Are Rewards Credit Cards Worth It?

Earlier, I was reading the post ‘Thoughts on Going Cash Only- The Benefits and Drawbacks of Not Using Credit Cards‘ on Think Your Way To wealth. It’s a well written post that outlines some of the benefits and drawbacks of using cash versus credit.
One of the comments struck me as very interesting. In part, Get Out Of Debt wrote, “As for the earning rewards stuff – do people really earn that much from their credit card rewards? I’m pretty sure it’s trivial amounts, and you have to spend tons to make it worth it i.e. spend money you haven’t got.”
This got me thinking because my experience has been quite the contrary. Let me go through the points here:
Background
Both my wife and I have Citi Dividend Rewards credit cards. The card pays 1% cash back for regular purchases, and 2% for purchases made at grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations, utilities, and convenience stores. Back when we first signed up, they actually paid 5% for some of the special categories.
Point 1: Do people really earn that much from their credit card rewards?
We have been collecting our rewards into a savings account with the intention of eventually replacing some of the electronics in our home. It’s total luxury but our rationale is that the money we’ve earned through this credit card has been ‘extra’ so we agreed that we can save it for some fun stuff. Our goal is to replace our 32″ tube television with a flat screen TV once the TV dies. How long this could be is anyone’s guess. The TV is about 12 years old, so it could go tomorrow or it could be another few years.
In any case, here’s how much we’ve got set aside that has been paid exclusively from our Citi Rewards cards: Over $800.
My guess is that by the time we’re ready to replace the TV, we’ll be able to buy a new one without going outside the money in this account. At least that’s my plan.
My thought: Yes, it is possible to earn that much from a rewards card.
Point 2: You have to spend tons to make it worth it
We’ve been collecting the amount we have for three years or so, maybe a bit longer. Still, in that time we’ve used our credit cards mainly for the category spending that gives us the most rewards.
Let’s look at an example.
Say you use your credit card as follows every month:

  • Groceries – $350
  • Gas – $200
  • Utility Payments – $100
  • Drugstore Purchases and Prescriptions – $50
  • Gifts – $100
  • Travel – $100

The first five categories are the ‘bonus’ categories. These total $700, so at 2% back per month you would earn $14. The bottom two categories total $200 and at 1%, you would earn an additional $2, for a total of $16 per month.
Over twelve months that totals to $192.
This is pretty typical of an average month for us. Often the gifts and travel are something else, maybe clothes, maybe a day trip, but a couple hundred dollars of ‘other’ spending per month on our credit cards is fairly normal for us.
Now, we’ve done better than that, averaging about $267 per year. I’d account the differences to:

  • Additional money earned the first year before Citi cut the rewards from 5% to 2% on the special categories
  • Charges made of large purchases during our wedding and honeymoon planning strictly for the purpose of gaining cash back rewards. One example: our honeymoon. We splurged and went to Hawaii. This was not cheap. Still, we put it on our credit card and paid the credit card with the money we had saved for our honeymoon. Even though we were ‘only’ getting 1%, that was probably $50 that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It adds up.

My thought: You don’t have to spend a lot to make it worth it. If you find a card that rewards you for the spending that you do anyways, you’re getting something for nothing, and even with the basic $192 per year, that can add up pretty quickly. However, keep in mind that this assumes you are not carrying a credit card balance.
Point 3: You spend money you haven’t got
My wife nor I have ever carried a balance, and we haven’t spent on our credit card just for the sake of spending. Both of us pay our balances in full every month, so we don’t send a penny of our ‘reward’ back to the card company in interest.
As I said above, we’ve charged things that go to our monthly expenses, or larger ticket items that we have the cash saved for already.
My thought: It boils down to responsible spending. If you can be responsible with a credit card, then it is possible to do really well with a rewards card. But, if you have had trouble with credit in the past, then it might not be worth the risk of getting in over your head.
So, I guess I’ll sum up by saying that my experience has proven opposite of what the comment shows. But, we’ve also been very lucky as to not have had credit problems. Each situation is unique and I think everybody should ask whether they can handle the availability of credit. If history has shown that you can, then by all means I suggest considering the right rewards card.

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