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Planning your spending around end-of-the-year festivities during a pandemic is difficult, with so many potential unknowns. Will new COVID-19 restrictions derail your travel plans? Should you bother spending on gifts for friends or relatives you’ll see only over video chat this year?
Even though navigating the not-so-normal holiday season can be awkward and tricky, you can prepare a credit card strategy for however you're planning to celebrate this month.
Here’s how you can make a holiday list, check it twice and squeeze more value out of your credit cards.
1. Review your finances and make calculated decisions
There’s still time to avoid a holiday debt hangover that spills into an economically uncertain new year. Review your budget and accounts to understand what you can realistically spend this season.
Prioritize paying down debt, if you have it, over holiday spending to minimize risk in 2021. Plan your get-out-of-debt strategy and commit to it through the holidays and as long as it takes to meet your goal.
2. Snag a rich welcome offer
If your credit scores and income haven’t been dinged in the recession, you might qualify for a new credit card. And depending on how much you spend this holiday season, you may find it easier to meet a card's requirements for earning a big welcome bonus.
Examples of cards with recently beefed-up welcome offers include:
Chase Freedom Flex℠: Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening. The card also offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories that rotate each quarter. (Activation is required.) In addition, you'll snag high ongoing rewards on dining and at drugstores, and 1% back on any non-bonus-category spending, all for an annual fee of $0.
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express: Earn $200 back after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months. The card earns 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year (then 1% back); 2% back at U.S. gas stations and at select U.S. department stores; and 1% back on other purchases. The card's annual fee is $0. Terms apply.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Earn 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3000 on purchases in the first 3 months The card earns 2 miles per $1 spent on every purchase, and points are worth a penny each when redeemed for travel. However, through April 30, 2021, cardholders can also redeem miles at that same redemption value toward eligible restaurant purchases (including takeout and delivery) and streaming services. The annual fee is $95.
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Plus, earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year. The card has an annual fee of $69.
3. Stack value
Cash-back shopping portals like Wikibuy, Rakuten and others can offer worthwhile rewards when you make purchases with select merchants.
Better yet, you can pair them with seasonal discounts and a rewards credit card for even more value.
If you have a flat-rate credit card like the $0-annual-fee Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer, for example, you can earn 2% cash back on all purchases (1% when you buy and 1% when you pay it off). You could combine that rate with the shopping portal’s rate to further defray the cost of your holiday spending or other purchases.
You can get even more value with a card like the $0-annual-fee Discover it® Cash Back, which earns 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories that rotate each quarter. (Activation is required; all other purchases earn 1% back.) Bonus categories for Q4 2020 include Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Target.com.
4. Redeem rewards for gifts
If your holiday budget is tight this year, you might be able to lean on rewards to buy gifts if you’ve earned enough of them. To get the most value for your rewards, understand the rate at which they redeem for different options so that you can make an educated decision.
Depending on which card you have, redeeming points for gift cards, merchandise or cash redemptions could devalue them. Still, if you’re in a crunch and don't mind the loss of value, it could be a decent plan B to cover holiday gifts.
5. Plan your end-of-the-year donations
Many organizations are in need of financial help this year. If the spirit moves you — or if you have a surplus of rewards and they're about to expire — you can donate credit card points or miles to charities.
It's worth noting that depending on the card or the loyalty program it's tied to, rewards may lose value when you use them for charitable donations. You also typically aren't eligible for a tax deduction when you make a donation of points or miles.
But in some cases, you can get equal or even superior value from this redemption option.
6. Get to know your cards’ benefits
Understanding your credit cards’ benefits and their terms can help you save money whether you’re traveling or shopping.
Here are some benefits that might be lurking in your wallet:
Trip cancellation insurance: If you’re waiting until the last minute to plan holiday travel, booking your vacation with a card that offers trip cancellation insurance may offer the option to get reimbursed when the unexpected happens and you have to call off your trip.
Return protection: Some credit cards have removed this benefit, but not all. It can refund you the amount of a purchase if a retailer’s return policy doesn’t.