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Credit card deals have turned lucrative; what to look for

Competition in the credit card market has provided

Competition in the credit card market has provided a boon for consumers who know what deals to look for. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / Kenishirotie

Today’s competitive credit card market has turned lucrative for consumers, meaning what would have been a good offer just a few years ago no longer measures up.

For example, 1 percent cash back for credit card spending is no longer competitive. Zero-percent interest for a year may sound generous, but today it’s lackluster.

The best offers include sign-up bonuses, rewards and no-interest deals to manage your debt. Many cards have no annual fee, but if you pay one, you should expect superior rewards.

Here’s what a good deal looks like, assuming you have good credit.

  • Cash rewards cards

Many rewards cards offer 2 percent to 5 percent cash back on specific categories of spending, such as gas, dining out or travel, while paying just 1 percent on everything else. Simpler, and potentially more lucrative in the long run, is a flat-rate cash-back card. You get the same rewards rate regardless of what you’re paying for, whether it’s a book on or an insurance copay at your doctor’s office.

Benchmarks to look for:

—At least 1.5 percent cash back on everything. If you charge $1,000 per month on your card, you’ll get $60 more cash back per year than you would with a 1 percent card.

—No annual fee. Exceptions: If you want outsized rewards or have only an average credit score, you might have to pay a fee.

  • Debt management cards

Many credit cards offer no-interest periods on balance transfers and even new purchases. If you carry a hefty balance and need breathing room to pay down that debt without finance charges, this is the type of card to explore.

Benchmarks to look for:

—At least 15 months of no interest. Cards that offer a year at zero percent are no longer competitive, with dozens offering 15, 18 or even 21 months.

—Balance transfer fee of no more than 3 percent of the amount transferred. A few cards don’t charge a fee to transfer balances, but most do.

—No annual fee.

—Interest rate under 15 percent. Credit card rates vary widely depending on your creditworthiness and prevailing rates. But if you have excellent credit, look for an ongoing rate — after a 0 percent period — as low as 11 percent. At credit unions, you might find a rate under 10 percent.

Of course, some decent cards will be exceptions to these guidelines. Just make sure they have good reasons for falling short and provide other benefits instead.

Travel reward cards often have annual fees and large sign-up bonuses. Look for cards with no foreign transaction fee; a sign-up bonus worth at least $200, after subtracting the annual fee; and benefits that offset the annual fee. Travel rewards cards can have an annual fee as high as $450. Some issuers waive the fee for the first year, giving you a chance to try the card for free. The key is to reap more value from the card than you pay in annual fees.


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