And what you can do to outsmart them. (Hint: Ignore their rewards.)

I recently read a seven-page report called The Path to Credit Card Differentiation – so you wouldn’t have to.

What’s in this boring-sounding report? Just some crucial information about how Americans really use their credit cards. Here’s what’s truly fascinating: This report wasn’t written for you, the credit card customer. It was written for the credit card companies themselves.

A marketing research firm polled more than 1,000 adults to learn what perks would entice them to sign up for a particular credit card. Is it airline miles? Discount hotel rooms? Savings on restaurant meals?

It’s none of those. Here are the most interesting stats from this report, and how you can use them for your benefit – instead of the credit card companies’ bottom line.

Rewards don’t matter?

As a personal finance author and counselor, I was most heartened by this poll result: Americans will rarely apply for a new credit card just for the rewards.

According to this report, Americans consider these three factors the most important when considering a new card:

  • No annual fee: 46 percent
  • Low interest rate: 46 percent
  • Cash back: 40 percent

This is music to my ears. Why? Because it’s ridiculous to pay an annual fee and a steep interest rate just to earn rewards that are often a penny a point – if that. While there are credit card experts who thrive by gaming the system, the average American typically breaks even or loses out.

How it happened: I’d like to think the push for financial education and literacy these past few years is responsible for this new awareness. celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, and we’re one of many such educational websites that try to explain important but complex money issues in plain English.

Security does matter

When you’re inundated with credit card advertisements, they usually focus on rewards. So it’s interesting that they matter to less than a quarter of us. Here’s how many of those polled said they’d open a new card based on a robust rewards program for…

  • Airline miles: 24 percent
  • Hotel nights: 21 percent
  • Restaurant meals: 15 percent

Fortunately, one perk mattered more than all of these: “Identity theft monitoring.” If a credit card could promise tight security, 34 percent of respondents would sign up for that card above the others.

How it happened: No wonder here. When ID theft becomes a national catastrophe and even a provider of ID theft protection gets hacked, Americans take notice. This is one instance of a big, black cloud having a huge silver lining: We’re much more aware of this problem, which is the first step to solving it.

Age matters

The firm that conducted this poll also parsed the results by generation. Some are unsurprising: For those 18 to 21, more than half value a credit card that offers a mobile app and tap-to-pay the bill. Also, it’s no shock that those over 55 are loyal to the cards they have and don’t want to switch no matter what the offerings.

The most significant – and encouraging – stats are for those 35 to 54. These Americans are the economic engines of the nation, and where their personal finances go, so goes the future of the United States. Thankfully, they’re the most likely to value the important credit card features, and by overwhelming numbers: 75 percent demand their cards have no annual fee, while 65 percent want a low interest rate.

How it happened: However they’re learning about responsible credit, they’re doing it. I can only hope that translates into smart spending on housing, transportation, healthcare, and a slew of other big-ticket items. If so, this country might not be doomed to more decades of debt. Yes, I can extend that hope from one boring-sounding credit card report. While it’s my job to be skeptical, it’s my personality to be optimistic about the people who live, earn, and spend in this great country.


Credit card companies are run by smart people. If more research shows potential customers preferring low interest rates over minor rewards, those companies may start competing against each other on this most crucial aspect. In the end, it’s up to you and me.

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About the Author

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

I’m a certified public accountant who has authored two books on getting out of debt, Credit Hell and Power Up, and I am one of the personal finance experts for I have focused my professional endeavors in the consumer finance, technology, media and real estate industries creating not only, but also Financial Apps and Start Fresh Today, among others. My personal finance advice has been included in countless articles, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes and Entrepreneur as well as virtually every national and local newspaper in the country. Everyone should have a reason for living that’s bigger than themselves, and besides my family, mine is this: Teaching Americans how to live happily within their means. To me, money is not the root of all evil. Poor money management is. Money cannot buy happiness, but going into debt always buys misery. That’s why I launched I’m glad you’re here.

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