NerdWallet’s Best Credit Card Tips for January 2016

Jan 4, 2016

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For many people, January means resolving to shed bad habits and develop good ones. That can apply to how you use and manage your credit cards, too.

Every month, the Nerds round up a new set of credit card tips to help you maximize rewards and minimize costs with each swipe. Here are our tips for January 2016.

Opt in to bonus categories

For those who carry a cash-back card with rotating bonus categories, January is more than just the start of the new year — it's also the time to opt in to your first quarterly category.

Most credit cards that offer bonus cash back (usually 5%) on changing categories require you to opt in, or "activate," each bonus category before you get the higher reward rate. Typically, the bonus applies to up to $1,500 in spending per quarter — so failing to opt in means missing out on up to $75 in free money. Opting in is also a good way to remind yourself what the current bonus category is so you can be sure to swipe the right card at the places where you’ll earn the most rewards.

To remind yourself of the quarterly category changes throughout the year, we recommend setting calendar alerts. Opting in takes only a moment, but it ensures you get the most out of your 5% bonus card.

Consider a balance transfer card

For many, the joy of holiday giving is followed by the pain of holiday credit card bills. But it's possible to get extra time to pay those bills without racking up interest. Balance transfer credit cards allow you to move an interest-accumulating balance from one card to a card that delays charging interest for a certain period of time, usually 12 months or more. Your balance won’t go away, and you still should pay it off as soon as you’re able. However, the interest-free period helps you put more money toward reducing your debt, rather than toward finance charges.

Most balance-transfer cards — but not all — do charge a transfer fee, usually around 3% of the total amount transferred. If you're planning to pay off your debt in just a few months, the fee might end up being more than the interest you'd save. Checking a card’s terms and conditions before applying is the best way to see whether transferring a balance is a viable option for you.

Design a debt payoff strategy

One New Year’s resolution that will almost always work in your favor is paying off debt. But paying down your credit cards — especially after the holiday spending season, and even with a balance-transfer option — can be challenging without a plan.

Paying off debt usually requires making more money or spending less — or both. Before the year gets into full swing, consider listing your monthly expenses one by one to see what you can cut out. Putting as little as an extra $10 to $20 a month toward debt payments could move your break-even point closer.

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