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Rewards credit cards typically come in two basic flavors: cash back and travel — useful if you want to save money without couponing or spend less on that annual visit to the in-laws.
But a number of new credit cards are reimagining the role a rewards program could play in your life. These cards can help incentivize certain behaviors, or allow you to fund a hobby or investment account. They may offer rewards on spending that isn’t covered in the typical grocery-restaurant-travel triad, like rent payments or home fitness equipment. And while they might not be as rewarding as a premium card with a massive sign-up bonus, they offer a greater degree of personalization.
'New ways of thinking'
The startups that create these cards are competing against major credit card issuers, which is no easy feat. While they lack the brand recognition and deep pockets of big banks, they have one thing in their favor: speed. Some financial startups rely on the services of other tech companies that provide the infrastructure (including selecting the bank partner and payment network, and establishing underwriting guidelines) for launching a new credit card. That makes it easier to turn an idea into reality.
“You’ll see that more of these interest-based cards come out because issuing a card is no longer as big of a lift,” says Ben Reid of M1 Finance, a personal finance startup with its own new credit card that targets investors.
How well this flood of new cards performs is another story. They all face a crowded credit card marketplace with lots of competition.
“The challenge that, frankly, we’ve experienced is it’s really hard to break through, and it depends on your demographic,” says Matthew Goldman, chief product officer at Apto Payments, a payments infrastructure company. Goldman’s startup created the Grand Reserve World Mastercard, a card designed for wine lovers. (The card is no longer taking applications.) He found that people who are willing to spend hundreds on rare wines tend to have high incomes and credit scores, which would make them eligible for a wide array of premium cards.
No matter what, however, these kinds of cards will shake things up. “The thing that’s exciting about startups is most products won’t succeed,” Goldman says. “But they’re creating new ways of thinking about things.”
Credit cards that go beyond typical rewards
Here are some examples of credit cards with unconventional rewards programs:
Allocating rewards toward an investment account a few times per year can be a way to dollar-cost average without having to make room in your budget for your brokerage account. The Owner’s Rewards Card by M1, which launched in July 2021, earns extra cash back when you use the card to make purchases at select companies that you own shares of. Those shares must be held in an eligible M1 invest account, but your cash back can be automatically reinvested into your portfolio.
Credit cards with crypto rewards are a hot trend, allowing you to obtain cryptocurrencies in small amounts through your normal spending. These cards can be appealing if you don’t have other uses in mind for your points and have been curious to learn what the fuss is all about.
The Paceline Credit Card earns extra cash back when you meet weekly fitness goals, and you can earn statement credits toward a new Apple Watch. The Grand Reserve World Mastercard is currently closed to new applicants, but it allowed cardholders to earn more rewards on wine purchases and redeem them for wine, wine accessories and winery experiences. The forthcoming Ugami Card advertises that it will let you redeem rewards for gaming merchandise, hardware and software, exclusive game sessions and more.
Everyday expenses beyond the usual categories
We all eat and go places, so earning extra points on groceries, dining out and gas is helpful. However, a sizable portion of your monthly budget goes toward housing, especially if you live in a high-cost area, and previously, that expense would usually go unrewarded. But the Bilt Rewards Card earns points on rent payments, among other things, and you can redeem those points toward rent or even a future home purchase.
Are these kinds of cards for you?
If you want to use your credit card rewards to fund a highly specific purpose, you may enjoy using a card that feels like it's custom-made for you. But, of course, you could also find value in a normal ol' cash-back card with a generous sign-up bonus because you can allocate those cash-back rewards toward whatever you want.
It's also worth noting that more established credit card issuers are beginning to offer cards with rewards programs that feel more customized. Some of these cards allow you to earn a higher rewards rate on your top spending category each month, and your earnings automatically shift with your expenses so you don’t have to track spending or activate anything.
They may not offer crypto as a rewards option, or credits toward fancy gadgets as a bonus, but you still get a bit of a personalized touch.