Better Than Cash
Credit cards with rewards programs — that is, ones with cash back or mileage earned — allow you to make the most of your spending. Plus, cards offer perks that cash simply doesn’t, from purchase and fraud protection to travel and rental car insurance.
Still, not all cards are created equal. So we’ve chosen the best rewards cards with no annual fees — each suited for your specific situation.
If You Have a Bumpy Credit History
Why you’ll love it: When you’ve had a few rough financial years that hurt your credit score, you may find it hard to get approved for a card. But the State Department Federal Credit Union (SDFCU) is different in a lot of ways.
For one, it’s a “secured” credit card, meaning that you must deposit an amount of your own money (as little as $250) into an account, which serves as the line of credit you draw on. (Secured credit cards are a good place to start to boost a bad credit rating.)
For two, this card offers a rewards program called Flexpoint: For every dollar you spend, you earn one Flexpoint to use at one of the online retailers in the “Perks Points Mall.” Finally, SDFCU even offers an APR as low as 6.99 percent (based on an evaluation of your credit and subject to change). Of course, if you’re trying to rebuild your credit score, it’s best not to carry a balance.
Fine print: Since it’s a U.S. State Department financial product, you either have to be a State Department employee or purchase a lifetime membership to the American Consumer Council for $15 to be eligible.
If You Have a Balance to Transfer
Try: Chase Slate
Why you’ll love it: If you have a balance you can’t seem to pay down, it may be time to open a Chase Slate card. With no annual fee, 0 percent APR (“annual percentage rate,” a.k.a. the yearly interest rate added to balances not paid in full each month) for 15 months on balance transfers and new purchases, and a 0 percent intro balance transfer fee, it’s a great deal to take advantage of when you’re ready to make a transfer.
Fine print: This balance transfer deal applies only to debt transferred from another bank’s card and not from another card by, or co-branded with, Chase. After those 15 months, a monthly interest between 12.99 and 22.99 percent (the range is based on your creditworthiness) kicks in, so it makes great financial sense to pay off that balance transfer before your 15 months are up.
If You’re About to Make a Big Purchase
Why you’ll love it: If you’re renovating your kitchen, for example, or planning your wedding, this card will help make the most of your splurges. It offers a 15-month 0 percent APR, which gives you a little wiggle room to pay back those charges before your interest rate increases to 12.99 to 22.99 percent, based on your creditworthiness.
On the rewards front, you also get 1 percent unlimited cash back for every charge you make plus an additional 1 percent cash back when you pay back those purchases.
Fine print: While Citi also touts its 0 percent APR for balance transfers, it’s not the best deal on the market, since the company charges a balance transfer fee up to 3 percent based on how much you bring over.
If You Love to Travel
Why you’ll love it: Barclaycard stands out because of its super-high rewards rate (you accrue two times the miles with every purchase) and massive sign-up bonus (you earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days of opening the card). Also, there’s no foreign transaction fee when you use this card abroad. Win-win.
Fine print: An annual fee of $89 is waived for the first year but goes into effect after that. So if you’re not a big traveler, take a pass on this card’s benefits.
If You Want Cash Back on Everyday Necessities
Why you’ll love it: For up to $6,000 worth of yearly supermarket purchases, Amex will reward you 3 percent cash back per year of purchases. After you reach that maximum, the cash back drops to 1 percent — though it’s still better than the 0 percent you get from using debit or cash. The card also offers a 2 percent cash back program for gas stations as well as some department store charges.
Fine print: The introductory 0 percent APR lasts only for six months, so make sure you don’t go over-budget at Whole Foods. Confirm that your local chain supermarket is recognized by American Express before signing up, because if you shop at retailers like Walmart, Amex may not recognize those food purchases.
Finally, there is another Amex card that offers more cash back (6 percent) on groceries, the Amex Blue Cash Preferred Card. But that card comes with an annual fee of $75.
If You Shop a Lot
Try: The Discover It
Why you’ll love it: Did you expect to see a card from a popular retailer like Amazon? Actually, opening retailer credit cards is usually a bad idea — interest rates alone are upwards of 20 percent when you carry a balance, according to Magnify Money, a free, independent site that analyzes financial products.
But with Discover It’s cash-back rewards program, you have a couple of choices. For every purchase you make, you can redeem your rewards points for cold, hard cash. Or you can use the 5 Percent Cash Back program, which lets you earn 5 percent cash back by making up $1,500 in purchases from a rotating array of online retailers that change every quarter.
Fine print: If the vendors in the 5 Percent Cash Back program aren’t ones you would use regularly, you may find this perk to be a waste of a promising reward.