can ultimately negate your savings.