How to Maximize Credit Card Rewards

Credit rewards cards can help you save money and get some great perks, but it’s easy to get stuck in the gimmicks and seductive intro offers. That’s why it’s so important to look critically at your options and choose the rewards card that best fits your specific financial needs.

Credit cards are not all created equal. There are so many factors to consider when choosing the best credit rewards card for yourself and unlocking the full potential of those rewards. Many people shop different credit card issuees to find a rewards card that boasts the most points or cash back on purchases and forget to compare important factors such as interest rate, annual fees, introductory offers versus ongoing card perks, and rewards stipulations.  

How to Work the System (legally, of course)

• Choose a card that fits your spending habits

• Determine which features are priority for you

• Read the disclosures and exclusions

• Use the hell out of your card

• Hack your rewards

Choose a Rewards Card that Fits Your Spending Habits

Not everyone is jet setting off to Madrid every other month, so getting an Iberia Visa Signature® card isn’t the right call for those of us whose budget keeps us traversing the domestic United States. On the flipside, if you’re ballin’ and plan to take multiple (or high-dollar) international trips within the year, then the points and discount vouchers you earn are worth the $95 annual fee and high APR.

If most of your spending, however, is centered on everyday purchases like groceries, gas, back-to-school supplies, and a night out every couple weeks, you’re better off going for a rewards card where you’ll earn points on all purchases without having to meet too many costly demands. Most credit unions offer credit rewards cards these days, like our SunWest Rewards MasterCard®, where the interest rates trend on the low-end and accumulate points for every dollar spent on purchases that you normally make every day.

Determine Which Credit Card Rewards Features are Priority for You

Once you’ve taken a look at your spending habits, the next step is to determine which features will benefit you most. For example, you may find a rewards card with a higher rate that gives you cash back at restaurants you frequently visit. This could mean a lot of money back in your pocket but only if you pay off the card before it starts accruing interest. Otherwise, the amount of interest you pay could wipe out any cash back benefit. In this case, you would need to decide if the high APR is worth the cash back.

Some other common features of rewards cards are:

• Travel rewards (air miles, hotel discounts, rental car insurance)

• Low rates for balance transfers, discounts at certain merchants

• Extra points or cash back at certain merchants

• Gift card redemptions

Read the Disclosures, Exclusions + Limitations

Them: Earn credit card rewards for purchases at restaurants.

You:  Okay, I’ve used my card on dinner at a nice Italian restaurant.

Them: No, not that one.

It doesn’t help when credit card issuers have rewards credit cards that comes with excessive exclusions to the very things it tells you to use the card for. Always review the fine print of where discounts and cash back offers apply.

Remember to also look out for additional fees, limits to accruing points, balance transfer disclosures, and point expiration dates.

Use the Hell Out of Your Rewards Card

Having a credit rewards card is pointless if you’re not using it. Something from nothing is a miracle, not a common occurrence. When trying to maximize credit card rewards, it’s all about what you spend. The hard part is knowing when, where and how to spend your green.

When – Always. The next time you reach for your debit card, go to the next slot in your wallet for your credit rewards card. Then, and this is very important, PAY IT OFF. Don’t carry over balances when you can afford to pay it off. You should also keep tabs on promotions throughout the year to see when you can earn extra rewards.

Where – Depends. Look carefully at your credit rewards program. If they only reward you for gas at Chevron, don’t go to QT. If the points only soar with American Airlines, don’t book with Delta. Be savvy about how your rewards program is designed.

How – Savvy. It’s great that you’re earning with a credit rewards card, but if you’re not paying the balance way down (or preferably off) routinely, the interest is going to make your rewards pointless. Come up with a strategy for using your card, earning rewards and paying it off before the swipe.

Hack Your Rewards

Keep in mind that these credit card hacks may not work for all rewards credit cards. I am again reminding you to review your disclosures and exclusions.

Pay Your Bills – Stop setting your bills to draft from your checking account, and use your credit rewards card instead to consistently earn a lot of points. As a bonus, if you ever need to dispute or cancel a bill, it’s a lot easier to have your credit card company block your card and issue you a new number than closing and opening a whole new bank account.

Compare Intro Offers – Sifting through all the offers out there can take some time, but it’s important to actually know what your options are in order to make the best decision for you. Knowledge is power. Try using a tool like this one from that lets you filter certain preferences to guide you to the rewards card that matches your priorities.

Redeem Wisely – Make sure the value of your redemption is actually worth it. You don’t want to redeem points on a cheap set of luggage that could have gotten you a flight to Hawaii.

Read Through Your Offers – Yes, checking your emails is annoying due to the sheer volume of your inbox, but it’s worth it if you find a great deal that ends up saving you money. Look out for limited APR reductions, discounts or bonus rewards at certain places, and balance transfer discounts.

Buy Gift Cards – This one depends on your card issuer and may not apply to your rewards card, which is why I am again reminding you to read the terms and conditions! This can come in handy if you need to make a purchase to hit an intro offer or promotion.

Leave Loyalty Out of It – Your credit card company is not your friend. It’s a business. They do what’s best for them. Often, that means doing what’s best for you…but only so far as it’s still what’s best for them. You don’t have to stick with just one card. Having multiple credit rewards cards for different types of spending can be a great strategy.

If you’re ready for a credit rewards card that will earn you points for every swipe you make, apply for our new SunWest Rewards MasterCard®.

April 10, 2023

Published by SunWest Credit Union

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