Unless you’ve been tucked away in a cave without internet access for the past 10 years, you know full well that the average American consumer has had enough of credit card companies hammering customers with all kinds of fees and charges.
Assuming you haven’t been stuck in that cave, you probably also know that the internet has been abuzz with credit card hacks for some time now. Some are a complex spider web requiring multiple cards, multiple rewards percentages and one overall points account. Others are pretty simple.
But one thing unites them all … consumers are starting to figure out that credit card companies have chinks in their armor and the hacks are coming from all directions. The average consumer has, to a certain extent, wised up to “the system” and have created their own system of workarounds.
We put out the call to the experts to hear their favorite hacks and we received a handsome response. Their advice covers all sorts of credit areas: rewards programs, utilization, credit history and more.
After sifting through their responses, we’ve narrowed down some of the best, while adding a few of our personal favorites. Some of the advice is within the realm of mainstream thought, while there are a few unconventional tips that you’ve probably never thought of.
Traditional or divergent, these hacks will show you the spectrum of possibilities crammed into that 3.37 by 2.215-inch piece of plastic (or metal, if it’s the ultra-swanky MasterCard Black) we call a credit card.
1. Bump Up Your Credit Scores by Knowing Your Statement Closing Date
Did you know your credit scores will rise and fall depending on the balances you have on your credit cards each month? In fact, did you know that you can pay your balance in full every month and still get penalized for having a high balance? That’s right; your scores can drop even if you pay everything off every single month.
Michelle Black, a credit expert and author at credit education/restoration program HOPE4USA.com, explained why.
“Credit card companies only report your balance to the credit bureaus once each month (not every time make a payment) on a date known as your ‘statement closing date,’” she said.
So here’s what happens…you have a credit card with a $5,000 limit and each month you charge about $4,000. By the credit bureaus’ standards, that’s a super high balance in relation to your limit – you’ve used 80% of your balance. A high percentage like that brings your scores down.
However, if you can pay off that balance before it’s reported to the credit bureaus on your closing date, Michelle says, you can keep your scores looking real fancy.
“Since your statement closing date occurs before your actual due date, you should change your budget so that you pay off the card in full by the statement closing date,” she says. “If you follow this strategy then your credit cards will always have a $0 balance reporting on your credit reports - a win for your credit scores.”
Anytime you get “win” and “credit scores” in the same sentence, you know you’re getting a solid hack.
2. Pick the Card You’ll Actually Use in the Long Run…It Will Pay Off
You know how, every once in a while, you hear someone say, “I’m not looking for Mr. Right, I’m just looking for Mr. Right Now”? The idea is that you don’t want something long-term – the next halfway decent looking guy or girl will do.
A lot of times we treat credit cards like that. We get an offer in the mail or by email that sounds pretty good, but it doesn’t exactly fit who we are or what we want to do with our life. We focus on the short-term choice, and a year later, we’re stuck with a card we only kind of liked in the beginning. The honeymoon is over.
Nedalee Thomas, the founder of frugality website Princess Power, says keep your focus on cards that have long-term relationship potential.
“When selecting a credit card, it's important to pick one that offers rewards you will actually use,” Nedalee says. “If travel isn’t your thing, don’t get one that only offers airline miles.”
The idea with credit card hacks is that you make credit cards work for you, so Nedalee’s hack is as useful to this concept as it is simple.
“Once you've found a card that offers rewards you will use, try charging everything to that card and then paying the card off in full at the end of the month,” Nedalee says. “This way, you'll earn rewards without paying interest!”
Let me give you a real life example I’ve talked about in my article about credit card types. My wife and I love staying at one particular Hyatt hotel in Florida. We’ve celebrated our anniversary there several times and it’s a guarantee that we go there for a getaway at least once a year.
We use the Hyatt Visa as our primary credit card. All purchases we make go to that card, which adds up to around 30,000 points a year. The hotel is 12,000 points a night. Throw in the free night we get on our annual cardmember anniversary and we score three free nights a year for a modest $75 annual fee.
3. If You Love Travel, Try the Discover it Miles Travel Card
Every once in a while, the Capital One Venture card gets some love, but we recommend it with a warning: one late payment will bump up your APR to sky high levels and you’ll get slapped with a $35 late fee.
“One travel card that I would jump at, at least for the first year, is the Discover Miles Card,” Andy says. “It offers 1.5 ‘miles’ per dollar, but at the end of the first year, it matches what you've earned, for a total of 3 miles per dollar.”
So, if you’re like me and you charge about $30,000 to your card every year, you’ll get 45,000 miles. Discover will match that and you’ll end up with 90,000 miles. Those miles are then given back to you in cash or applied to travel purchases you’ve made with the card at a rate of $1 for every 100 miles. $900 for one year of using a card? That’s an amazing perk, and a cut above most cash-back and travel cards.
You also get a yearly credit of $30 toward your purchases of in-flight Wi-Fi during your travels. The card has no annual fee, and at the time of our research, was offering an intro APR of 0% for 12 months.
4. Do Your Research and You’ll Reap the Rewards
Going back to Nedalee Thomas’ advice, you need to figure out what kind of person you are. Do you travel a lot? Go with a travel card. Do you spend a lot in certain categories? Cash-back cards are a great choice. If you like luxury and status, then you’ll want to go with a luxury card.
Once you narrow down your card type, the real research begins. Which cards offer the best benefits? What strings are attached to their offers? Do you prefer one airline over another?
For instance, my wife and I have a lot of miles racked up on our United MileagePlus account thanks to credit card rewards. However, on a recent United flight from Florida to California, I felt super cramped compared to the roominess I enjoyed on the JetBlue flight I took back home. Little details like this are important if you’re going to focus on a particular airline!
Matthew Coan, the head man over at personal finance site Casavvy.com, says this research should be your top priority.
“Look at what current credit card signup bonuses are available,” he said. “Some of these bonuses are worth a lot of money: Chase Sapphire Preferred’s $625 in free travel is one of the best ones available right now.”
This gets back to Nedalee’s advice: when you’ve narrowed down your card choice, don’t just take the first offer you get. Research sites like Highya to figure who is offering the best deals. Ask your friends. Make a spreadsheet. Get detailed. Then, plan … you’ll have to rack up a certain amount of dollars in order to get the rewards, Matthew says.
“These signup bonuses usually come with a minimum spending requirement, so you need to make sure that you do your research first,” he says. “But, if done correctly, you can take advantage of a credit card sign-up bonus for spending money that you were going to spend anyway.”
5. Say Hello to the Hotel Upgrade
Remember how I said my wife and I use our Hyatt credit card because we do a three-day getaway every year? We get those three nights free because we have enough points and reward nights to make it happen.
Those three nights are in standard rooms – around $200 a night, which is a great deal for the $75 annual fee we pay. But wouldn’t it be great if we could get into the hotel’s $460-a-night, two-story waterside villa? Well, that’s exactly what happened recently.
Here’s what you do:
- Reserve your free nights.
- One week before your reservation, call the hotel and ask if there are any upgrades are available.
- Most likely, they’ll ask you if you want a complimentary upgrade or a paid one, and then let you know if anything is available (most likely, they won’t have anything).
- Call back the day before and ask again.
- Call back the day of your check-in, preferably early in the day. At this point, they’ll have a clear picture of what’s available.
- Ask about all the upgrade options, and be prepared to pay between $75 and $150 a night for the upgrade.
I used this method and scored three nights in that $460-a-night, two-story villa I mentioned earlier. We paid a total of $185.50 for the upgrade; it was an incredible bargain. The math doesn’t lie: $75 annual fee + $185.50 in upgrades = $260.50 for what would normally cost more than $1500 after taxes and fees.
In my opinion, this is one of the truly great hacks in the hotel rewards world.
6. Reap the Rewards of Someone Else’s Credit Age
The average age of your credit accounts, as well as your oldest credit card, play a pretty significant role in your credit scores. The longer you’ve had your credit cards, the logic goes, the less risk you pose to credit card companies.
One way to understand this is to make the mistake I did some time ago when I closed my oldest credit card. I wasn’t using it, I thought, so it makes sense to close it. Rookie mistake. It was my oldest card (about 11 years), and within a few weeks, my credit scores dropped by more than 50 points. I was sick to my stomach when I found out how much credit age affects your overall scores.
Jason Kaplan, an attorney and credit expert from Creditpros.com, gave us a sneaky little tip for increasing the age of your credit.
“Ask your parent, spouse or a trusted friend to add you to their credit card account which has been open, active and in good standing for as long a time as possible,” Jason says. “The older the account, the more impact it has on your credit – your credit scores will increase.”
We like this tip because it’s a simple hack, but it does require a level of trust between the main account holder and the added user. When you receive the card in the mail, you can always cut it up – the point of this hack is to raise your authorized user’s credit scores, not give them another card for spending.
7. The Pre-Loan Balance Transfer
Marathon runners know that if you’ve got a slight pain in your ankle in mile one, that pain is going to get worse over time, not get better. The more pounding you put on that achy joint, the more it’s going to groan, creak and deteriorate when you hit miles 20 through 26.
We look at interest rates on loans – especially mortgages – the same way. A difference of just one percentage point on a mortgage can cost you $64,000 over 30 years on a $300,000 loan. You might not mind the slight sting of interest during the first year, but after 25 years, you’ll start to see how much extra cash disappeared because of that higher rate.
Whether you get a 3.92% or 4.92% interest rate on your mortgage has a lot to do with your credit scores, and your credit scores has a lot to do with utilization.
If you want to improve the APR you get on a loan (car or mortgage), use the balance transfer trick. It works well and it works quickly, especially since most Americans with credit cards have at least three to play with.
Here’s what you do:
- Identify which credit cards have a balance higher than 30% of their credit limit (i.e. a $4,000 balance with a $5,000 limit….80%).
- Figure out how much you’d have to transfer to another card to get both balances under 30%.
- If your current limits don’t allow you to get under 30%, do the math to figure out what your limits need to be and ask your card companies for a credit-limit increase.
- Make the transfer; you should see your score increase by a significant amount (10-30) points within a month after the balance transfer happens.
Ideally, says Debitize founder Liran Amrany, you’ll want your credit utilization to be under 10%. If you can hit that goal, fantastic; you should see a really significant increase in your credit scores.
This hack comes with a few warnings, though:
- You’ll most likely pay a 3% fee on your balance transfer.
- You’ll have to keep track of balances on two cards instead of one.
- Asking for a credit limit increase requires a credit check, which will drop your scores one or two points for at least six months.
- Your credit card companies can drop your credit limit whenever they want, so don’t use this hack too far in advance of applying for your car loan or mortgage.
Wrapping Up the Credit Card Hacks: Discipline & Financial Intelligence Are Awesome
There’s no shame in making credit card companies work for you instead of the other way around. But if you’re going to be a pro at this sort of thing, you need to have discipline and make smart decisions.
Once you’ve got those two skills down, the hacks we listed can become a go-to list for using your credit cards to your advantage:
- Keep your credit utilization low and your credit scores will respond.
- Choose a rewards card that you’ll actually use. Hotel-based cards are pretty useless for people who use Airbnb.
- Discover it Travel’s matching program makes it one of the most profitable travel cards on the market.
- Research pays off; spend some time figuring which card is the best in the rewards category you want.
- Paying a modest fee for a room upgrade can bring tons of added value to your hotel rewards card.
- Becoming an authorized user of an old credit account can boost your credit scores.
- Transferring balances at the right time can bring down your utilization ratio and raise your credit scores by double digits.
Do you have a favorite credit card hack that I haven’t mentioned? Tell us about it in the comments section.
In the meantime, stop by our credit cards page to learn about the latest offers from some of the top credit cards on the market. Each review includes an overview of what the card offers, what the fees and fine print are, as well as what other people are saying about the card.
More on Personal Finance:
- Why Making a Budget Can Be the Best Financial Decision You’ve Ever Made
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