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December is an ideal time to make sure you’re maximizing any credit card benefits that may reset or expire at the end of the year. This is especially true if you’re paying for those benefits through an annual fee. It’s also a good time to review your spending habits to make sure the card you’re using is right for you.
Here's an end-of-year checklist that can help ensure you're getting the most out of your credit card.
1. Use your credits
Some credit cards offer statement credits for certain types of spending throughout the year, but terms and expiration dates tend to apply. If it's a recurring credit, it's often a use-it-or-lose-it perk, meaning you can't roll over any unused amount to the next month or year.
If the recurring benefit is awarded annually, it's also important to know whether it resets each calendar year, or on every cardholder anniversary, the month or date you opened the account. Either way, aim to make your purchase a few days before that date so that it posts to your statement on time. Pending charges that officially post afterward may not qualify.
And as with any credit card benefit, don't overspend on goods or services you don't want or need just to get a small discount.
Types of common credits include:
General travel purchases: Many rewards cards offer travel credits to offset eligible travel purchases at airlines, hotels, cruise lines and car rental agencies. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card comes with a $50 annual hotel credit for bookings through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel portal.
Airline incidentals: If you're traveling over the holidays, you can typically apply airline incidental credits to checked baggage, seat upgrades, and in-flight purchases like food and beverages. The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, for instance, comes with a $250 annual airline incidental credit. Enrollment is required.
Streaming: Credits for streaming services like Netflix and Spotify have become commonplace. Often, these are distributed on a monthly basis. "We pay for Hulu, HBO Max and Paramount Plus using the streaming credits on our card," said Deb Toner, a resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who works in the TV and movie industry. "Because of the cost of annual fees, I want to make sure I get every single penny out of it."
Miscellaneous: Your card may even offer credits at specific department stores, online retailers or subscriptions. A good example is The Platinum Card® from American Express. It comes with a variety of miscellaneous credits, such as a $200 annual hotel credit on prepaid bookings through AmEx Travel and semi-annual credits toward purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue ($50) and Dell ($200). Enrollment is required. Terms apply.
2. Maximize any bonuses linked to spending
Some airline and hotel cards offer benefits like upgraded loyalty status or free night certificates once you spend a certain amount per year on your card. If you're close to a bonus spending threshold, ask yourself if the benefit would provide enough value to warrant additional spending on the card before the end of the year. You'll want to have a plan for using the loyalty status or the free-night certificates before you chase them.
For example, the World of Hyatt Credit Card offers a free night at any Category 1-4 hotel if you spend $15,000 on the card in a calendar year. If you’re close to that spending threshold and know you can use a free night certificate, you might want to prioritize hitting that target.
3. Review free trials that may be expiring
Many credit cards offer free introductory trials for premium subscription services at food delivery or rideshare companies. Even if your trial doesn’t expire at the end of the year, now would be a good time to review the promotion terms and — if you're not interested in keeping the service — set a calendar reminder to cancel it before you're charged for another year.
For example, the Instacart Mastercard® offers a free year of Instacart+ membership. Terms apply. It's a nice perk for Instacart super-users, but that subscription will be automatically renewed for $99 after the first year, unless you opt out.
And of course, free trial or not, the end of the year is also a good time to review the services you're already paying for, to make sure they're still worth it.
4. Consider dusting off unused credit cards
If you stuck your credit card into a sock drawer to avoid the temptation to overspend with it, you may be better off keeping it there. But be aware that many issuers will automatically close credit cards that have been inactive for an extended period, and that closure can come with consequences.
That's because two big factors that affect your credit scores are credit utilization and length of credit history, and an account closure can negatively impact both.
Credit utilization is the percentage of your available credit that you're using, and ideally you want to keep that figure low. Losing a line of credit might make that harder to do. "If closing a credit card removes some of the available credit and makes the revolving utilization increase, it could result in a loss of points" from your scores, said Tom Quinn, vice president of FICO Scores, in an email.
And an account closure may also drag down the length of your credit history, depending on how old that account is.
"Bottom line — there is no FICO score benefit associated with closing a revolving account," Quinn said.
5. Look behind to plan ahead
As the year draws to a close, review your spending habits to see where your money is going. Your credit card statement will make this process fairly easy.
Maybe the amount you’re spending has increased in certain categories, like travel or grocery stores. If so, it might be time to look for a different card that can increase your cash back or travel rewards. Or perhaps you have some big expenses coming up early next year that could be put on a new card to earn a lucrative bonus.
Identifying your habits and shifting your spending to the right credit card could pay dividends in the new year.