How to Maximize Credit Card Rewards When Shopping

Know which card to reach for when you’re standing at the cash register or ready to click "Proceed to Checkout".

Virginia C. McGuireMarch 15, 2016
How to Maximize Credit Card Rewards When Shopping

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

Chances are, you have more than one credit card in your wallet. So how do you know which card to reach for when you’re standing at the cash register or ready to click "Proceed to Checkout"?

That’s not a question as easily answered as it is asked, but the Nerds are here to help.

In this article

How many credit cards should you have, anyway?

The average American has 3.4 credit cards, according to a 2015 survey conducted by Gallup. That's right in line with what the Nerds see as ideal.

“I’d recommend that consumers carry at least three to four cards,” says Sean McQuay, NerdWallet’s resident credit cards expert. Having a few to choose from allows you to maximize your rewards on each purchase and gives you options in case your go-to card isn’t accepted at every store.

McQuay says the ideal mix includes the following:

When you're in the store: If you’re not sure which card to use, choose the one with the best flat rewards rate.

For small, everyday purchases

Some people habitually shop at only one or two retailers, whether that means online shopping or a trip to the local Target. If that describes you, having a store credit card isn’t a terrible choice, especially if it offers low fees and a generous rewards rate.

Looking at your monthly budget can also help you figure out where you spend the most money. If you have a long commute, for example, it might be worth it to get a good gas card like the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, which gives 3% back on U.S. gas station purchases and on transit (including such things as taxis, rideshares, parking, tolls, trains and buses). It also earns 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets, on up to $6,000 a year in spending (then 1%); 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions; and 1% cash back on all other purchases. Terms apply.

But some people might be better off with a credit card that offers rotating quarterly bonus categories, like the Chase Freedom®. These cards usually give a hefty 5% back on purchases in specific spending areas — in the past, they have included gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and wholesale clubs — that change periodically.

This year's bonus categories for the Chase Freedom®:

Chase Freedom® bonus rewards categories for 2020

Q1 (Jan. 1 - March 31)

• Gas stations. • Select streaming services. • Internet, cable and phone services.

Q2 (April 1 - June 30)

• Grocery stores. • Gym memberships and fitness clubs. • Select streaming services.

Q3 (July 1 – Sept. 30)

• Amazon.com. • Whole Foods Market.

Q4 (Oct. 1 – Dec. 31)

TBD (In 2019, department stores, PayPal and Chase Pay.).

It does take some work to remember which category is prioritized at what time, and most of these cards require you to activate the bonus category yourself through a website or an app. They also commonly come with a spending cap — $1,500 spent in bonus categories each quarter (activation required), for example. After that, you’ll be back to earning the flat rewards rate offered on all purchases.

If you’re working on rebuilding your credit, you may still be able to earn rewards from a secured credit card like the Discover it® Secured.

When you're in the store: Check your credit card issuers’ smartphone apps to see whether any of your cards has a bonus category that matches the store where you’re about to spend money.

For big or infrequent purchases

Rewards on small expenses like a latte or your monthly Netflix bill can definitely add up. But credit card rewards become even more important when you’re spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you’re preparing to spend money on something big, like a new refrigerator or a honeymoon cruise, it’s worth it to do a little extra work to determine which card will give you the best rewards. If you have a rewards card like the Discover it® Cash Back that offers 5% bonus categories, check to see if your big purchase qualifies for the bonus. (The  Discover it® Cash Back gives you 5% cash back in rotating categories that you activate, on up to $1,500 per quarter in spending, and 1% on all other purchases.)

This year's bonus categories for the Discover it® Cash Back:

Discover bonus rewards categories for 2020

Q1 (Jan. 1 – March 31)

• Grocery stores. • CVS. • Walgreens.

Q2 (April 1 – June 30)

• Gas stations. • Uber and Lyft. • Wholesale clubs. • June only: Home Depot

Q3 (July 1 – Sept. 30)

• Restaurants. • PayPal.

Q4 (Oct. 1 – Dec. 31)

• Amazon.com. • Target.com. • Walmart.com.

It may help to think first about what you consider a "large" purchase. Is it anything above $100? Anything above $300? That figure will depend on you and your budget. Think about what that number is for you, and commit to doing extra research to find the best deal on bigger purchases and determine the best credit card for the job.

Big purchases might include:

When you're in the store: If you're buying something you can't pay off right away, consider using a credit card that offers a 0% APR on new purchases.

The bottom line

The best time to choose a credit card for a particular shopping excursion is before you go to the store. But familiarize yourself with your credit cards’ rewards programs in case you need to make a quick decision about which card to use.

Grouping your bigger purchases on a rewards credit card with 5% bonus categories is likely to net you the highest rewards, but you should also try to get a travel or cash back card with a solid 1% to 2% rewards rate. And if you find yourself visiting a particular store regularly, find out if its store card comes with an attractive rewards rate.

No matter which card you use for a purchase, make sure your stack of plastic doesn’t get so complicated that you have a hard time keeping track of the bills. Some people feel more tempted to overspend when they’re using credit cards, but when used wisely, credit cards can help you save money on shopping trips big and small.

Virginia C. McGuire is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @vcmcguire.


Image via iStock.

We want to hear from you and encourage a lively discussion among our users. Please help us keep our site clean and safe by following our posting guidelines, and avoid disclosing personal or sensitive information such as bank account or phone numbers. Any comments posted under NerdWallet’s official account are not reviewed or endorsed by representatives of financial institutions affiliated with the reviewed products, unless explicitly stated otherwise.