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What’s in Our Wallets? The Nerds Name Their Credit Cards

Jan. 9, 2012
Credit Cards
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We come across a lot of good credit cards over here at NerdWallet, enough to make even the most ardent credit card enthusiast just a bit jaded. 100,000-mile bonuses, free nights at the Hyatt, we’ve seen it all – and recommended quite a few. But have you ever wondered which credit cards are good enough to hold our interest, able to bear the heavy crown that is being a nerd’s chosen card? Wonder no more: the NerdWallet team eats the dog food and gives firsthand reviews of what cards we keep close at hand.

Our credit cards run the gamut. Tim and Jacob, our CEO and COO respectively, have the travel credit card market down to a science. International travelers both, they consider waived foreign transaction fees a must. Newly minted nerds Anisha and Stephen are fresh out of college and looking to build up their credit scores while avoiding fees, while Laura’s wallet is proof of credit unions’ value and member-oriented culture.

Card Used By Rewards Annual Fee F/X Fee
Capital One Venture Tim
2% on all purchases $59 0%
Fidelity AmEx Tim 2% on all purchases $0 1%
Starwood AmEx Jacob 2 pts per $1 at Starwood
1 per $1 spent elsewhere
$65 2.7%
Chase Freedom Stephen
5% in rotating categories
1% elsewhere
$0 3%
BankAmericard Cash Rewards Anisha 3% on gas, 2% on groceries
1% elsewhere
$0 3%
Wescom Visa Laura None $0 1%

*NerdWallet estimates.
**Waived first year.

Tim, CEO: Capital One Venture Rewards and Fidelity American Express

I use two no-frills, no-limit 2% rewards cards: the Capital One Venture and the Fidelity American Express. The Capital One Venture is a Visa card, has a $59 annual fee (waived the first year), and earns 2 miles per $1 spent. It also has no foreign transaction fee. Meanwhile, the Fidelity Retirement Rewards American Express has no annual fee, and deposits 2% of what you spend into my Fidelity account, but charges a foreign transaction fee of 1%.

Why do I have both cards, rather than just one or the other? For years, while living in New York City, I was turned off by the Capital One Venture Visa card’s annual fee, and used only the Fidelity American Express. One of the quirks with Manhattan is that there are many restaurants that only accept cash or American Express. Furthermore, most places I frequent in New York accept American Express. And despite the fact that the Fidelity Card charged me 1% more for foreign transactions than the Venture, I was working so much that I didn’t have time to travel abroad much anyways.

When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I realized that the lack of American Express acceptance was a big issue, and that I was spending enough traveling abroad each year to nearly make up the $59 annual fee, relative to the Fidelity card. Most credit cards charge a 3% foreign transaction fee, which means that spending $1,800 abroad on your Capital One card saves you $60, making up for the annual fee. Also, I have also come to appreciate the concierge service that comes tied to my Venture Rewards card, which is not available with the Fidelity card.

One final note, for those of you who care about convenience. I’m convinced that FIA, which issues the Fidelity card, has purposely built their website in the most confusing manner possible, in order to trip up consumers. It often takes me 5 minutes to figure out what my balance due for the previous month happens to be. When I log in, they plainly print the minimum due and the total balance, and then make me fight through a mess of HTML forms and PDF files to get my monthly balance. Capital One’s website was definitely designed by a more competent layout expert, all balances, rewards, and other pertinent information is plainly laid out for you to see.

Jacob, COO: Capital One Venture Rewards and Starwood American Express

Like Tim, I use the Capital One Venture card for all of my international travel, and for many of my other travel expenses, like taxis. But my go-to card on a daily basis is the Starwood American Express. I got the Preferred Guest card a while back because my wife was traveling a lot for work and would often stay at the W or the Westin. Combined with the 25,000 bonus points we got for meeting the spending requirements in the first 3 months, the Starpoints have been piling up. And these points aren’t like frequent flyer miles that never seem to get you anything useful: they actually go a long way. Within the first few months, we’d already accumulated enough points for a free weekend at the Sheraton in LA, with plenty to spare.  I even transferred 20,000 Starpoints over to my American Airlines frequent flyer account, got 5,000 bonus miles from Starwood, and then had enough miles to book two tickets to Hawaii next year.

Anisha, Content Strategist: Chase Freedom and BankAmericard Cash Rewards

My two cards are both cash back, no-fee cards: the Chase Freedom and the BankAmericard Cash Rewards. I’m not a big spender and I don’t go abroad often, so when I look for a credit card, I want one with no annual fee. My reward of choice is cash back, because I don’t shop or travel often enough to make gift cards (like Citi) or travel miles worthwhile. The Freedom gives 5% back in rotating bonus categories as well as 1% back elsewhere, and the BankAmericard gives 3% back on gas, 2% on groceries and 1% elsewhere.

I love the Freedom. I just got it in October, mostly because of the $200 bonus but also because of the 5% rewards. I use it pretty much exclusively for the bonus categories, and use a rewards debit card the rest of the time. With judicious use, I’m getting better than 3% rewards. I also definitely take advantage of the Chase online mall, which gives you an extra bonus when you click through from their site to another retailer’s storefront. Since October, judicious Ultimate Rewards shopping has netted me $50 cash back. And since I hate shopping in-store, I’m getting an extra 3-10% cash back year-round on things I’d be buying online anyway.

The only reason I have the BankAmericard Cash Rewards is that I used to have the Charles Schwab Visa, administered by FIA Card Services, which gave a flat 2% back and had no annual fee. (Actually, I think everyone at NerdWallet had that card. We were not a happy office when it got canceled.) It was an excellent card, and I’m sorry to see it go. FIA transferred the cards over to Bank of America. BofA then offered as replacements the no-fee BankAmericard or the BankAmericard Privileges, which comes with a $75 annual fee. I’m the very definition of a limited credit history, so I wanted to keep the account open. I stuck it in a drawer and haven’t used it since. That’s another benefit of no-fee cards for those of us with short credit histories: you can keep them open to up your credit score without incurring any fees.

Stephen, Content Development Specialist: Chase Freedom

I value my time. When I’m not in the office, I’d rather not be thinking about finance. But I also want to make sure I’m taking care of my money and making the most of my accounts. By consolidating my finances with Chase, I’ve optimized my wallet for simplicity and convenience without sacrificing rewards.

My paychecks are electronically transferred through Chase QuickPay. I have a fast, direct way to deposit my earnings into my checking account. When my company sends a payment, I receive an e-mail notification. To accept, I simply log onto the Chase website and click a few buttons. It takes all of 30 seconds and is infinitely more convenient than making an unnecessary trip to the bank every couple weeks.

My Chase Freedom is a fairly new acquisition. Throughout college, I never held a credit card. So after graduation, I was a little uncertain whether I’d be able to qualify for something with halfway decent terms. My fellow nerd Anisha suggested I apply for the Chase Freedom. I knew it to be a good card but, because of my limited credit history, was skeptical they’d approve my application. Regardless, I applied online and crossed my fingers. Miraculously, I was approved in a matter of minutes and received my card within a week.

The Freedom makes a nice addition to my Chase suite. I manage it on the same site where I can view my checking account and QuickPay transfers. In order to establish credit and earn rewards, I use the Freedom for all my day-to-day transactions. On the Chase website, I was able to set up an automatic payment that links my checking account to my credit card. My credit card balance is automatically deducted from my checking account on the monthly due date. Because I pay in full, I never accumulate interest but am able to build my credit while receiving rewards.

The Freedom offers an excellent rewards system and does not charge an annual fee. I earn 5% cash back in rotating categories that change four times a year. I’m not sure how much my spending habits will actually align with the category calendar, but I also get a flat 1% cash back rate on everything else. Right now, I’m working to earn the Freedom’s signing bonus. If and when I spend $500 in the first 3 months, Chase will give me $200 cash back. I’m not altering my spending to hit the mark; my usual expenditures should get me there. It truly is a free $200.

In short, I don’t want to worry about my money. Consolidating everything to a single bank ensures simple and convenient financial management. The only management I HAVE TO do is hop on the computer twice a month to accept my QuickPay transfers. Of course, I like to periodically check up my account activity and checking balance and rewards accrual, but, theoretically, I could spend less than 5 minutes a month maintaining my accounts, and that’s the way I like it.

Laura, Content Development Specialist: Wescom Visa Preferred

Despite my reputation as a “credit card enthusiast”, my wallet is fairly modest. I have a no-frills Visa card from Wescom Central Credit Union. I got it when I was 18 years old by piggybacking off my parents’ credit score, and I’ve mostly been using it to build credit. My father encouraged me to get a card with a low APR, no annual fee and a low credit limit, which he thought was “safer for online shopping”. I think he was worried my information would get stolen, and at least this way the thieves couldn’t rack up a huge bill. Mind you, services like PayPal were a bit sketchier in 2003, so I guess he had a good point at the time.

Credit unions are great for simple cards like my Wescom Visa. It’s served its purpose well and I’ve been happy with it. I’d recommend getting one if you’re looking to build your credit score or need a safe fallback for spending beyond your means. Personally, I’m ready to move on. Now that I have a track record of timely payments and I’ve paid off my student loans (yay!), I’m in an excellent position to apply for a rewards credit card. I’ve worked really hard to stay on top of my finances and now my credit score is great! I deserve a little extra cash back for being such a responsible consumer all these years, don’t I?