I’m not going to lie: it feels great to get cash back or travel points just for using a credit card. Many people also manage to score free travel thanks to credit card rewards programs, and I’m one of them.
My husband and I used credit card reward points to significantly lower the cost of our Caribbean honeymoon. Without the reward points, we probably wouldn’t have been able to book a week-long stay at an all-inclusive resort.
Our strategic credit-card-rewards hack definitely sparked my interest in traveling more. But we haven’t obtained another card.
We haven't even made a significant effort to earn more credit card rewards since our trip last year. We’ve basically put a halt on scoring rewards just to lower the cost of travel. Before I tell you why, let me explain first how the whole credit card rewards process tends to work:
How Do Credit Card Rewards Programs Work?
Credit cards that offer rewards will give you those rewards in a variety of ways. Generally, you can earn points or cash back on your purchases – sometimes all of them, and sometimes just in select categories like gas, restaurants, or certain grocery stores.
Some credit cards put a cap how many points you can earn or how much you can spend in a year. For example, Discover offers five percent cash back rewards on all their credit cards, which is a competitive rate. However, the Discover It card has a spending cap of $1,500 each quarter. This means that you can earn a maximum of $75 in cash back each quarter – or $300 per year.
Other credit cards offer sign-on bonuses that allow you to earn an insane number of points during your first few months of signing up.
These offers are only available to new cardholders, and only last for a limited amount of time. For example, the Capital One Venture Rewards card offers a one-time sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles. But only if you spend $3,000 on purchases within two months of approval. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card allows you to earn 50,000 bonus points (equivalent to a $625 travel credit) after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening your account.
It’s also important to note that some of these rewards cards have a mandatory annual fee. Some cards waive the fee at first, but others require you to pay it as soon as you sign up.
Fear of Going Into Debt
My biggest fear with using credit card rewards programs to score extreme discounts on travel or receive other benefits is the risk of going into debt. While the rewards sound nice, it’s important to consider what the credit card company is getting out of the deal.
Men carry an average of $7,407 in credit card debt while women carry an average of $5,245, according to ValuePenguin. This means that most people don't pay their credit card bills in full and just carry the balance, making minimum payments.
Spending $3,000 to $4,000 in three months is a lot of money.
The rewards bonus you earn won’t really be worth it if you can't pay your bill in full each month and avoid being charged interest.
Also, credit card companies want you to spend money on your card as quickly as possible so that you’ll have less time to pay off your bill, increasing your chances of carrying a balance and paying interest.
Since I'm currently working my way out of debt, it doesn’t make much sense for me to heavily hack credit cards for rewards unless I’m spending money I normally would, anyway.
My current expenses are pretty low, and I’m not making as many purchases as I was when I was planning a large wedding, which is why I think earning credit card rewards made sense for me last year.
What to Do Instead
If you feel like the risk of overspending and getting into debt is too great, stick to using just a select number of cards to build your credit and reward yourself in cash with the money you save.
Instead of earning a maximum of $300 cash back from Discover in one year, save up $300 and take off on a nice weekend getaway. Don’t get caught up in the madness of earning credit card rewards if all it does is push you deeper into debt.