If you’re like most credit card customers, you’ve gotten notes from your bank in recent weeks. Perhaps the card company told you that the interest rate was rising a few percentage points. Or, it cut your credit limit in half. Maybe an annual fee has appeared for a rewards programme as part of an “enhancement”, or the travel points no longer yield quite as much as they used to.
Irritated by the changes? Inclined to take your business elsewhere now? This is exactly the right instinct, since plenty of people can get a better deal from a different card. Fee-free balance transfers still exist. And banks have barely touched the most lucrative rewards programmes—and wouldn’t dare fiddle too much, given the revenue they generate. The best revenge is a better card. Here’s how to find one.
If you have card debt
If you pay your bill in full each month and are only trying to maximize rewards, you can skip this section. If you carry a balance, please stop. If you lack self-control and want to put a stranglehold on your spending, use a debit card instead. Once you have it, ask your bank to turn off any overdraft protection that would allow you to spend more than you have at the bank.
If you carry debt part of the year because of irregular income—or have changed your habits but are still paying your way out of the hole—there may still be ways to pay less interest. Start by calling the card company, telling it that you’re considering leaving and asking for a better deal. The worst thing that can happen is that it will say no.
One big caveat: You’ll need a very good credit score to have your pick of cards and to get a high enough credit limit to be able to transfer your entire balance. Also, keep in mind that if you get a new card, the issuers of your old card may cut your credit limit, which can hurt your credit score. They’ll argue that you’re greater risk, since you have more available credit lines all of a sudden, and that you could run up debt quickly before declaring bankruptcy. To you, however, it might look like punishment for fleeing.
If you’ve tried a few times to apply for a card and failed, it’s probably best to stop, since the inquiries on your credit report that result from repeated credit applications can hurt your score further. Better to pay the debt on the old card as soon as possible. You can improve your score that way since you won’t be using as much of your available credit, and you can save the next section of this column for once you’re out of debt and your score has improved.
If you want cash back
Let’s start with my first principle of rewards cards. Whether you’re seeking cash back, travel points or frequent-flier miles, users of credit card programmes typically earn something for all the money they are charged, assuming they always pay their bills and never pay interest.
If you want travel rewards
Airline frequent-flier cards are still popular and remain the best credit card deal going for certain consumers. If you can fly when the airline has available seats at the lowest price in miles for your destination, and travel in first or business class to overseas locales, your miles may end up being worth 5 or 10 cents each, or more, given what you would have paid in cash for the seats. Not bad if you can swing it.
If you can’t, the Citi PremierPass Elite Level card earns points based on what you spend and how many miles you or others fly on flights you paid for with the card. This card can also yield well over a penny a point, though the details are complex.
My top-of-wallet card continues to be the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card. The Starwood points are easy to use at its hotels, such as the Westin and W chains, and they can easily be worth 3 cents or more. You can also trade points for miles on several airlines, and if you trade enough points at a time, you end up with 1.25 miles for every dollar spent on the card.
But what’s best for you will depend on whether you want only one card in your wallet (skip Amex then, since it isn’t accepted everywhere) and whether you prefer straight cash back, free travel or something else entirely.
What we all share, however, is a desire to pay less and earn more than the average customer. We can’t all be above average. But right now, when card companies are wondering how many changes they can make before driving us away, you’d be crazy not to try.
©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
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