Most Americans use credit cards regularly and there’s growing interest in credit card “hacks” that help you maximize rewards, get the best perks, and even get a better credit score. The key is to do all of that without winding up with so much credit card debt that you can’t pay your bills. Debt.com talked to leading credit card experts to gather their best hacks for using credit cards without abusing them. Here’s how you get the most out of the plastic (or metal) in your wallet…
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Credit Card Hacks to Maximize Rewards
Some of the most popular credit card hacks involve using cards in a way that maximizes bonuses, rewards, and cashback. There are several schools of thought on how to do this. As you’re choosing a strategy, it’s important to pick the one that will fit your needs, card usage, and habits.
Pick one credit card to use
Difficulty level: Easy“My best hack is to use one cashback (or whatever rewards) credit card on everything so you can accumulate more points to receive more benefits.” – Max from Tried and True Mom Jobs @TriedandJ #creditcards #hacks Click To Tweet
Compared to other reward hacks, this is easy because you’re only using one card. Max says her family uses the Chase Freedom® credit card and earned over $500 in one year, which they used for Christmas gifts. She outlines how exactly she makes this work on her blog here.
“If you don’t want any debt problems,” Max says, “you can always set up automatic payments and only spend what you can afford.”
If you’re using a cash-back rewards card, this is basically free money you get. Then by setting up automatic payments, you’ll ensure you pay the charges off in full and on time every month. This will help you earn the most cash back without offsetting those earnings with interest charges.
Get cards where you already shop
Difficulty level: Medium
Laura Adams the Money Girl from Quick and Dirty Tips recommends getting credit cards for retailers where you shop the most.
“Choose a card that gives you rewards for stores that you shop frequently,” Adams says. “For example, if you enjoy shopping on Amazon, their Prime members can get a card that pays 5% cash-back for purchases on the site. Or, you might favor Target, Walmart, or The GAP, which offer cards that reward their loyal shoppers.”
The danger here is that this can lead to purchase acceleration, where you may spend more just to get to the next level of a loyalty reward program. You need to maintain a budget and only spend what you have allocated for each month or each paycheck.
Adams warns, “Don’t allow cards to change your spending habits or cause you to carry a balance from month to month.”
Develop a multi-card system
Difficulty level: Medium
Once you get comfortable using one or two cards, you can graduate to using a few. Steve Dashiell of Finder thinks three cards is often the sweet spot for most people.
“The idea here is to cover all your spending,” Steve explains. “You have one rewards card with accelerated categories on certain purchases, such as groceries or gas, one rewards cards with an unlimited flat rate on all purchases, and ideally a “premium” card that offers great redemption opportunities and the ability to transfer points.
Pro Tip: Consider getting a trifecta from the same issuer
Some brands, such as Chase and American Express, offer a trifecta of cards that, when used together, can help you maximize points as much as possible. Ben Walker from FinanceBuzz explains how you can use multiple cards from the same issuer to get more value.
“Chase cards are known for their great synergy,” Walker says. “If you use multiple cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve (or Preferred), Chase Freedom, and Chase Freedom Unlimited, you can cover a lot of earning categories. The Sapphire Reserved/Preferred covers travel and dining purchases, while Freedom covers rotating categories like grocery stores, home improvement stores, gas stations, and more. For whichever category isn’t cover, you can use the Freedom Unlimited’s flat cashback rate.”“It isn’t a bad thing to have just one or two credit cards, but multiple cards covering different categories can help you earn the maximum amount of rewards possible.” – Ben Walker from @FinanceBuzz #creditcards #hacks Click To Tweet
The benefit of using a single issuer is that not only do you earn rewards over all the types of expenses you have, you can transfer points you between cards to redeem them at their highest value.
“Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth more when redeemed for travel on the Sapphire Reserve or Preferred than they would be on the Freedom or Freedom Unlimited,” Walker explains. “So, while 10,000 Chase points might be worth $100 toward travel on the Freedom or Freedom Unlimited, they’d be worth $125 toward travel on the Sapphire Preferred, and $150 toward travel on the Sapphire Reserve.”
Don’t use cash
Difficulty level: Hard
It may seem self-explanatory, but to earn the most rewards with credit cards, you have to use them. While credit cards may tempt you to spend more than you have, making purchases with cash offers zero perks. Even using debit offers minimal rewards (some debit cards do offer some cash-back rewards at specific restaurants and retailers).
So, to maximize the rewards you earn, use credit cards to pay for as many things as possible in your budget. You can often use cards for things like utilities, daycare, or other things you’d be spending anyway so you can get points on them.“The trick is to take advantage of rewards for purchases that you’re already making not to buy more than your budget allows just to rack up rewards.” – @LauraAdams, the Money Girl #creditcards #hacks Click To Tweet
By budgeting your dollars and picking the right cards for you, you can use those credit cards to help you get more points or money. Just make sure you can pay what you spend off each month to avoid paying interest. To do this, you use the money that you would have spent to cover that expense to pay off the credit card that you used instead.
Make the most of a range of cards
Difficulty level: Hard
Expert credit card hackers may have as many as 10 or 20 cards. They use them to truly “work” the system for more value, money, and perks. One credit card guru we chatted with shared the cards in his wallet and what he uses them for:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve Card – uses it for hotel travel, travel perks, and no foreign transaction fees; got it for welcome bonus a few years ago
- The Platinum Card by American Express – uses it at restaurants and grocery stores, booking travel online, and got 60,000 bonus points for getting the card
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express Card – card offered by Marriott with a substantial welcome bonus offer of 75,000 points
- Amazon Prime Rewards Signature Card – uses it on Amazon and Whole Foods purchases because of 5% cash back
- Chase Freedom Unlimited® Card – uses it for any other personal purchases not covered by the above categories for flat 1.5% cash back
- Chase Ink Business Cash℠ Credit Card – uses it for any purchases for his small business
While this is a more involved way to hack credit cards, it can pay off big. It does require management and tracking to ensure you’re paying attention to hitting numbers to get bonus points and reviewing any annual fees to ensure you’re truly getting the benefits and value from the cards.
Pro Tip: How to assess the financial risk of having more cards
The risk of debt and missed payments can be high with this strategy because it means you have a ton of bills to juggle. This hack should only be used if you’re experienced at managing your debt. You should start with one card and work your way up slowly.
R.J. Weiss from The Ways to Wealth recommends evaluating your past credit behaviors before you sign up for your next card.“If you're considering opening a credit card for the bonus, the best way to determine if you'll use it properly is look at your past.” – R.J. Weiss @thewaystowealth #creditcards #hacks Click To Tweet
Weiss says to ask yourself if over the past year you’ve had to pay any sort of interest when using a credit card.
“If you haven’t displayed at least a year’s worth of good financial behavior,” RJ says, “I’d avoid opening another line of credit.”
Apply for one or two new credit cards each year
Difficulty level: Expert
Andrew Herrig with Wealthy Nickel shares one of his favorite credit card hacks: He and his wife try to sign up for at least two new cards per year. Some of the best ones he’s found include the Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card, which offers a 50,000-point sign-up bonus if you spend $4,000 in the first three months after opening the account. For small business owners or entrepreneurs, the Ink Business PreferredSM credit card also has an 80,000-point sign-up bonus if you spend $5,000 in the first three months.
If you travel, you can use your credit card reward points towards airfare (airfare is usually one of the best values as Herrig mentions his family gets about $1.50 per point towards airfare when it’s time to redeem their points). He details one specific trip where his family took a trip buying three tickets with 60,000 points, getting nearly $900 worth of travel for free here. By doing their regular credit card hacking, they haven’t paid for a plane ticket in almost three years.
Pro Tip: Make sure signup bonuses are worth it, then limit the use
Of course, those attractive signup bonuses are only good if the credit cards fit your needs and spending habits. Also, keep in mind that cards with the best signup bonuses tend to have annual fees. These fees can be high, so even if you don’t allow balances to accrue interest charges, you’re still paying a premium to use these cards.
For example, Brian Martucci from Money Crashers warns “As enticing as the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card’s sign-up bonus might be, the card’s hefty annual fee and heavy emphasis on rewarding frequent travelers mean it’s not a good fit for homebodies.”
If you’re going to use this strategy, you need to be able to manage the debt. Martucci also points out that there’s no requirement to use every card you have every month.“Remember, you don’t have to use all of your credit cards regularly. And, to keep your credit utilization ratio low, you probably shouldn’t.” – Brian Martucci from @moneycrashers #creditcards #hacks Click To Tweet
Many signup bonuses require you to spend a certain amount to earn the maximum bonus. Plan this into your credit card spending. Then once the bonus period ends, scale back your usage. Martucci recommends that you should only use one or two cards regularly, then use the other cards sparingly to earn specific rewards and keep those accounts open and active.
If you’re married, you can both apply for the card to double the bonus points
Difficulty level: Expert
If there’s a card you’re eyeing with a great sign up bonus, Clint Proctor with The Wallet Wise Guy suggests that you and your spouse or significant other each apply for the same card (rather than just getting an extra card for the other person) so you can both qualify for the extra bonus points. Proctor and his wife use this credit card hack to get twice the sign-up bonus.
For example, with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card mentioned above, both partners can get up to 50,000 extra points. You may want to stagger your applications, though, so that one of you gets it and then after spending the amount necessary for the first bonus, the other can apply and get the second bonus offer.
The reason this hack is difficult is because it doubles the risk of taking on more credit card debt than your household can handle. Steven Dashiell from Finder recommends planning card applications that include signup bonuses around major events.“A credit card’s rewards signup bonus requirements should fit naturally into your existing spending habits, or at least into a plan you already have.” – Steven Dashiell from @finder #creditcards #hacks Click To Tweet
“For example,” Dashiell says, “big life events such as a wedding or travel plans are a great opportunity to conveniently meet a cardi’s signup bonus. A wedding or vacation to Hawaii is money you would be spending anyway, so I’d recommend apply for a new credit card just before you make these purchases.”
Credit Card Hacks to Save Money
You can use your credit cards to save money. Here are some money-saving credit card hacks to keep in mind:
Stop paying interest
Difficulty level: Easy
Earning all the rewards you can doesn’t mean anything if the rewards you earn are offset by accrued monthly interest charges.“Follow the golden rule. Never pay interest.” – R.J. Weiss from @thewaystowealth #creditcards #hacks Click To Tweet
The biggest pro tip we can recommend is to pay off any charges you make in full every month. If you do, interest charges will never be applied to your balance. These charges are only applied at the end of the grace period, which is the period after the closing date of a billing cycle before interest charges apply. If you start and end every billing cycle with a zero balance, you enjoy all the rewards of credit cards without the typical cost of these cards.
Evan Sutherland, the co-founder of Budgeting Couple, notes that by putting your credit cards on autopay your statement balance will be paid off in full automatically every month. This simple hack will force you to use your cards wisely and not charge more than you have available. It will also keep you from losing money by paying credit card interest or getting hit with late fees if you forget to make a payment.
If you’re too nervous to put credit card bills on autopay, at least make sure you set reminders at least to make sure you don’t miss a payment. Missing a credit card payment not only means you pay more, but it can make your credit score drop if you’re more than 30 days late paying your credit card bill.
Don’t pay annual fees unless they’re worth it
Difficulty level: Medium
Some of the best reward cards with the biggest signup bonuses have annual fees. This is a fee you pay each year to keep your account open and in good standing. If you’re paying an annual fee on a card you don’t use, you’re throwing money away.
Brandon Neth from FinanceBuzz explains that some cards have fees that just aren’t worth what you can earn.“Avoid credit cards with high annual fees and low rewards.” – Brandon Neth from @financebuzz #creditcards #hacks Click To Tweet
“An example that comes to mind in Luxury Card,” Neth says. “Their cards look incredible, but carry large annual fees and offer much less than cards offered by other issuers, like Chase or American Express.”
Before you decide to sign up for a credit card with an annual fee, look at the rewards it offers and estimate what you can earn with it. Remember as you calculate this, you don’t want to change your spending habits to earn more rewards. Only get the card if you think you will naturally spend and earn enough on it to justify the cost.
“Treat your credit cards like any other investment,” Neth advises. “Research and only do what you’re comfortable with.”
Each year, you should assess your spending and rewards on cards that you have that carry annual fees. If you see that you have a card where the fees aren’t justified by the rewards, it may be time to consider closing it.
Use balance transfers responsibly
Difficulty level: Hard
RJ Weiss explains that balance transfers can be a godsend when you have a troubling amount of credit card debt. Doing a balance transfer from a higher interest rate credit card to one with a 0% promotional offer can save you lots of money and help you knock out your credit card debt more quickly.
Weiss reminds cardholders that balance transfers only really work to your advantage if you pay attention to the terms (how long that 0% rate will last and what are the fees to transfer a balance to your new card) and as long as you avoid racking up more debt on the card you just freed up.
Don’t use those business credit card points or miles on business trips
Difficulty level: Easy
Logan Allec, a CPA with Money Done Right wants small business owners to know that they shouldn’t use those miles or rewards points on business trips. This is because if you pay for your business trips out-of-pocket using your credit card, you may be able to take a tax deduction on your trip expenses. However, if you use your miles to pay for your business trip, you can’t take a deduction.
The smart move is to rack up miles on your business card but to use these miles to fund your personal travels, which wouldn’t have been tax-deductible anyway. It’s nice to fund a vacation this summer with all the miles you’re racking up on your business card.
Pair your credit card with a rebate site for extra savings
Difficulty level: Easy
Cara Palmer, who blogs about her journey to pay off debt and accumulate wealth, suggests using a site like Rakuten to get even more cashback. Pairing this with a card that provides rewards lets you get additional rebates when you buy things on certain websites. Cara uses the Amazon Prime Rewards Signature Card, which offers 5% cash-back on Amazon.com and Whole Foods purchases, 2% back on charges at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores, and 1% cash-back on everything else.
Credit Card Hacks to Improve Your Credit Score
If you’re looking to improve your credit score, there are some credit card hacks that you can consider trying. However, be careful! Using credit cards specifically to improve your credit score is not always wise. Remember, credit card usage and applying for new cards should be based on your needs and spending habits, not trying to maximize your credit score.
Request a credit limit increase
Difficulty level: Easy
Sa El, the co-founder of Credit Knocks, suggests that if you’re carrying a balance on any of your credit cards you may want to contact your credit card issuer and request a credit limit increase. An increase in your credit limit will, in turn, decrease your debt to credit ratio (also known as your credit utilization ratio) because you’ll automatically use a lower percentage of your total available credit.
|Original||With a credit limit increase|
|Credit limit = $10,000||Increased credit limit = $15,000|
|Credit usage = $3,000||Credit usage: $3,000|
|Utilization ratio = 30%||Utilization ratio = 20%|
Additionally, if you pay off some or all of your credit card balances, you may see your credit score increase even more. You will likely see an improvement quickly (in one to two months) when you get an increased credit limit or pay off credit card debt because your creditor will report the updated reduced credit usage to the credit bureaus.
Just keep in mind that the higher limit is not a license to spend more. Keep your spending in check and don’t start charging just because you have more room to do so.
Don’t cancel cards that you don’t use
Difficulty level: Medium
Once you get those welcome bonus points or after you pay off a credit card, you may decide you no longer need a specific credit card. However, it usually is a good idea to keep the credit card account open rather than close the account altogether. If you don’t want to risk racking up debt on it, you can cut up the card or hide it away in a safe spot at home.
The only instances you may want to cancel your credit card is if you have a high annual fee that isn’t worth paying or have a low credit limit (unless you can get it raised as mentioned above).
Keeping your credit card open helps you for two reasons:
- Credit utilization – Closing a credit card account decreases your total available credit, so if you have any credit card balances then your credit utilization will increase since you’ll have less available credit with one less card in the mix.
- Length of credit history – While not as much of a factor in credit scores, it still does impact it. Keeping a credit card account that’s in good standing increases your length of credit history, showing potential lenders and creditors that you have more experience managing your credit (so they’ll likely see you as lower risk).
It’s important to note that a credit card company may close a credit card if the account isn’t being used. To keep your accounts open, you need to periodically find at least a small purchase to make with each of your cards. Then pay that charge off in full just to make sure your account isn’t closed due to inactivity.
Have a range of cards that you keep open and active
Difficulty level: Hard
Having more cards that you maintain is good for a few reasons. You have a more diverse range of accounts, you have a higher total available credit limit and, if you keep these accounts open for a long time, it increases your “credit age.” All that is great for your credit score, assuming you don’t get in trouble with debt.
Brian Martucci from Money Crashers explains that having more active cards can be a net positive for your credit score. But only if you’re able to do the following:
- Always pay off your balances in full by the statement due date
- Keep credit utilization low on each card (ideally, maintain a balance of less than 30-35% of your available credit)
- Keep your accounts open for many years.
To do this, you may only want to use a few cards actively.
“Use the most general rewards credit card (or two) regularly to rack up rewards, while reaping the benefits of carrying multiple card accounts.”
Credit Card Hacks to Get More Perks
If you’re looking for more perks or if you travel frequently, there may be some ways that credit cards can help make your trips a bit less stressful and a little more comfortable:
Use your credit card to get free TSA PreCheck or Global Entry
Jim Wang, the founder of Wallet Hacks, suggests that if you’re a frequent traveler (or even if you just don’t like taking off your shoes and removing your laptop from your bag) you should find a credit card that helps you get free TSA PreCheck or Global Entry (which helps streamline the process with international travel). There are several rewards credit cards that offer reimbursements for these programs that make these perks free to you.
Use your credit card to get airport lounge access
If you travel a lot or often have connections, getting access to lounges can make your trip more comfortable since you’ll often get free food, drinks, and Wi-Fi along with comfortable seating, nice bathrooms, and even sometimes showers or other services. Cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and The Platinum Card® from American Express have higher annual fees than some other cards, but both offer access to a network of airport lounges among other perks.
Credit card hacks to protect your identity
Credit card fraud rose 23% according to the Federal Trade Commission, topping the list of identity theft reports in 2017. The FTC got more than 133,000 reports from people saying their information was misused on an existing account or to open a new credit card account. You can use your credit card issuer’s offerings to help you protect your identity, including:
Set alerts and monitor any major purchases
Most credit cards offer various types of alerts and monitoring to keep an eye out for any purchases that aren’t yours.
- American Express: Amex offers various purchase alerts so you can get notifications whenever your card is used over a certain amount to manage your balance and find out if something you don’t recognize if anyone makes a purchase on your card. Additionally, cardholders can enable push notifications in the Amex app to get instantly notified when suspicious charges are detected.
- Chase: Chase cardholders can activate email or SMS alerts to notify of purchases over a certain amount. Also, you will get notifications when a suspicious charge is attempted.
- Discover: Discover also offers email and SMS alerts and focuses on protecting your account so it can’t be accessed by anyone else.
Many other card issuers and financial institutions offer fraud alerts and protections to try to keep you from dealing with the stress of having your card number stolen and to help them avoid losing money on fraud. So, use the tools they provide for you and check your statements every month to make sure that nothing appears on there that you don’t recognize.
Don’t Let Credit Card Hacks End Up Costing You
When looking to get more points with bonus offers or get the most cash back, it’s important to pay off what you spend every month. John Ganotis, the founder of CreditCardInsider.com says that consumers need to be careful not to spend more than they can afford to pay.“The most important rule of avoiding debt with credit cards is simple: don't spend more on a credit card than you can afford to pay off, in full.” – John Ganotis, @creditcardinsider #creditcards #hacks Click To Tweet
Keep in mind that many rewards credit cards have higher interest rates or APRs (annual percentage rates) because of what you can earn. So, Ganotis warns, “Interest charges can quickly cancel out rewards. Don’t go into debt to get a signup bonus”
Regardless of your goals with credit cards, you’ll want to make sure to pay your credit card bills on time and keep your credit utilization (the amount of credit used compared to your limit) low. Late payments need to be avoided. Not only because they come with fees but also because they can undo all that work you’ve done to improve your credit score.
“A late payment on your credit reports can remain for up to seven years,” Ganotis says, “and have a major negative impact on your credit scores.”
Also, if you find yourself dealing with credit card debt, take immediate action to get your cards paid down. To hacking and focus on paying off your debt.
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