Most people would probably say that the thrill of credit card rewards is about paying off their rewards, not about the process of earning them. However, a recent survey by CreditCards.com showed that a large number of credit card holders (23%) did not use their rewards last year.
However, there was an improvement from the 31 percent of respondents who did not redeem their rewards, according to a similar January 2021 Bankrate survey. However, the results may not be comparable given that the 2021 survey covered the unusual 12-month period of 2020 caused by the pandemic.
Who leaves money on the table?
Young people were more likely to take advantage of their rewards, with just 15 percent of millennials and 18 percent of Gen Z not taking advantage of them, compared to 28 percent of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, respectively.
Interestingly, more women (27 percent) than men (20 percent) did not redeem their credit card rewards.
When broken down by income, households with lower incomes were more likely not to use their rewards. Those with an annual household income of less than $50,000 (31 percent) are more likely to have missed out on their credit card rewards. By comparison, 22 percent of people with incomes between $50,000 and $79,999 and 20 percent of those in the $80,000 to $99,999 range did not use their reward. And only 12% of those with incomes of $100,000 or more left their rewards unused.
Cashback and gift cards are universal
Cashback and gift cards were the most popular redemption categories among cardholders who redeemed their rewards, with 55% of respondents choosing these options. Seventeen percent of respondents earned $300 or more in cashback or gift cards, and 38 percent received some value but less than $300.
Travel redemptions were also popular, with 16% of bonus credit card holders cashing out their rewards for a free hotel stay, and 13% for a free flight. The “Travel” category appealed most to the youth, while cash and gift card exchange was popular across generations (more than 50% of each cohort chose this option).
Gen Z (28 percent) and Millennials (26 percent) are more likely to get free hotel stays for a fee compared to Gen X (12 percent) and Boomers (7 percent). Free flights were also enjoyed more by Gen Z (21 percent) and Millennials (19 percent), and less by Gen Z (10 percent) and Gen X (9 percent).
According to Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, most people opt for cash back, and that makes sense. “Cashback is very simple, clear and versatile,” says Rossman. “Who couldn’t use more cash, right? Especially with high inflation and rising interest rates squeezing consumers, I think now is a particularly good time to take advantage of credit card rewards.”
Rossman advises that credit card rewards, if used wisely, can help consumers fight inflation, similar to how your unused gift cards work.
Waiting for the right opportunity for redemption
So why don’t consumers take advantage of their credit cards? Of those who did not cash out their rewards, 51 percent waited for a specific opportunity to use them. Twenty-three percent said they didn’t think their bonus points or miles were worth using given their low cost.
There were also those who didn’t know how to redeem (11 percent) as well as others who found the reward programs too confusing (9 percent). Some answered: “I am too busy” (9%).
Don’t leave money on the table
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual household spending in 2021 was $66,928, and half of those expenses (about $33,000) can be put on a credit card (excluding, for example, expenses such as mortgages and paying for a car, which would not be easy qualify). This means that a typical household can deposit about $3,000 on a credit card each month.
Rossman notes that even if cardholders earn a fixed 2 percent return on that $33,000, using a card with no annual fee (for example, Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card or Citi® Dual Cash Card), they will receive $660 in cash rewards each year.
If you want to be more strategic, you can get 6 percent cash back on groceries (although there’s a $6,000 per year spending limit, then you’ll earn 1 percent) with American Express Blue Cash Preferred® Card. In addition, you can earn 5% cashback on various bonus categories with Chase Freedom Flex℠* or Discover® Cash Back (both of which are limited to purchases at $1,500 per quarter, then 1 percent), and Citi Custom Cash℠ Card (up to $500 in purchases per billing cycle, then 1 percent).
Travel rewards are also great and can be even more lucrative than cashback, but they may not be for everyone. Plus, they tend to be more difficult than cash back, says Rossman. “However, as long as you pay in full and avoid interest and overspending, the reward is free money. How you use them depends on your personal preferences. I like to use my bonus credit cards for as many purchases as possible,” he notes. This strategy netted him over $1,700 in rewards last year.
According to a recent Bankrate Debt Survey, 54% of credit card holders pay off their credit card debt in full each month (or are transactional agents), making this group good candidates for rewards. However, given that the average annual credit card interest rate nationwide is a record 20.35% (at the time of writing), you should focus on getting the lowest rate, not chasing rewards.
This survey was conducted by YouGov Plc on behalf of CreditCards.com. All figures, unless otherwise noted, are from YouGov. The total sample size was 2,417 American adults, of which 1,566 were credit card holders. Fieldwork was conducted from 21 to 23 February 2023. This study was conducted online and meets strict quality standards. Figures have been weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults (aged 18 and over).
*Information about Chase Freedom Flex has been collected independently by CreditCards.com. The issuer did not provide details and is not responsible for their accuracy.
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