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The Best Credit Cards…

Our Picks for the Best Credit Cards

When most people think “best credit card,” they think rewards. When it comes to getting the most rewards possible, it’s hard to beat the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. Here’s what you get if you sign up for the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: 6% cash back at supermarkets, for up to $6,000 in purchases per year (that’s a lot of cash back — there aren’t any other cards that offer 6% back on anything); 3% cash back at gas stations and select department stores; and 1% cash back on everything else — plus a $200 cash back bonus after you make $1,000 in purchases in the first three months.

Your cash back will come in the form of statement credits, meaning it can only use be used to pay off your credit card balance, as opposed to, say, redeemable gift cards. Imagine if you could wipe out your credit card balance over the course of a year, just by being rewarded for everyday purchases. This card comes with a $95 annual fee. But you’ll probably easily pay off that annual fee with your cash back rewards, and still have more left over than pretty much any other card on the market.

Others to consider: Chase Freedom® and Discover it® Cashback Match™. Both of these no-annual-fee cards offer 5% cash back on rotating categories that change every quarter (for up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter), as well as 1% cash back on all other purchases. Chase Freedom® throws in a $150 bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months of opening your account, while Discover it® Cashback Match™ matches all of the cash back you earn in your first year as a cardmember. Learn more in our review of the best cash back credit cards.

Credit card rewards tend to fall into two big categories: cash back and travel. The reason to get a travel credit card instead of a cash back card is because they provide valuable travel benefits, like trip cancellation insurance, concierge services, and more. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® is our favorite. Other top travel cards only give you the highest point or mile value when you spend money in specific categories, but the Barclaycard gives you 2x miles back on all purchases, no matter what category, with no purchase limit. That means every purchase you make, from your weekly grocery trip to your new pair of hiking boots, earns you 2x miles that you can redeem toward travel expenses. You also get 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days, and 5% miles back every time you redeem your miles — as well as no foreign transaction fees, a 24/7 travel card concierge service, and travel accident and trip cancellation insurance. This card includes an $89 annual fee, which is waived during the first year of card ownership.

One mile is worth roughly one cent, so here’s how your rewards break down:
Your miles/cash back rewards are redeemable as statement credits to pay off the cost of your travel. If you bought a $1,600 round-trip overseas plane ticket, for example, you’d earn 3,200 miles and be able to deduct $32 off that purchase on your credit card statement — plus you’d get a 5% bonus for redeeming your rewards, which would give you 160 more miles, or $1.60. Also, because Barclaycard gives you 2x miles on everything, if you put $5,000 on your Barclaycard in the months leading up to your trip, you’d earn 10,000 miles and have another $100 to deduct off your plane ticket (plus you’d get the 5% bonus, which would get you another 500 miles, or $5).

Others to consider: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve℠. Whereas the Barclaycard is designed to reward everyday spending with travel perks, these cards are for anyone who is already spending significant money on travel. With Chase Sapphire Preferred® you earn 2x points on travel (from airfare and hotels, to taxis and trains) and restaurants worldwide; Chase Sapphire Reserve® gives you 3x points on travel and dining. Both offer 1 point per $1 for all other purchases, and 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months. Although Chase Ultimate Rewards® lets you shop at various major retailers — your points increase if you redeem them via the Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel portal (think flights, hotels, etc), by 25% with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, and 50% with Chase Sapphire Reserve℠. Each point is worth roughly one cent, so 100,000 points with on your Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ could be worth $1,500 when redeemed for travel purchases made through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s additional travel perks are comparable to the Barclaycard’s, and it also waives the $95 annual fee for the first year, but the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ adds on significantly more perks: complimentary Priority Pass™ Select membership, which gets you into 900-plus airport lounges worldwide; special car rental privileges from National Car Rental, Avis, and Silvercar when you book with your card; and special benefits during your stay with The Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection℠. That’s why so many people are willing to pay the $450 annual fee to get the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ card. Learn more in our review of the best travel credit cards.

If you’ve never had a credit card before, we recommend one that is going to give you serious rewards, plus double those rewards at the end of your first year. The Discover it® Cashback Match™’s rewards aren’t quite as high as our top cash back credit card, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, but we think this is a great starter card because:

  • There’s no annual fee.
  • You can track your FICO score and learn what factors are affecting your credit score.
  • You get to practice keeping track of your rewards categories.
  • Discover will match all the cash back you earn in your first year.

The Discover it® Cashback Match™ offers 5% cash back on categories that rotate every quarter for up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter, as well as 1% cash back on all other purchases. For example, in January to March 2018, Discover lets you earn 5% cash back at gas stations and wholesale clubs, and April to June 2018 you can earn it at grocery stores.

We suggest you spend your first year with the Discover it® Cashback Match™ and then review your spending habits. Did you get the most out of the rotating categories, or would it make sense to upgrade to the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express with its consistent 6% back on groceries? Maybe you realize that your biggest expenses come from travel, and you’ll be better off with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

Another to consider: Chase Freedom®. There are still a few merchants who don’t take Discover, so we also want to highlight the Chase Freedom® card. It’s almost identical to the Discover it® Cashback Match™: There’s no annual fee; you get 5% off rotating categories for up to $1,500 in purchases every quarter; and you get 1% cash back on all other purchases. In January to March 2018, their 5% is on gas stations, internet/phone services, and digital pay services (like Android Pay and Apple Pay). With Chase Freedom®, you don’t get your cash back matched at the end of the year, but you do get a $150 cash back bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months of account opening. Learn more about which is right for you in our review of the best first credit cards.

Chase Slate®One of the only cards that offers both a 0% intro annual percentage rate (APR) for 15 months, plus fee-free balance transfers in the first 60 days.

If you’re carrying credit card debt, it’s time to transfer that balance to a card that’ll let you pay it off without paying interest. With Chase Slate®, you get fee-free balance transfers for the first 60 days of account opening, plus a 15-month 0% intro APR. That’s special: Pretty much all other cards charge a 3% or 5% balance transfer fee, which means that you’ll pay $30 to $50 in fees for every $1,000 you transfer. (After the 60-day intro period, Chase Slate® charges a 5% balance transfer fee.)

With a 15-month 0% intro APR on both purchases and balance transfers, you can knock out a significant chunk of your debt without paying any interest — and you won’t pay an annual fee to use this card either. Plus, you’ll get monthly access to your FICO score as well as tools to help you understand, as Chase Slate® puts it, “the five main attributes that drive your credit health.” Note: If your outstanding credit card balance is on a Chase card, you won’t be able to transfer it to the Chase Slate®. Learn more in our review of the best balance transfer cards.

If you’re looking to improve a bad credit score, you want a secured credit card (this may also be the only kind of credit card you’ll qualify for). These cards are “secured” because you put down a security deposit, and in return you get a credit card with a small line of credit. Use that line of credit to prove that you can use credit responsibly (always make on-time payments; don’t max out your card; try to pay your balance off in full every month) and watch your credit score rise.

A lot of secured cards are packed with fees. The Discover it® Secured Credit Card – No Annual Fee* is not, and that’s why it’s our favorite. With this card, you won’t pay any fees aside from your initial security deposit, and you’ll even earn cash back rewards: 2% cash back on restaurants and gas station purchases for up to $1,000 in combined purchases every quarter, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. Plus, Discover will match your cash back at the end of your first year as a cardmember. Your line of credit is equal to your security deposit, and you become eligible to get your deposit returned after proof of responsible credit use. Discover lets you track your FICO score for free, so use that tool to keep an eye on your credit score as you work your way out of bad credit.

Another to consider: Capital One® Secured MasterCard®. Capital One’s secured card doesn’t get you cash back, but it does give you the opportunity to earn a credit limit that’s higher than your initial security deposit. When you open your account, you get an initial credit line of $200 — but your security deposit can be as low as $49, depending on your creditworthiness. After five months of on-time payments, Capital One will increase your credit line without requiring an additional security deposit. Plus, you get access to Capital One’s CreditWise® app, which is designed to help you understand and improve your credit score. Learn more in our review of the best credit cards for bad credit.

Having fair credit means you are this close to having good credit. The problem? You need credit to build credit, and many credit cards only accept applicants with good or excellent credit.
However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have options — including ones with rewards. Our favorite fair credit credit card is the Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card. This card gets you unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, and it carries a pretty reasonable $39 annual fee, as well as a 0% intro APR for nine months. The real purpose of the Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card is to help you improve your credit so you become eligible for one of those high-rewards cards. Use Capital One’s free CreditWise® app, which gives you unlimited access to your TransUnion VantageScore 3.0 credit score and helps you plan strategies to improve your rating. See how quickly you can take it from fair to good.

Discover it® for StudentsNo annual fee, 5% back on rotating categories, and Discover matches your cash back at the end of the first year.

The Discover it® for Students offers identical benefits to the Discover it® Cashback Match™ and makes an excellent starter credit card. Plus, Discover gives an extra $20 every time you complete the school year with a 3.0 GPA or above, for up to five years. Before you sign up for this card, take a look at Discover’s Cashback Calendar and see if you’re likely to make a lot of purchases in those rotating 5% categories. You’ll also need to visit the Discover website to activate your 5% cash back categories every quarter; otherwise you’ll only earn 1% back no matter what you buy.

Others to consider:Discover it® Chrome for Students and Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®. If you looked at Discover’s Cashback Calendar and decided you didn’t like any of the 5% cash back categories, consider the Discover it® Chrome for Students or the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® instead. The Discover it® Chrome for Students gets you 2% cash back on gas stations and restaurants, for up to $1,000 in combined purchases per quarter, as well as 1% cash back on all other purchases — plus you get the $20 GPA bonus and you get your cash back doubled at the end of your first year as a card member. The Capital One Journey for Students gives you 1% cash back on all purchases, but bumps your cash back up to 1.25% every month you pay on time. Learn more in our review of the best credit cards for students.

Other Credit Cards to Consider

We’ve read the fine print and done the analysis on some other categories of credit cards. See if any of these categories are right for you.
Best Airline Credit Cards
Best Gas Credit Cards
Best Business Credit Cards
Best No-Fee Credit Cards
Best Low-Interest Credit Cards
The Best Charge Cards
The Best American Express Cards
The Best MasterCard Credit Cards
The Best Visa Credit Cards
The Best No-Interest Credit Cards

Did You Know?

You don’t have to choose just one card.

This sounds obvious, but not everyone thinks of it: If you like the rewards offered by more than one credit card, apply for both cards and use them to maximize your rewards. For example, get the Chase Freedom® and the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you could use your Chase Freedom® card to earn 5% on Chase’s rotating categories and your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to earn 2x points on travel and restaurant purchases. Then you could pool your cash back and your points together and redeem them through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

But don’t apply for too many credit cards within a short time frame.

Yes, apply for more than one credit card to maximize your rewards — but don’t go overboard. Applying for too many credit cards within a short time frame can ding your credit score because the credit bureaus will wonder why you need so much credit all of a sudden. (Are you going to buy something really expensive and never pay it off?) Some credit card issuers, notably Chase, will even decline your application if it looks like you’ve applied for too many cards recently — more than five credit cards in the past 24 months — even if you weren’t accepted for those cards.

How many credit cards should a person have?

“There really isn’t a top-end limit as to the ‘right’ number of cards,” credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax, told us. “If you use them properly and sparingly, then it doesn’t really matter if you have a lot of them. Plus having a lot of credit cards with zero balances is great for your credit scores.” Joe Saul-Sehy, former financial advisor and current host of the Stacking Benjamins podcast, agrees. “I used to think that less credit cards were better. If you’re responsible with credit, having more open credit cards — and more unused credit — can make your credit score better over time.” This is because the credit bureaus compare the amount of credit available to you vs. the amount of credit you’re actually using. It’s called a credit utilization ratio, and having a low ratio is great for your credit score.

Saul-Sehy suggests asking yourself two questions before applying for a credit card:
How many fees will I be paying?
Can I pay my balance off in full every month?

For the first question: We’ve done the research to ensure that none of our top picks have sneaky hidden fees, but some credit cards do. When we were looking at the fine print, we found credit cards with monthly “servicing fees” and other credit cards that charged fees to receive paper statements by mail. Always read the terms and conditions thoroughly before applying for a credit card.

What about the annual fee? Here’s Saul-Sehy’s advice: “Some of the best credit cards have annual fees, and people are willing to spend a decent amount of money on them, but balance the fees against what you’re hoping to earn.” If you’re applying for the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, for example, you need to make $1,584 in grocery purchases before your 6% cash back equals the card’s $95 annual fee — but you could also wipe out the cost of that annual fee by earning the card’s $250 bonus after putting $1,000 on your Blue Cash Preferred® Card in the first three months of opening your account.

Which brings us to Saul-Sehy’s second question: If you put $1,000 on your Blue Cash Preferred® Card in the first three months — or make $1,584 in grocery purchases — can you pay that balance off in full? If not, you’ll get stuck paying interest. “Rewards are put there by the credit card companies because they know people won’t pay off their balances in full every month,” Saul-Sehy explained. Don’t let that happen to you.

How do you know if you’ll qualify for one of these cards?

Get to know your credit score and how to improve it. If one of our top picks isn’t under “best for bad credit” or “best for fair credit,” assume the card requires good or excellent credit. Before you apply for any credit cards, look up your credit score and figure out where you fall. Here’s how FICO breaks it down:

Exceptional: Above 800
Very Good: 740 – 799
Good: 670 – 739
Fair: 580 – 669
Poor: Below 580

The best way to get that credit score up is to make on-time payments, pay off your balances, and keep your credit utilization ratio low. Also, if you pay off a credit card, don’t cancel it (unless the card comes with a bunch of fees you’d rather not pay). Keeping credit cards open, even if you aren’t actually using them, improves your credit score because it proves that lenders have given you credit for an extended period of time.

The Best Credit Cards: Summed Up

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