- Courtesy of Caroline Lupini
- I have almost 30 credit cards, and I use them to earn points, miles, and cash back to fund my travel.
- Two main strategies help me earn the maximum rewards on all my spending.
- I use cards that earn me bonus points on my biggest spending categories, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve for dining and the American Express® Gold Card for groceries at US supermarkets.
- Since not all of my spending is eligible for bonus categories, I also use a credit card that earns more than 1% cash back on everyday purchases. Top options include the Chase Freedom Unlimited and the Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Credit Card.
Credit card rewards are a major part of how I’m able to travel, so it’s important to make sure that I’m getting as many points as possible for all of my purchases. Here are some of the strategies I use to maximize the return on my spending.
Look at your budget and figure out where most of your spending goes
This will allow you to find credit cards that offer significant rewards in your largest spending areas.
For example, if you spend a lot at restaurants (like I tend to), look for a credit card that offers major rewards on restaurant spend, like one of these:
- American Express® Gold Card: 4 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent
- Uber Visa: 4% cash back
- Citi Prestige: 5 ThankYou Points per dollar spent (historically this has been my top pick but due to the recent cut in travel benefits I may not keep this card when the annual fee comes due again)
If you spend a lot on groceries, American Express probably has a card for you:
- American Express Gold: 4x Membership Rewards points at US supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year, then 1x)
- Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: 6% cash back at US supermarkets (up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%)
- Amex Everyday® Preferred Credit Card from American Express: 3x Membership Rewards points at US supermarkets (up to $6000 per year, then 1x), plus a 50% bonus when you use the card at least 30 times in a billing cycle (my current pick)
- Hilton Honors American Express Card: 5x Hilton Honors points at US supermarkets
There are lots of credit cards that offer bonus points on travel spending (my pick: the Chase Sapphire Reserve), as well as categories you might not immediately think of like gas. Plenty of business credit cards also offer bonuses for things like postage and shipping, internet and phone service, and online advertising.
Pick a default credit card that earns valuable rewards for everything else
No matter how many credit cards you have, you’re always going to have some expenses that don’t fall into a bonus points category. Most cards with bonus categories only offer 1 point or mile per dollar spent on non-bonus spending, so you’ll want a better option for all that “other” spending.
Many people like to use a credit card that earns at least 2% cash back for these purchases, like the Citi Double Cash Card, or the Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Credit Card (my current pick). The new Apple Card also offers 2% cash back for purchases made through Apple Pay.
Alternately, consider a card that offers more than 1 point per dollar spent on all purchases, like the Chase Freedom Unlimited (1.5% back or 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent).
Business owners should consider the Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express, which earns 2x Membership Rewards points on the first $50,000 in purchases every calendar year (then 1x).
Several credit cards also offer a higher rate of rewards for the first year you hold the card:
- New applicants for the Chase Freedom Unlimited will earn 3% back/3x Ultimate Rewards points on purchases in the first year, up to $20,000.
- The Discover it® Miles card offers 1.5% cash back everywhere, and Discover will match all the cash back you’ve received at the end of your first year.
- Alliant Credit Union’s Cashback Visa Signature Card offers 3% cash back for the first year (2.5% thereafter).
If you spend a lot of money at specific stores, consider store-specific cards that offer high rewards:
- Amazon offers credit cards through Chase, American Express, and Synchrony Bank that offer 5% cash back on Amazon purchases for Prime members (3% cash back for everyone else). The Chase and American Express versions also get you cash back at Whole Foods Market.
- Target offers credit and debit cards that provide an instant 5% discount at the register.
- Lowe’s has a credit card that offers 5% cash back on Lowe’s purchases, which could be a great deal if you’re planning a big home renovation project.
Keep in mind though that store-specific credit cards count for Chase’s 5/24 rule, so if you don’t have many credit cards, you probably don’t want to start with these. Chase’s 5/24 rule prevents you from being approved for many Chase credit cards if you’ve opened five or more credit cards (from any issuers) in the last 24 months. Due to this rule, your best bet is to apply for Chase cards first.
Use rewards credit cards wherever possible
This might seem obvious, but in order to maximize your rewards, you actually have to use your credit cards! I almost never use a debit card for anything other than ATM withdrawals, and I only use cash at local businesses or when I’m traveling abroad in cash-centric countries.
Watch out for extra fees for credit card processing, though: If a merchant charges a fee for using a credit card, you could have to pay upwards of 3%, which usually outweighs any rewards you might earn.
Keep track of which cards to use where.
If you have trouble remembering which cards earn bonus points in which categories, grab a label maker and stick a note onto the card so the information is always at your fingertips.
Pro tip: Travel Freely is a free tool that I absolutely love that helps you keep track of your credit cards, including their bonus spending categories!
Don’t sweat the small stuff
It’s not hard to really go down a rabbit hole when it comes to trying to maximize the rewards you’re getting for every purchase. My recommendation is don’t stress too much about it – pick two or three credit cards for your major spending categories, and use a card that offers decent rewards everywhere for everything else.
Here are a few more of my favorite credit cards:
- Chase Freedom, thanks to its quarterly rotating categories that earn 5% cash back (5x points) on up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter you activate. A great way to rack up some serious points!
- Platinum Card® from American Express, because it gets me access to American Express’ wonderful Centurion Lounges and credit for Uber rides each month.
- IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, mostly for the one free night (up to 40,000 points) at IHG hotels every year just for paying the annual fee.