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Great rewards can make-or-break a credit card. The right fit for your spending habits can help you save money on every purchase, get your next trip booked faster or open the door to unique, curated experiences. No matter your preference — from cash back to travel miles — getting the most value from your card means taking the right approach to earning more rewards, more quickly.

But with so many cards on the market offering sign-up bonuses, rewards multipliers and a variety of redemption options, it’s easy to miss the mark — is steady cash back better than category spending for your family? Should you opt for multiple travel rewards pathways, or opt for extra-value redemption with specific rewards programs?

In this guide, we’ll dig into best-in-class cards that outperform the competition and teach you how to maximize credit card rewards.

Use the right card for your needs

No matter how great the rewards rate on a card, it won’t deliver maximum earning potential if it doesn’t align with your everyday spending habits. For example, cards like the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card offer 3x points for all travel and dining spending and 1x points for other non-category purchases. While you can still earn rewards if travel and dining aren’t your priority, you’re missing out on maximum benefits.

Before choosing a rewards card, consider your spending habits. Do you have time to monitor cash back categories and change your purchasing preferences to suit the shift? Or do you prefer flat-rate cash back? Are you looking for a wide variety of earning potential, or do you prefer more travel-focused rewards? By determining how and where you spend money before applying for a new card, bonus earnings are more likely to match your expectations.

Need more help choosing the right credit card for your spending needs? Check out our in-depth guide.

Best rotating categories cash back card: Discover it Cash Back

The Discover it® Cash Back is all about category bonuses which shift every three months, and requires you to activate each quarter. From January through March 2020, you get 5% cash back (up to $1,500 per quarter, then 1%) on purchases at grocery stores, Walgreens and CVS. April through June is gas stations, Uber, Lyft and wholesale clubs; July through September is restaurants and PayPal; and October through December covers Amazon.com, Target.com and Walmart.com.

This card also offers 1% cash back on every purchase, every day. At the end of your first year, Discover will match all the cash back you’ve earned, with no maximum limit. Making the most of this card means tracking categories and changing your spending to match until you reach the $1,500 quarterly maximum.

Best flat-rate cash back card: Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card

If flat-rate cash back is your preference, the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card is your best bet. The rewards structure here is simple: you earn 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day. There are no categories to track, no annual fee and you earn a $150 bonus for spending $500 in the first three months.

This card also makes it easy to make big purchases with 15 months of 0% intro APR on purchases. After the first 15 months, purchase APR will vary between 15.49% and 25.49% based on creditworthiness.

Wondering how to maximize credit card rewards with the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card? The big benefit here is that it doesn’t require any special planning or consideration — simply spend however, whenever you want to earn 1.5% cash back.

Best rewards card: Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card

The Wells Fargo Propel American Express card is all about earning rewards points wherever and whenever you spend. You get 3x points on all restaurant dining and ordering in, flights, hotels, homestays, car rentals, gas stations, rideshares, transit fares and select streaming services. Plus, you get 1x points on all other purchases and don’t have to put up with any annual fees. Add in 20,000 bonus points for making $1,000 in purchases during the first three months of card ownership, and it’s possible to earn substantial rewards with the right spending approach.

The Wells Fargo Propel American Express card also offers a 0% purchase and qualifying balance transfer APR for 12 months after account opening, followed by a purchase and balance transfer APR between 13.99% and 25.99% variable. The balance transfer fee is 3% (or $5 minimum) for 120 days, then up to 5% ($5 minimum).

Making the most of this card means making sure your spending aligns with the 3x categories. While you don’t need to worry about maxing out category bonus limits, you do need to consider where the bulk of your spending happens. If you’re a frequent flier and hotel guest who regularly uses transit options such as taxis or rideshares, this card offers great value. If occasional travel is your preference, you may be better-served with more straightforward cash back cards.

Best travel card: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card focuses on delivering maximum value for travel spending. You’ll earn 2x points for travel and dining along with 1x points for all other purchases. Spending $4,000 in the first three months after account opening gets you 60,000 bonus points — which is worth $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Plus, you can earn 5x points for all Lyft rides through March 2022.

Getting the most from your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card means remembering that your points are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel directly through Chase Ultimate Rewards, making this the best option wherever possible to maximize reward value. Chase Ultimate Rewards also offers plenty of options with no blackout dates on flights or hotels, to find your best-fit travel bonus.

Understand how to redeem rewards

Each credit card listed above comes with its own rewards redemption program and rates. As a result, it’s worth reading through the terms of your credit card agreement and exploring your credit issuer’s website to determine the best value for points redemption.

For example, cash back earned on the Discover it Cash Back card can be redeemed in any amount at any time as credit on your Discover card account or deposited directly into your bank account. You can also pay for purchases at Amazon.com at a rate of $1 cash back dollar to $1 at Amazon.com.

Rewards with Capital One are redeemed as cash in the form of a check, gift card or statement credit. Cash can be redeemed at any time in any amount — you can even set up automatic redemption — and cash back doesn’t expire. As noted above, gift cards are an option for Capital One redemption but don’t typically provide the same value as redeeming cash back for checks or statement credit.

Wells Fargo points can be redeemed online for cash, airline tickets, merchandise or gift cards. Unlike the other cards on this list, however, they can also be used to pay down eligible Wells Fargo loans and mortgages, giving them a unique use that goes beyond travel bonuses or statement credits.

Points earned with your Chase Sapphire Preferred card, meanwhile, are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel via the Chase Ultimate Rewards site. You can also transfer points 1:1 with participating travel partners or redeem directly for cash or statement credit at a rate of $0.01 per point.

Use the card responsibly

While it’s critical to find your best-fit rewards card and understand redemption options, responsible card use is also a priority. Make sure you have a plan to pay off big purchases — even if you’re using intro APR — to avoid large interest charges and leave room on your card for new spending. If there’s no credit left on your card, there’s no way to earn more points. Purchases only generate points, miles or cash back when processed, meaning the quicker you’re able to pay your card down, the quicker you can start earning more rewards.

Maxed-out cards also mean you could miss out on category bonus spending or limited-time offers. Consider the Discover it Cash Back card categories;if you have no room left on your card when the category spending quarter rolls over, you could miss out on 5% cash back.

Another option to help maximize your rewards earning is to apply for multiple cards used for specific purposes. For example, you could apply for a Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card for your everyday spending — such as trips to the grocery store and drug store — and also carry a Wells Fargo Propel American Express card for when you’re traveling. In this instance, the big benefit is doubling up; you can earn maximum rewards from multiple cards at the same time to make the most of your spending.

However, there’s also a big caveat. In this case, responsible use is more critical than ever. With multiple cards, you need regular monitoring and financial management to ensure balances are always paid on time and there’s always room to earn more rewards.

While it’s good to put all of your purchases on your card, never spend simply to get extra rewards. If possible, always make sure you have enough in the bank to cover your full credit card statement each month, not just the minimum payment. Remember, APRs and late fees can quickly cancel out your rewards and put you in the negative.

Conclusion

Not sure how to maximize credit card rewards? Start by analyzing how, where and when you spend. Once you’ve picked your best-fit card, make sure you know how rewards are redeemed, what limitations exist and which redemption options offer the most value. Finally, it’s worth considering responsible card use. Maxed-out cards can’t generate new rewards, and if you can’t make your minimum payments, your credit rating may suffer. If you have the financial stability and organizational skill to manage multiple credit cards at once, you can maximize rewards across multiple cards at the same time. The right card and the right spending habits combined with the right approach to redemption can help maximize your credit card rewards.

Information regarding the Wells Fargo Propel, Discover it Cash Back, and Capital One Quicksilver was prepared by NextAdvisor.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the writer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented on this page is accurate as of the date of the post.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This content was accurate at the time of this post, but card terms and conditions may change at any time. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.