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In early 2021, vaccine news had Americans ready to roll up their sleeves, pull off their masks and indulge in a countrywide celebration. But thanks to COVID-19 variants, "Hot Vax Summer" devolved into "Can’t-Find-a-Rapid-Test Winter."
Still, some consumers remained hopeful — traveling for the holidays, returning to offices and going back to in-person school. The cautious optimism also extended to credit cards, which offered enticing perks for those ready to step out. In 2021, we saw:
Big bonuses: Travel remained iffy, so many premium cards lured applicants with welcome offers around 100,000 points.
The return of balance transfer cards: They mounted a comeback after a period of scarcity.
A buy now, pay later explosion: Credit card issuers began competing in earnest with third-party firms like Affirm and Klarna on this front.
Here's what’s in store for credit cards in 2022.
1. A focus on breathing room as prices rise
Over the past 12 months, the overall cost of living has increased by 7%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More cardholders are seeking cash-back rewards to help save on things like grocery and gas purchases, or travel rewards that can defray vacation expenses. And because these prices are higher, consumers want ways to spread out those purchases over time:
An abundance of 0% APR offers
Cards are lengthening 0% interest offers for new purchases and balance transfers, and are even extending such offers to existing cardholders, not just new applicants. According to Competiscan — a company that tracks and analyzes direct marketing activity — mail and email marketing to existing cardholders for balance transfer promotions doubled between Q4 2020 and Q3 of 2021.
And those no-interest periods are getting longer. Competiscan also found that in the third quarter of 2021, 34% of balance transfer offers to current cardholders were for 15 months or more, compared to about 10% of offers in the fourth quarter of 2020.
More ways to split up payments
Many credit card issuers have a version of buy now, pay later, but it differs from third-party providers in that it's largely post-purchase: You may be allowed to select individual card purchases to split into multiple payments, but only after you've bought the item.
But card issuers are thinking of ways to offer payment plans at the point of sale, says Beth Robertson, managing director of Keynova Group, a financial services intelligence firm.
That would give users the benefit of a buy now, pay later service with the consumer protections of a credit card.
2. Rewards that get you in the door — and keep you in the room
For years, 1.5% back has been the industry-standard rewards rate, but it looks as if 2% back could eventually become a norm. Rewards now come standard even on many starter credit cards, giving cardholders a reason to keep using those products long-term.
But keep your eye on more than just ongoing reward rates:
Bonuses you'll have to put your back into
Extra-generous welcome offers for new cardholders will likely continue to make occasional appearances in 2022, but your wallet may have to work a bit harder.
Instead of the traditional one-time lump sum of rewards for hitting a specific spending threshold, we may see more tiered bonus offers that grant extra rewards for larger amounts of spending over longer periods of time. That might require you to use a card exclusively for the whole first year, for example.
We may also see more recurring "anniversary bonus" offers, especially among high-annual-fee cards aiming to incentivize cardholders to stick around.
'Choose your own adventure' rewards
Many credit cards offer bonus rewards in specific spending categories. Increasingly, though, we're seeing cards that give consumers a choice in what those categories are, and that customization trend is likely to grow.
Some of these cards let you pick your preferred categories from a list, while others choose for you automatically, based on your top spending for the month. Either way, it gives cardholders more control.
‘Coupon book’ rewards
On the other hand, paradoxically, some cardholders may need to jump through more hoops in 2022 to fully realize the value from their credit cards.
For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express charges a hefty $695 annual fee. It’s possible to offset that fee with the card’s perks, but the catch is that some of that value comes in the form of merchant-specific credits that are doled out in chunks. You’ll get up to $300 in credits towards a gym membership, for example, but it comes in $25 monthly increments and is only valid at Equinox. Terms apply.
Since not everyone will use these kinds of incentives, they're less costly for the issuer to offer. Expect to see more of them.
3. A more connected consumer experience
NerdWallet predicted last year that when it comes to credit cards, customer experience would be crucial. And now that Americans' collective well of patience is running drier than ever, card issuers will be looking to provide more seamless ways to apply for and manage their products:
Lower-effort card applications
“With this continuing proliferation of card products, we’re going to see a lot more improvement to the selection tools, applications, comparison tools,” Robertson says. “The information that supports a prospect evaluating a product, and then choosing and applying for one.”
Robertson cites Discover as an example of an issuer that’s streamlining the application process. By entering your ZIP code, birth date and the last four digits of your Social Security number, Discover will fill in additional information for you, like your home and email addresses. (You can opt out of this and fill in all fields yourself if you prefer.)
Robust apps that let you manage your finances in one place
Credit card issuers are recognizing consumer demand for managing finances digitally. Many of their refreshed mobile apps aren’t just for convenient bill payment. They function more as "money wellness" platforms, allowing you to see a fuller picture of your finances. (The more accounts you have with one bank, of course, the fuller that picture will look on one app.)
According to Meg Cipperly, senior director of insights at Competiscan, Chase’s revamped app provides a one-stop shop of financial management tools. You can track your spending, manage credit card rewards and see balances for a variety of Chase accounts.
Wells Fargo is following suit, launching its redesigned app in 2022 with many of the same all-in-one-place features.
Improved customer service options
With so much communication technology at our fingertips, there’s just no excuse for bad customer service. Credit card issuers are offering alternatives to calling the number on the back of your card and listening to 25 minutes of smooth jazz.
You may be able to request a callback or get an estimated hold time. Issuers are also looking at ways to connect asynchronously. For example, you could contact the issuer through the app for help, and get a notification when they’ve replied. Perhaps 2022 will be the year you finally feel as though your call actually is important to them.
4. Features that nudge your behavior
Whether they’re keeping you from overspending or encouraging specific spending, cards will add benefits that look appealing, but also encourage you to use those cards in a certain way:
Cards with guardrails
Instead of requiring a set security deposit upfront, these products allow you to set aside a desired amount of money, which becomes your credit limit. When your bill is due, it’s paid from the money you already allocated, meaning you don’t risk going into credit card debt.
Credit limits based on cash flow and net worth
Some new products essentially tell you how much money you can safely spend by basing your credit limit on your cash flow instead of your credit scores. Grain preapproves you for a line of credit that’s connected to your checking account, allowing you to use a debit card as a credit card to build credit. Grain charges 15% APR on outstanding balances.
Titan, an upcoming card by the neobank Point, will be a charge card that bases your spending limit on your income and assets. While you must pay your bill in full each month and can’t carry a balance, the emphasis on money you actually have as a credit limit means you can’t spend more than you’d be able to pay.
Incentives to use cards for recurring charges
Extra rewards for streaming service subscriptions became popular as the number of such services increased rapidly. Some cards partnered with ridesharing companies, food delivery platforms and fitness apps, offering discounts on monthly memberships for these services.
Are credit cards working to provide value at a time when we’re all home, watching TV, ordering food and working out alone in our basements? Absolutely. But this benefits them, too, because subscriptions are recurring charges.
5. A renewed relevance for travel cards
As travelers stayed home during the pandemic, travel credit cards struggled to stay relevant in their wallets. Issuers offered incentives like bonus rewards on stay-at-home spending categories, monthly credits for restaurants and the ability to redeem travel points for more than just travel. But as most of those limited-time incentives have expired, travel credit cards look to take center stage again:
Itching to travel after COVID-19 has squashed plans for so long? You’re not alone. According to a December 2021 Trendex trend report from American Express, 55% of Americans surveyed plan to take up to three trips in 2022.
If this is indeed the year when consumers can more safely start to travel again, expect travel credit cards to regain a top spot in their wallets, thanks to perks like travel insurance, lounge access, automatic elite status and more.
More lounge options
Why sit on the plastic chair at the crowded gate when you can snag a plush seat and nosh on a smorgasbord of snacks before you board? Airport lounge access is a coveted perk that comes with several travel credit cards, and in 2022 you’ll have even more choices.
American Express will expand its Centurion Lounge options this year.
Capital One launched its first lounge in late 2021 and plans to open more this year.
Chase, too, is unveiling its own line of airport lounges.
Unless you hold an eligible credit card, you’ll be stuck waiting for your flight at the gate.