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Do you have a favorite card you grab to pay for anything from a pack of gum to a new TV to a beach vacation? If you’re like most cardholders, you may be losing out on sweeter rewards by staying loyal to that card.
A new poll by CreditCards.com found only 15 percent of U.S. credit card holders have swapped out their go-to card in the past year. Over 20 percent say it’s been five years or longer, and 30 percent have never changed the card that sits top of wallet.
Why do Americans love their go-to card? Most cardholders (40 percent) picked rewards as the best benefit offered by their top card. And 67 percent of those consumers say cash back is their reward of choice.
Cardholders who stay with the same card for years without shopping around may be missing out, says Nick Ewen, senior points and miles editor for The Points Guy. That applies even to consumers who prefer the simplicity of cash back.
Many new cards have been released recently while others have been revamped and now offer more valuable rewards, Ewen points out. That means complacent cardholders might be missing out on a new card that offers a juicy sign-up bonus or bigger rewards, or is simply a better fit for their spending habits.
“Cardholders are creatures of habit,” says credit card expert John Ulzheimer. “When they find a card they like, they tend to keep it in their wallet in the No. 1 position.”
See related: How many credit cards should you have?
Cash back is king for cardholders
It’s not surprising the survey found Americans love cash back far more than they love points and miles, Ulzheimer says.
“Everyone understands the value of a dollar, cash has no blackout dates and it can be used for anything – including to buy an airline ticket or pay for a hotel room,” Ulzheimer says.
These results underscore the fact that consumers value the ease and flexibility of spending cash over the ability to maximize the value of miles and points by putting in time and effort, Ulzheimer says.
“There are people who almost make it a part-time job to maximize the value of their rewards,” he says. “But I think most people have other things to do with their lives.”
Here are some other highlights of the CreditCards.com survey that shed light on cardholders’ relationships with their favorite cards:
- Cash is less popular with high earners. It’s also to be expected that affinity for cash back dips as annual income increases, Ulzheimer says. After all, it’s nice to be able to use the cash for groceries or to pay a bill in a pinch. Cash back is the top reward choice of almost three-quarters (74 percent) of Americans from households with annual incomes under $40,000 a year compared with 60 percent of those from households making over $80,000 a year. “At some point, I’d imagine if you make enough money you don’t even give a rip about cash back,” Ulzheimer says.
- Younger millennials favor flexibility. Of cardholders who chose rewards as their favorite perk, 13 percent picked flexible and transferrable points as their reward of choice. However, almost one quarter (23 percent) of young millennials, ages 23 to 29, chose flexible and transferrable rewards – more cardholders than in any other age group. “It’s fantastic that they’re not willing to be shoehorned into one type of reward,” Ulzheimer says. Still, over half (58 percent) of young millennials prefer cash back.
- Hotel points are the least popular reward. Some cardholders would rather have an Amazon card or a toaster than a night at a hotel. Of the cardholders who picked rewards as their favorite perk, 13 percent picked “other rewards” such as gift cards or merchandise. Only five percent chose airline miles and just two percent picked hotel points. That’s not surprising because most cardholders mistakenly think hotel points are only for business travelers and loyalists of one hotel brand, says rewards expert Stephanie Zito, who writes guides on travel hacking and other rewards topics. It’s important to note that some hotel points, such as Marriott rewards, are transferrable, she says. “They are essentially flexible points,” she says.
(See survey methodology)
Cardholders angle for ongoing benefits
The survey also looked at what drew cardholders to their favorite card in the first place. About one in four (24 percent) said it was the rewards offered for ongoing spending that first caught their eye. The second most popular answer (14 percent) was that the card had a low interest rate or an introductory rate through a balance transfer offer.
Despite all the attention received by hot sign-up bonuses, a surprisingly small number of cardholders (6 percent) chose their top-of-wallet card for that reason.
“I think the value of a sign-up bonus is overblown,” Ulzheimer says. “It’s healthy that we’re not being duped into signing up for a card we don’t want because they’re throwing a massive bonus at us.”
Instead, cardholders are focusing on the ongoing rewards structure and whether the card is a match for their spending habits and life. People want to stay loyal to their primary card as long as they like the rewards, they have no usability issues and they haven’t had a horrible customer service experience, Ulzheimer says.
Issuers want to keep you for the long haul
Issuers still want to attract new cardholders and will continue to offer welcome bonuses, Ewen says. However, card companies are now focusing more on offering ongoing benefits that will sustain the cardholder relationship for years.
Just in the past year, for example, the American Express® Gold Card began offering 4 points per dollar spent on dining at U.S. restaurants and purchases at U.S. supermarkets on up to $25,000 in spending per year.
Also, the Citi Prestige card recently relaunched with revamped rewards that include 5 points per dollar spent on dining and flights and 3 points per dollar spent on cruises. And Capital One unveiled new airline partnerships that will allow cardholders to transfer miles.
“The big shift we’re seeing is that issuers really want cardholders who are not just going to earn the bonus and then shove the card in back of their wallet,” Ewen says.
“The big shift we’re seeing is that issuers really want cardholders who are not just going to earn the bonus and then shove the card in back of their wallet.”
Maximize the value of your top card
Want to make sure you’re getting the most value possible from your relationship with your favorite credit card? Here are five tips from rewards experts on how to make your spending go further:
- Shop around regularly. It’s a good idea to take a look at what cards are available at least once a year, such as when you do your taxes or check your credit, Zito recommends. “If you aren’t thinking about it, you could be missing out on something else that could be better for you,” Zito says. In addition to looking at card benefits and perks, look at your own spending habits and goals. “If you never eat at restaurants, it doesn’t matter if a card offers 12 points per dollar on dining,” she says.
- Calculate your cash back. If you’re one of the many cardholders who opt for cash back, make sure you’re not leaving money on the table. Use the Citi Double Cash Card, which offers 1 percent when you spend and another 1 percent when you pay your bill, as a baseline, Ewen recommends. “If you have another card that’s not getting you an overall 2 percent return, you may be shorting yourself,” he says.
- Expand your reward horizons. Even if you love cash back, you may want to think about dipping your toe into points and miles as well. “If you’re solely focused on cash back, you may be missing out on more lucrative reward opportunities,” Ewen says. For example, rewards diehards may be able to turn $10,000 in spending into a first-class plane ticket that would cost $20,000, which is much more valuable than $100 cash back, Zito says. But it takes a lot of time and know how to get to that level with rewards, Zito says.
- Use multiple go-to cards. If you use just one card for all of your spending, consider expanding to two, Ewen recommends. For example, you might be able to boost your rewards earnings by paying for restaurant meals and groceries on a card that offers extra points for dining purchases while booking your travel on a card that offers greater rewards on flights and hotels. “You can optimize your purchasing,” Ewen says. “And carrying two cards shouldn’t be too overwhelming.”
- Rack up flexible rewards. Young millennials have the right idea in valuing flexible rewards, experts say. It’s smart to consider carrying a card that offers flexible or transferrable rewards because these types of rewards allow you to pick the best airline for a certain trip or to cover other travel costs like car rental on the fly, Zito says. “Every person who has an iota of interest in traveling should earn flexible points in some form,” Ewen says.
Finally, the cardholders who chose low interest as their reason for sticking with their go-to card should focus on paying off their bills and avoiding carrying a balance from month to month in the future, Ulzheimer says.
“Credit card debt tends to be the most expensive debt consumers will ever carry next to payday loans,” he says.
See related: What would the perfect cash back card look like?
CreditCards.com commissioned YouGov to conduct interviews with 2,524 adults, including 1,739 credit card holders. The online poll was conducted Feb. 6-8, 2019. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic differences between the sample and the U.S. population.