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10 questions you should always ask about credit card rewards

July 31, 2015

| MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA

Everybody likes a reward, right? Well, when it comes to credit card rewards programs, how worthwhile the rewards are depends on the terms of the program, and on how you use the credit card. The best credit cards for some people may not be suitable for others.

Before you sign up for a rewards program, ask yourself these 10 questions:

1. Are the rewards cash back or for specific goods or services?

Some programs pay rewards in the form of cash back, while others award you points redeemable for things like merchandise or travel.

Tip: All else being equal, lean towards cash rewards since they are the most versatile.

2. What is the cash value rate?

To compare the actual value of different types of rewards programs, figure out the cash value of each reward earned for every dollar you spent. This allows you to compare rewards across different categories.

Tip: Even programs that pay off in travel miles or merchandise usually have a cash conversion rate you can use for comparisons.

3. Are rewards automatic or do you have to register periodically?

Many credit cards pay their awards automatically, but some have special categories - such as more cash back for gas or retail stores - that require you to register periodically.

Tip: Those special categories can have the highest reward rates, such as 5 percent for a limited time, compared to a normal rate of 1 percent.

4. Will you spend more to chase rewards?

Typical rewards have a value of 1 percent of what you spend, while credit card interest rates average 13.49 percent (and rewards cards are usually higher), so additional spending could easily cost more than the rewards you earn.

Tip: If earning rewards influences you to spend more, these programs will probably hurt you more than they will help.

5. Do rewards expire?

Some rewards have a limited shelf life - they expire after a specified period if you don't redeem them.

Tip: Make redeeming points part of your routine when you pay the credit card bill.

6. Will you be diligent about redeeming rewards?

Some people sign up for rewards programs but never bother to cash them in, which is a waste.

Tip: Even if rewards are not scheduled to expire, credit cards do periodically terminate these programs, so if you don't expect you'll regularly redeem your awards, don't choose a rewards card.

7. How does the interest rate compare with comparable rewards credit cards?

Comparing rewards may be the fun part, but don't forget to compare interest rates before choosing a card.

Tip: Differences in rates are often much greater than differences in rewards programs. Even when choosing a rewards program, keep your primary focus on the interest rate.

8. How does the interest rate compare with non-rewards cards?

In exchange for the rewards you can earn, rewards credit cards typically charge a higher interest rate than non-rewards cards.

Tip: Only by knowing how much extra interest you would pay will tell you whether the potential rewards are worth the price.

9. How much of a credit balance do you expect to carry?

The above interest rate comparisons are especially important if you expect to regularly carry a significant credit balance. The higher the balance you carry, the more higher interest rates will cost you.

Tip: Consumers who carry little or no credit balances from month-to-month don't have to worry about paying extra interest for their rewards.

10. Are there fees associated with this card?

Besides higher interest rates, annual fees are another way you might have to pay for earning rewards.

Tip: There are no-fee rewards cards available, so focus on these when shopping for a rewards credit card.

Best case, if you earn generous cash rewards and pay off your credit balance every month, credit card rewards programs can be a way of getting a discount on things you would have bought anyway. However, if you often carry a large credit balance or are tempted to buy things you normally wouldn't, rewards programs might not be worth the cost for you.

What do you look for in a rewards credit card? Let us know in the comments!

More from MoneyRates.com:

Do credit card rewards make you spend more?

5 no-nonsense tips for reward credit cards

6 things you need to know about getting a new credit card

5 money-saving tips all millennials need to know about credit cards

July 28, 2015

By Dan Rafter | Money Rates Columnist

Don't shy away from taking out a credit card. That's the advice Rick Roque gives to millennials.

Roque, managing director of retail at Southfield, Michigan-based Michigan Mutual, says that the fastest way for millennials to build a credit history - a necessity today - is by making purchases with their credit cards. Then pay off these balances on time and in full at the end of every billing cycle.

Those millennials who don't think they need credit cards? They're making a big financial mistake, Roque says.

"There are some young people who think that credit cards aren't for them," Roque says. "That is a huge mistake. As a young consumer, you always need to be on the path of building the amount of credit available to you and of building a credit history. It is almost impossible to do that when you're just starting out as an adult without using credit cards."

The message is clear: Credit cards are important financial tools today. But they are also easy to misuse. Here are five tips for millennials who understand that they need credit cards but don't want to fall victim to late fees, soaring interest rates or massive debt.

1. Use cards as a tool to build a credit history

Here's why Roque says that credit cards are so important to millennials: Lenders today -- and even many employers, landlords and insurance providers -- study your three-digit credit score. If your score is low, you'll struggle to qualify for home or auto loans. You might even struggle to land a job, and you might have to pay higher interest rates for auto insurance. A score that is too low might even keep you from moving into your dream apartment unit.

The challenge many young consumers face is that they don't have enough of a credit history to even have a credit score. That's because many of the bills that young consumers regularly pay, such as utility bills, medical bills and cell phone payments, aren't reported to the three credit reporting bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. As a result, these on-time payments have no positive impact on the credit reports of young consumers.

But credit card payments are reported to the bureaus. This fact makes it important for millennials to apply for credit cards, charge items on them each month and then pay off their bill in full and on time each month. Do this, and your credit history -- and credit score -- will steadily grow.

"Without a credit history, it is very difficult to get your life going after college," says Sean Quigley, author of the book "The Cash Play: Capitalizing on the Opportunity Value of Cash" and life and retirement specialist at Omaha-based insurance company Harold Diers & Company. "It is almost impossible to find an apartment that does not require a credit check in order to rent a unit. Responsible use of credit cards gives you a credit history that will enable the landlord to take you seriously as a tenant."

2. Can't get credit card approval? Apply for a secured credit card

Millennials might not have enough of a credit history to be approved for a traditional credit card. But they can apply for secured credit cards.

Secured credit cards operate much like traditional credit cards, but their spending limits are tied to your bank account, meaning that you can only borrow as much as you have in the bank account connected to the card. So if you have a checking account with $800 in it, you can't run up a balance on your secured card higher than that amount.

Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations and external affairs for the Washington D.C.-based National Foundation for Credit Counseling, said that millennials who charge purchases on secured cards and then pay them off on time each month will steadily build their credit histories.

But it's important for millennials to make sure that the banks issuing them secured cards do report their payments to the three credit bureaus.

"Otherwise, all that work of applying for a secured card, making purchases and paying them off each month is wasted," McClary says. "It will have no positive impact on your credit."

3. Late payments hurt ... but you have time to fix them

You should know that a late credit card payment will send your credit score tumbling. You'll also incur a late fee from your creditor, usually ranging from $15 to $35.

But the biggest financial hit of a late payment comes when your interest rate rises to what credit card companies call the penalty rate. Expect your interest rate to soar, often to as high as 29 percent, after you make late payments. This can be a devastating financial blow if you carry a balance on your card each month.

The key here, though, is to make your payment as soon as you can, even if you've already missed your payment deadline. Your credit card provider typically won't report your missed payment to the credit bureaus until you are at least 30 days late. And many won't levy a penalty interest rate until you're at least 60 days late. So make that payment as soon as you can, even if you are already a week or two late.

"You should always make sure to ask your credit card issuer when you'll actually be reported as being late to the credit bureaus," Roque says. "Your due date might be on the 27th of the month, but you should know when the true late date -- the date when your missed payment is reported to the bureaus -- is."

4. Don't charge too much ... even if you pay it off each month

It's important to use your credit card and pay your bill on time each month to build a credit history. But don't charge too much. Otherwise your credit score can suffer.

That's because your score falls when you consume too high of a percentage of your available credit. If you have a card with a credit limit of $1,000 and you have $800 worth of charges on it, your score will be lower than if you've only charged $300 on that same card.

Roque recommends that card holders never consume more than 40 percent of their available credit.

"That is a level of discipline that can be hard to maintain," Roque says. "But it's important to keep on top of these things."

5. Avoid making only the minimum payment each month

It's tempting to pay only your minimum required payment each month. After all, that amount could be as low as $30.

But paying only the minimum is a big financial mistake. Say you charge $1,500 on your credit card that comes with an interest rate of 19 percent. Your minimum required payment each month might be 4 percent of your outstanding balance. Even if you don't make any new purchases on this card -- unlikely -- by making only the minimum payment each month, you will spend seven years paying back your debt.

Even worse, you will have spent more than $800 in interest while doing so. So that $1,500 purchase will have cost you more than $2,300.

"Making your minimum payment is like hitting the gas pedal of your car when you're stuck in a rut," McClary says. "Your wheels are spinning but your car is going nowhere."

By avoiding these credit card mistakes, millennials can be on their way to building their credit for their financial future.

For more information on choosing the right card, visit the MoneyRates credit card section.

More from MoneyRates.com:

5 huge red flags that your spouse is sabotaging your budget

July 27, 2015

By Dan Rafter | Money Rates Columnist

You and your spouse created a household budget that you thought worked for both of you. But there are troubling signs that your spouse is sabotaging this budget each month.

Your credit-card balance should be shrinking, but it's not, and your spouse doesn't want to talk about all those purchases from the local department store. Then there's the notice delivered to your mailbox that your utility bill hasn't been paid on time.

These are all warning signs that your spouse isn't sticking to your household budget and is -- consciously or subconsciously -- wrecking your finances. It's important to identify these signs and to speak with your spouse about the overspending or missed payments.

Those spouses who ignore the red flags? They risk not only the health of their finances but of their marriage, too.

"When one spouse spends more there can be resentment, distrust and anger," says financial attorney Leslie Tayne, author of "Life & Debt" and owner of Tayne Law Group in New York City. "Financial honesty is a key factor in happy marriages."

Worried that your spouse is sabotaging your monthly household budget? Here are five warning signs to look for:

1. Hidden credit card accounts

John Inhouse, managing director and market executive at the Atlanta office of Merrill Lynch, has worked with clients who discover that their spouses have a secret credit card account.

This is a huge red flag that your spouse isn't committed to your household budget, Inhouse said, and is using a hidden credit card to make secret purchases.

"Sometimes spouses have different mindsets," Inhouse says. "One might be more conservative when it comes to spending money, the other more aggressive. So one opens an account on the side without telling the other. They want to be able to spend money without getting a lecture from their spouse."

Often spouses don't discover this secret account until they are taking out a mortgage or auto loan together and notice their other half's credit report. And when they find out the hidden credit card account? It can be difficult for the shocked spouses to trust their partners again.

To avoid this kind of surprise, make sure that both you and your spouse each year order the free credit reports available to you from AnnualCreditReport.com. You and your partners can order one free credit report from each of the three national credit bureaus -- Equifax, TransUnion and Experian -- once every year. Spouses who don't want any unpleasant surprises should share their reports with each other. Reports will list any open credit accounts, including any secret credit card accounts.

If your spouse won't agree to this sharing? It's time to be wary.

2. Secret purchases

You and your spouse have agreed not to spend more than $400 a month on discretionary purchases and entertainment. Then when your monthly credit card bill arrives, you notice that your spouse spent $500 at the electronics store, purchasing a tablet that you've never even seen.

Such hidden purchases are another sure sign that your spouse is secretly sabotaging your household budget and draining your savings account.

If you're finding these purchases every month, it's time to schedule a meeting with your spouse. And be prepared to work out a solution during it. Maybe your household budget isn't realistic, and you need to set aside more money for discretionary purchases and entertainment.

"It comes down to the whole issue of communication," says Jim McCarthy, certified financial planner with Directional Wealth Management in Rockaway, New Jersey. "You need to understand why your spouse felt the need to make that secret purchase. You might have to adjust your budget. In any kind of relationship, there needs to be some form of compromise on both sides. The sooner you catch those things, the better."

3. Your spouse tells you about big purchases ... after making them

Some spouses don't hide big purchases. They just fail to tell their spouses about their big buys until after they've made them.

This is another red flag: Ideally, you and your spouse would discuss whether that flat-screen TV fits in your budget before purchasing it. A spouse who buys first and tells you later is one who doesn't care about your household budget.

4. No time to talk budget

Household budgets are not static. They need to evolve as your household expenses, savings accounts and incomes rise and fall. But what if your spouse is never willing to make time to talk about household spending and budgeting? That might be another warning sign that your spouse would rather spend freely than stick to any budget.

"It is very important that you and your spouse work together to make the household budget," Tayne says. "You need to agree on where they money is gong and what you are spending on. Working together will promote financial transparency and help to discourage any arguments about money."

5. They're overly defensive

You notice an unusual purchase on the credit card account you share with your spouse. But when you ask your spouse about it, an argument immediately erupts. This is yet another red flag.

Spouses are often overly defensive when they feel guilty about making purchases that they know fall outside your household budget. If you can never have a calm discussion with your spouse about overspending, it's time to make a change.

"It's not always easy for spouses to talk about budgets," Inhouse says. "It's not fun. It can be uncomfortable. It's why many couples spend more time planning vacations than they do their household budgets. There can be arguments and hurt feelings. The key is to have a plan upfront so that both spouses know why this budget is important and why they are trying to save money."

Is your budget in danger after recognizing the signs above? Let us know in the comments!

More from MoneyRates.com:

Help! My spouse won't stop spending

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6 signs a couple should not say 'I do' to joint checking

6 signs a couple should not say 'I do' to joint checking

July 21, 2015

| MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA

Marriage should be a union of hearts, minds and souls… but checking accounts? Perhaps that's one area where the relationship would be healthier if each spouse kept a little personal space.

You've moved in together, you've worked out how to share expenses, so why not a joint checking account? After all, now that banks with free checking have become increasingly scarce, combining accounts might be the best way to get your balance up to a level that qualifies for a fee waiver.

Still, there are reasons that a joint checking account can be a bad idea, bad for your finances and possibly bad for your relationship.

Here are six signs that you and your beloved should not say "I do" to joint checking:

1. She's digital, he's paper

Morgan does her banking via iPhone and her debit card. Alan writes paper checks and visits branches and ATMs. This is a bad combination because their finances are traveling at different speeds.

Morgan's digital banking habits mean that transactions get posted to the account more quickly, and money is drawn from the account at a rate that more accurately reflects when expenses occur. Having transactions posted on two different schedules can lead to overdrafts and budgeting problems.

Note also that Morgan may be saving money by banking online, since free online bank accounts are still relatively common while free checking at branch-based banks has become increasingly rare.

2. He travels, she stays put

Roger's business takes him out of town several times a year, while Christine likes to stick close to home. She's been happy with her local bank for years, but Roger needs a bank with ATM locations where he travels.

If not, he'll repeatedly get dinged by out-of-network ATM fees, which total more than $4 per occurrence, according to the most recent MoneyRates.com bank fee survey. In this case, Christine can stick with her hometown bank, but Roger needs one with more of a national footprint.

3. She gets paid every two weeks, he gets paid monthly

This is one of those little things that lead to confusion in real time. Not having a clear idea of when direct pay deposits will be posted to the account can lead to overdrafts. Additionally, two different pay schedules add to the potential for confusion.

4. He's a fastidious record keeper, she tracks purchases when she has time

Jose likes to record transactions as soon as they occur. Abby feels that slows her down too much, so she waits and catches up on her financial record keeping every few weeks.

This discrepancy can not only cause overdrafts, but it is also likely to result in tension as Jose gets frustrated with Abby's slackness and Abby feels nagged by Juan's up-to-the-minute record keeping.

5. She's fine without overdraft protection, but he wants in

Megan wants to avoid those nasty overdraft fees, which average over $30 per occurrence. Jamaal would rather pay the occasional fee rather than endure the embarrassment and inconvenience of having a transaction denied.

Opting out of overdraft protection is the default position for new accounts, but banks still make a great deal of money off of customers like Jamaal who opt in.

6. He's strict about budgeting, she's more spontaneous

Derek won't buy a soda if it's not in the budget. Carly is responsible about not spending too much over the course of the month, but she likes the flexibility to decide when to splurge and when to save. There needs to be a meeting of the minds when it comes to long-term financial planning, but a little freedom for each partner's personal style of short-term spending can avoid a lot of petty disputes.

So chalk it up to establishing personal boundaries, or perhaps to leaving a little mystery in the marriage. For many couples, keeping the checking accounts separate can make sharing the rest of your lives together go much more smoothly.

Do you have joint checking with your other half? How do you handle financial disagreements between the two of you? Tell us in the comments!

More from MoneyRates.com:

Should a husband and wife combine all their finances?

Separate or joint checking accounts?

How to choose a checking account: 5 questions to ask

4 ways to catch up on retirement savings by maxing out contribution limits

July 20, 2015

| MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA

It's a paradox of the retirement system: the government encourages people to save money for retirement, and yet puts limits on how much you can contribute to retirement plans in any given year. To save for a comfortable retirement, you have to push those limits to their maximum.

Making up for lost time

For 2015, the IRS has imposed a limit of $18,000 on most 401(k) plan contributions. On the surface, this seems generous enough. If you started saving at age 25 and contributed $18,000 a year every year until retirement 40 years later - with an average annual investment return of 6 percent a year - you would build a retirement nest egg of $2,869,287.

That sounds pretty nice until you consider that adjusted for inflation, that would probably work out to be the equivalent of about $879,600 in today's dollars. Stretched over 20 or 30 years, that should be enough to fund a comfortable but not lavish retirement.

Unfortunately, the reality is that few people hit the ground running by making the maximum 401(k) contribution as early as age 25. Usually they start slowly, and then ramp up their contributions as their salaries rise - and as the reality of eventual retirement starts to come into focus. So, consider a more realistic scenario, where a person contributes nothing in his 20s, $9,000 a year in his 30s, and then $18,000 a year for the remaining 25 years.

Those sub-par contributions in the early years would be enough to cut the accumulated nest egg nearly in half, to an inflation-adjusted $472,586. This starts to look a little thin when you think about stretching it out over 20 or 30 years.

In a perfect world, one would avoid getting off to a slow start in saving for retirement, but the reality is that early-career incomes often make this a necessity. In any case, if you did get off to a slow start, there's nothing you can do about the past. The real solution is figuring out how to make large enough contributions later on to make up for lost time. To do that, you need to push the retirement saving limits every way you legally can.

Here are four tips for getting the most out of retirement savings limits:

1. Move with annual contribution limits

In the examples given above, an employee was shown to max out his 401(k) plan contributions at today's limit of $18,000. However, that limit has been adjusted for inflation over time, and is likely to continue to be raised in the future. The problem is that too many people set their contribution levels and forget them. If you want to make the most of 401(k) plan contributions, check the limit every year and reset your contributions when the limit is raised.

2. Save with a traditional IRA

If you do not have a 401(k) retirement plan at work, you can contribute up to $5,500 to a traditional individual retirement account and deduct this contribution. This is better than nothing, but obviously your saving potential is greater if you can participate in a 401(k) compared to an IRA. Again, IRA contribution limits change over time, so check each year that you are getting the most you can out of that year's limit.

3. Look into catch-up contributions

Recognizing that people nearing retirement often need to make up for lost ground in retirement savings, the IRS allows people aged 50 and over to contribute an extra $6,000 a year to a 401(k), so when you reach that age, you can actually put a total of $24,000 a year into your 401(k) plan. For traditional IRAs, there is an extra $1,000 allowed, bringing the total contribution for people aged 50 and over to $6,500.

4. Take advantage of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)

Contributions to an HSA are free from taxes as long as you ultimately spend the money on legitimate health care expenses. People often look at HSAs as a way of funding near-term health care expenses, but you can also build up savings for future health care expenses. Given that health care is often a major expense in retirement, building your HSA balance can be a good way to augment your retirement nest egg. To participate, you must be enrolled in a high-deductible health care plan, and the annual contribution limit for an individual is $3,350.

Saving for retirement is like any other situation where you have a lot to do in a limited amount of time - you may have to push the pace a little bit to make it work. By pushing retirement savings limits to the max, you can help build the nest egg you need.

More from MoneyRates.com:

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