It took an act> of Congress, with its new credit card legislation, but consumers are finally starting to see some restrictions and limits on fees and interest rates. The bad news? That s forcing banks to cut costs, and rewards, which cost companies over $15 billion in 2009, up 28 percent from 2007, are among the first places they re scaling back. Banks can t afford to give rewards away anymore, says industry consultant Robert Hammer. Here s how to squeeze the most from your plastic.
Take the cash. Cash back is usually better than airline miles or products, says Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com. Some card companies now charge redemption fees for airline tickets; others have raised the points required for a fare. And some rewards are actually worth less than the industry standard of a penny per point. HSBC Premier, for example, recently offered $50 California Pizza Kitchen gift cards for 6,000 points which works out to a $10 overprice. The company says its program is attractive and competitive.
Beware of disappearing deals. Don t assume today s perks will still be around tomorrow. American Express slashed the cash-back rebate on its Blue Cash card from 1.5 to 1.25 percent last year. (AmEx says it s still one of the richest cash-back cards. ) And Chase s Freedom card no longer offers 3 percent rebates for customers top spending categories; instead, Chase now picks a handful of seasonal promotions and offers 5 percent back on those categories. (Chase says it s the best cash-back value for customers who use their cards regularly. ) The takeaway? Keep an eye out for changes, and don t wait to cash in on rewards.
Choose wisely. The key to the points game is finding a card that works for you. Web sites like BillShrink.com can help match companies reward programs to your spending habits. And for big spenders who love perks, there is one place rewards aren t being cut: exclusive cards issued to affluent households with good credit. Chase s new Sapphire card, for example, touts concierge service and reimbursements for lost luggage. But these extras aren t free: The card carries an $85 annual fee after the first year.