Gas is a huge expense for most Americans, and we can be instinctively drawn towards credit cards that offer rewards for fuel purchases. Yet you might be surprised to learn that gas credit cards aren’t the best way to save money for most Americans.
How much can gas credit cards can save you?
Imagine a household that’s dependent on driving. They have two cars each averaging 12,000 miles a year which average at 20 miles to the gallon. That means they’re buying 1,200 gallons of gas each year. At $3.50 a gallon, that’s $4,200 a year.
Now let’s say they get the BP Visa card from Chase — a typical card. It offers 15 cents per gallon in rebates for every $100 spent at BP. That means that for every $100 spent at BP, they get a 15-cent-per-gallon rebate off their next fill-up.
So if they fill up their tank with 15 gallons and save 15 cents per gallon, they’ve received just $2.25 in savings for spending $100 at BP — or rewards worth 2.25 percent per dollar. If they use this for all the gas they buy, they’ll earn rewards worth a total of $94.50 each year. Families who drive less or use more efficient cars won’t even save that much.
If they use this card anywhere else, they’ll also receive 5 cents per gallon in savings for every $100 spent, which works out to a paltry 75 cents saved on a 15 gallon fill-up — or a 0.75 percent return. In contrast, nearly any cash back credit card will earn at least 1 percent on all purchases.
This card also offers a sign-up bonus of 25 cents per gallon savings for every $100 in purchases made within the first 60 days. Yet this discount is only worth $26.25 based on the family described above buying 200 gallons in those first 60 days for $700. This is a mere $10.50 more than they would otherwise save.
How I would do it
I’ve never applied for a gas card. Instead, I look at the big picture and try to find the rewards card that will save me the most money.
For example, I often find reward cards that offer a sign-up bonus worth $500 (and often a lot more). Right now, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points, which are worth $400 in cash back, $500 in travel reservations, or potentially much more when points are transferred to airlines, hotels, or Amtrak Guest Rewards. I’ve also applied for airline cards that offered 100,000 miles as a sign-up bonus, which is enough for a round-trip, business-class ticket to Europe worth more than $5,000.
Even without a sign-up bonus, there are still plenty of other cards that offer generous discounts on gas — but they’re not offered by gasoline retailers. The PenFed Platinum Cash Rewards Visa card from the Pentagon Federal Credit Union offers 3 percent cash back at gas stations for all customers, and 5 percent cash back to those who hold another qualified account with them, such as a checking account with direct deposit.
Meanwhile, the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers a 3 percent discount on gas purchases from any stand-alone gas station in the United States (which excludes warehouse stores like Costco).
But if you find the lowest gas prices in your area are at Costco, you could use the Costco TrueEarnings card from American Express, which features 3 percent cash back on gasoline purchases at U.S. gas stations including Costco (on up to $4,000 spent each year). Better yet, the business version of this card offers 4 percent cash back. In fact, even a card like the Capital One Quicksilver earns 2 percent cash back on all purchases, so cardholders can’t really save much more using a dedicated gas card.
While 4 percent cash back on gasoline is great, we’re only talking about $160 per year in savings in our example above.
This is better than nothing, but it’s only a fraction of hundreds of dollars many credit cards offer as a sign-up bonus each year.
For me, I’m happy to use my Chase Ink card that offers two points per dollar spent on gasoline. I have this card because it had a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points, and I use it at office supply stores and on television, telephone, and Internet services where it earns a whopping five points per dollar. Each of these points I transfer to airlines and hotel programs, where I often receive 3 to 5 cents per dollar in value. So for me, it is easy to get 6-10 percent back from my gas purchases without worrying about a dedicated gas card.