How to maximize your credit card rewards

December 29, 2021

Credit card rewards programs can be a great asset for your finances. Here are tips and tricks to get the most out of everyday purchases.

Whether you’re getting travel freebies, no-cost gift cards to your favorite retailers or tax-free cash in the bank, it’s easy to understand why people love reaping the benefits of a rewards credit card.

When used wisely, rewards cards like the U.S. Bank Altitude Go Visa Credit Card can be a strategic asset in your household budget. We’ll help break down rewards cards, so you know how to make them work for you – and get the most out of those rewards.

How rewards credit cards work

The basic premise of a rewards card is simple. Use the card to make purchases, accumulate reward points and redeem those points for a reward you get to enjoy.

But the details of the rewards system can vary significantly from card to card. “Today, there’s a variety of rewards cards out on the market,” says Thomas Crowley, vice president of retail payment solutions at U.S. Bank. “The most popular is cash back credit cards.”

Cash back credit cards

With a cash back card, the purchases you make translate directly into a dollar value. Your card may convert that reward into a credit on your next card statement or even direct deposit the cash you’ve earned into your checking account.

Crowley points out that the way you earn cash back usually fits into one of two systems:

  • With a flat-rate rewards card, you earn cash back at a constant rate – maybe 1.5 percent of the value of every purchase you make.
  • With a tiered rewards card, you earn cash back at a constant rate for most purchases but receive higher rates for specific retailers or specific spending categories.

Travel rewards credit cards

In addition to cash back credit cards, travel rewards are extremely popular. You earn points or miles for your purchases and redeem those points for travel-related freebies, such as hotel stays or airfare. Similar to cash back cards, travel rewards cards may let you earn points on a flat-rate basis or using a tiered system.

“If you’re an avid traveler, travel benefits are typically attached to these cards, so you might get benefits like no foreign exchange fees, TSA pre-check reimbursement or annual travel credits,” Crowley says.

Cards with accumulated points

Some cards offer points as a reward for using it to make everyday purchases. The U.S. Bank Altitude Go Credit Card, for example, offers points on every single purchase, plus extra bonus points for certain types of transactions, like dining, groceries, streaming services and gas stations. Once accumulated, points can be redeemed for a variety of items including gift cards and cash back. To make adding up points easy, use the rewards calculator.

As an added benefit, the U.S. Bank Altitude card’s points don’t expire. When you consider your different options, read the fine print about which purchases are eligible for points and whether there’s an expiration date, as not all cards have the same policy.

Other types of perks

Many credit cards give you options for cashing in rewards – these can include magazine and newspaper subscriptions, electronics, small appliances and even tickets to events. Some retailer-specific cards let you earn money-saving coupons, free shipping or early access to store deals. The possibilities are nearly endless.

How to take advantage of credit card rewards

Whichever type of card you choose, you’ll want to use it responsibly. When using your card consistently, the right rewards credit card can help you build your credit and earn extra perks over time. Keep these tips in mind for choosing the best cards and supersizing your rewards:

  • Choose a rewards card that fits your lifestyle. For instance, if you frequently charge your groceries and gas, look for a rewards card that gives you extra points in these categories. If you’re a regular traveler, consider the benefits of a travel rewards card instead
  • Minimize the cost of your rewards card. Make sure your card comes with no annual fee or a fee that’s 100 percent worth it for the rewards you’ll get. And seek out a low-interest card if you think you may carry a balance.
  • Understand the way your rewards system works. What’s the value exchange for your points? Do you need to spend a minimum amount before earning the best rewards? Are there limits to the points you can earn? Be sure to read the fine print before signing on with a card.
  • Watch out for expiration dates on points. Some cards, says Crowley, have a five-year expiration on points, while points on other cards never expire. Others take back points earned if you stop using your card for a period of time. If you plan to earn and redeem rewards frequently though, you may not need to worry about losing points at all.
  • Plan to do the extra work that rewards cards require. At a minimum, you’ll likely need to log into your cardholder’s site to redeem rewards on a regular basis. But your rewards system may require additional steps – such as signing up each quarter for rotating tiered rewards, if your card offers that.
  • Get strategic about which rewards card you use when. It’s important to know your cards inside-out if you plan to keep multiple rewards cards in your wallet. Crowley notes that two or more cards can earn you higher rewards than just one, but you’ll also have to juggle the complexity of multiple cards, their billing due dates and rewards systems.

When a rewards credit card might not make sense

The benefits of a rewards credit card are clear, but when should you think twice before applying for one?

First and foremost, you want a rewards card to be an asset to your finances – not a liability. If you worry you’ll overspend simply to earn rewards, skip the card. “No matter what rewards you get back, they’re never going to outrun the amount of money you owe to the credit card for the purchases you’ve made,” Crowley says.

Second, watch out for higher-than-average interest rates. Most rewards cards come with higher rates than their non-rewards counterparts, shares Crowley. So, if you’re planning to transfer a balance or carry one from month to month, he recommends exploring non-rewards cards with low introductory or long-term interest rates as a better option.

Third, find out if your desired rewards card comes with an annual fee. Crowley points out, however, that a card with that fee might still be a good fit for your wallet. “Customers just want to make sure that they’re getting the right value exchange in return for the amount of annual fee they’re going to pay,” he says.

Finally, Crowley says, be aware of hurdles to redeeming your points. Some cards let you cash in any number of points, while others will require you to redeem rewards only in increments of $25. Know which system your card uses and whether its rules will work with your spending habits.

Looking to boost your rewards? Try our credit card comparison tool to find the best U.S. Bank option for your lifestyle.

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10 ways to increase your home’s curb appeal

Webinar: Uncover the cost: Home renovation

Is a home equity line of credit (HELOC) right for you?

10 uses for a home equity loan

Preparing for homeownership: A guide for LGBTQ+ homebuyers

Beyond the mortgage: Other costs for homeowners

How to use your home equity to finance home improvements

What to know when buying a home with your significant other

Webinar: Mortgage basics: What’s the difference between interest rate and annual percentage rate?

Webinar: Mortgage basics: Buying or renting – What’s right for you?

Webinar: Mortgage basics: What is refinancing, and is it right for you?

Webinar: Mortgage basics: Prequalification or pre-approval – What do I need?

Webinar: Mortgage basics: How does your credit score impact the homebuying experience?

Webinar: Mortgage basics: Finding the right home loan for you

Webinar: Mortgage basics: 3 Key steps in the homebuying process

What is refinancing a mortgage?

Home equity: Small ways to improve the value of your home

How to budget 101: 6 strategies to try

How to Adult: 5 ways to track your spending

Tips for navigating a medical hardship when you’re unable to work

11 essential things to do before baby comes

Webinar: Uncover the cost: Starting a family

Preparing for adoption and IVF

How to plan and save for adoption and in vitro fertility treatment costs

Closing on a house checklist for buyers

Resources for managing financial matters after an unexpected death

What you need to know as the executor of an estate

When your spouse has passed away: A three-month financial checklist

What documents do you need after a loved one dies?

How to prepare for a natural disaster

College budgeting: When to save and splurge

Student checklist: Preparing for college

6 questions students should ask about checking accounts

Webinar: Uncover the cost: College diploma

How to save money in college: easy ways to spend less

Checklist: How to gain financial independence from your parents

The A to Z’s of college loan terms

Co-signing 101: Applying for a loan with co-borrower

How to build credit as a student

5 things to know before accepting a first job offer

How I did it: Paid off student loans

Webinar: Bank Notes: College cost comparison

Four ways to make a strong resume for your first real job

4 ways to outsmart your smart device

Money muling 101: Recognizing and avoiding this increasingly common scam

What you need to know about identity theft

What you need to know about financial fraud

5 tips for seniors to stay a step ahead of schemers

Recognize. React. Report. Caregivers can help protect against financial exploitation

Is online banking safe?

Identity stolen? 5 steps to take immediately

How you can prevent identity theft

Webinar: U.S. Bank asks: Are you safe from fraud?

8 tips and tricks for creating and remembering your PIN

Everything you need to know about consolidating debts

5 steps to selecting your first credit card

7 steps to keep your personal and business finances separate

Know your debt-to-income ratio

Managing debt

Your quick guide to loans and obtaining credit

How to spot a credit repair scam

Myth vs. truth: What affects your credit score?

Test your loan savvy

Should you give your child a college credit card?

U.S. Bank asks: What do you know about credit?

6 essential credit report terms to know

What applying for store credit card on impulse could mean