New data indicates that Americans are hitting the plastic with increasing frequency when it comes to their holiday spending. This can be a trap for the unwary or undisciplined: Those credit card marketers know exactly what they’re doing and make it easy for a one-time indulgence to turn into a steady habit of overspending. But for financial savvy consumers, a new credit card around the holidays can be a smart move. Card issuers are dangling a lot of huge offers — two cards offer 40% cash back on the first $500 in purchases — in front of people with high credit scores.
TIME Moneyland tapped four credit card experts to ask them about their current picks. Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com; John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com; Beverly Harzog, credit card expert at Credit.com, and Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of CardHub.com, all offered input on the top offers that consumers can use to stretch their holiday spending dollars.
All of the experts pointed to the Citi Dividend World MasterCard, which is offering new cardmembers a $200 cash back bonus if they spend $500 in the first three months after being approved. The card is also offering extra cash back deals that might be helpful for holiday shoppers: 5% cash back for purchases at department stores, clothing boutiques, electronics stores and toy stores. (There’s a $300 limit on reward earnings annually.) There’s no annual fee, but the APR can climb to around 23%.
The Chase Freedom Visa, also mentioned by all of the experts, has a very similar offer. It gives new cardholders a $200 cash back bonus after they spend $500 within the first three months. It has accelerated rewards of 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases at restaurants and department stores, as well as on charitable donations, through the end of the year. Also like the Citi card, it doesn’t have an annual fee but carries a top APR of around 23%.
Both Ulzheimer and Papadimitriou also point toward the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. This one is a better pick for heavy spenders because users have to charge $3,000 within the first three months in order to earn the bonus. The Sapphire Preferred is billed as a points card rather than a cash back card, so the sign-up bonus needs a little conversion: The initial 50,000 points cardholders get add up to a $500 statement credit or $625 in travel-related rewards such as airfare or hotel stays. Cardholders also get double points on travel and dining charges.
Arnold from CardRatings.com suggests the Blue Cash Preferred American Express. While the cashback bonus — $150 after spending $1,000 within the first three months — is smaller than some of the others on the list, the tradeoff is that this card offers 6% off grocery stores and 3% off department stores. These cash back categories are permanent, so cardholders don’t have to keep track of rotating categories or signing up for quarterly promotions. It also offers a six- or 12-month 0% introductory APR (depending on the applicant’s credit score). One bummer: the $75 annual fee.
“Something to keep in mind — these cards require that you have great credit scores,” cautions SmartCredit’s Ulzheimer. “These aggressive terms and rewards aren’t available for people with bad credit, but that’s not a surprise.”
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