My Credit Card Strategy: Two Cover the Bases and One’s on Deck

"When it comes to rewards, I’m all about cash and simplicity. ... I also have a way of multiplying rewards on those obligatory purchases brought on by birthdays, holidays and other special occasions."
Melissa Lambarena
By Melissa Lambarena 
Edited by Kenley Young

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A joyful rush washes over me every time I see my rewards earnings for the month. I’m not suddenly rich, but I’m a few dollars closer.

When it comes to rewards, I’m all about cash and simplicity. I rely on a dynamic duo — a flat-rate card and a bonus-category credit card — to maximize rewards on everyday expenses.

I also have a way of multiplying rewards on those obligatory purchases brought on by birthdays, holidays and other special occasions.

And I pay no annual fees.

My go-to cash-back cards

I didn’t really get into the rewards game until I'd paid off most of my student loans and employed other debt-cautious strategies. I wanted to have a solid financial foundation so that I could manage rewards credit cards successfully. These cards generally charge a high annual percentage rate, so I pay my bill in full every month.

I do have some no-annual-fee store credit cards and a straggler that I keep active with occasional purchases to keep the length on my credit history, but those cards rarely see much action.

Here are the two most-used cards in my wallet:

Chase Freedom®

Why I chose it

I wanted a card that earned high rewards on everyday purchases. This card earns 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter and 1% on everything else. The introductory offers — a nifty sign-up bonus and has an excellent introductory 0% APR period — also lured me in.

The backstory

I timed my application for this card around the holidays last year because department stores were scheduled to be a bonus category for Q4 2017. I wanted my Christmas shopping to multiply my rewards. It also didn’t hurt to have some breathing room around the holidays with the introductory 0% APR offer.

Managing the card

It requires a bit of maintenance — activating categories quarterly, keeping tabs on spending caps and keeping track of the rotating categories — but I find the benefits worth it. I don’t use the card unless the bonus category matches my spending.

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Citi Double Cash® Card

Why I chose it

While my Chase Freedom® works well for specific bonus categories, I wanted to supplement my rewards with a credit card that earns a good rate on everything outside those categories. The Citi Double Cash® Card earns 2% cash back on purchases: 1% when you buy, plus 1% when you pay off your bill.

The backstory

I anticipated having a lot of rewards-earning expenses from buying new furniture. I timed my credit card application around these purchases.

Managing the card

This is a low-maintenance, straightforward credit card option. But to take full advantage of the card's rewards rate — and to avoid accruing interest charges — you must remember to pay off your purchases in full each month.

Personal strategies from our credit card writers

• Chanelle Bessette: A Card for Every Case • Gregory Karp: Making Simplicity Rewarding • Melissa Lambarena: Two Cover the Bases and One’s on Deck • Robin Saks Frankel: Fund Summer Camp, Get 'Chase Trifecta' • Kimberly Palmer: Stretch the Budget With Cash Back • Claire Tsosie: I'm Disloyal, and It's Paying Off • Sara Rathner: Meet #TravelGoals Via Smart Swiping

A new addition to my wallet

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

I also was recently approved for this card, although I'm waiting for it to arrive in the mail and therefore haven't had the opportunity to use it yet.

Why I chose it

After earning big with the grocery store category on the Chase Freedom®, I became fond of earning supermarket rewards.

The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express earns 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%); 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases); 3% cash back on U.S. online retail purchases (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases); and 1% back on everything else. Terms apply (see rates and fees).

I also plan to make a much-needed large purchase (a new mattress), which will put this card's welcome bonus offer and 0% introductory APR offer to good use.

The backstory

I’m spending more at supermarkets because of my recent goal to learn new recipes. My kitchen experiment challenge saves money on dining out, and I eat healthier. Supermarket rewards are my gold stars, and my meals somehow taste better when I’m getting cash back — unless the kitchen experiment goes wrong.

Managing the card

I expect to use the card most frequently at supermarkets, except in cases where the merchant doesn't accept American Express.

Supplemental strategy

I use a credit card at every chance to maximize rewards. But I also tap Ebates, a cash-back shopping website, if I’m spending a lot of money. It allows me to stack rewards; I earn them through both my credit card and the website.

All together, it can add up to several hundred dollars in annual cash back.

Here are some examples of purchases that raked in extra cash:

  • Holiday season expenses: I do the bulk of my Christmas shopping on Black Friday. In Q4 of 2017, I used the Chase Freedom® to get 5% back at department stores that, separately, were also offering 10% back through Ebates. And I scored Black Friday discounts on top of the extra cash back. With Ebates, I earned nearly $25. On my card, I earned about $15.

  • Travel expenses: I recently booked a hotel with the Citi Double Cash® Card at and got an additional 8% back from Ebates. For one night, I earned $18 via Ebates and about $5 with my card.

Find your cards, find your strategy

My strategy might not work for your spending habits. For example, if you travel a lot and don't mind paying an annual fee, travel credit cards might be a better fit. You could defray or even fully fund the cost of your next family trip, just by spending as you normally do.

Or, if you don’t always pay your bill in full every month, a better choice for you might be a low-interest credit card. You may not earn as many (or any) rewards, but you'll save money on finance charges.

Choosing a credit card requires a deep look into your personal financial goals and habits. The right match, used responsibly, can save you money.

To view rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, see this page.

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