How to Track Your Credit Card Perks and Earning Categories
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The points and miles game can be both exciting and a little daunting. To get the most out of it, you’ll probably end up with at least a few credit cards, all with different benefits and points-earning structures. Some earn more points on categories like gas, dining, or travel. Maybe one has an epic signup bonus you’re trying to earn, another has a free hotel night that you need to use, and yet another gives you Uber credits. How do you keep it all straight?
The world of credit card rewards may seem overwhelming at first, but there are some simple strategies to keep the process fun instead of stressful. Here we’ll cover tips, tools, and examples to help you keep track of your credit card rewards and make sure you’re getting the most out of them.
Using the right card for the right purchase
One of the key principles of points and miles is earning the most points possible on your everyday purchases. Each card has its own points-earning structure, with different earning rates for various spending categories. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns 3 points per dollar (3x) on dining out, the Citi Premier earns 3 points per dollar (3x) at gas stations, and the Amex Gold earns 4 points per dollar (4x) at grocery stores.
This gets extra complicated when you factor in limited-time bonus categories. For instance, the Chase Freedom Flex card has a quarterly rotating bonus category that earns 5x points; this category changes every three months. When I got my World of Hyatt cobranded card, part of the signup bonus was that the card earned 2x points on all purchases, but only for the first six months.
Choosing the best card for each category will send your points balance skyrocketing. But when you have multiple cards, each with its own complex points structure, how do you remember which card to use?
Keeping track the old-fashioned way
Call me a dinosaur, but I personally like to keep track of my credit card categories in a spreadsheet. I can translate credit card fine print into my own shorthand and keep it all in one place. I’m from the school of thought that color-coding makes everything better, so I list bonus categories for all my cards and color them as follows:
- Green: Use this card for this category!
- Yellow: Use this card for this category for now, with a note on when to stop.
- Black: Don’t use this card because I have a better card for this category.
Here’s a snippet of my spreadsheet showing the earning structures for a few of my cards:
You can also make a cheat sheet to keep in your purse or on your phone, with a quick rundown of which card to use when. I’ve even been known to write bonus categories in Sharpie on some of my cards—though I don’t need to anymore because by now I have most of the categories memorized.
What else do I record in my spreadsheet? Other benefits of each card (we’ll get into these later), the annual fee and card anniversary (this is helpful if I decide to cancel a card), and any subscriptions or shopping/dining portals the card is linked to:
There’s an app for that
Old-school spreadsheets aren’t the only way to track your credit card rewards—there are multiple apps available to help streamline the process. The two major players right now are AwardWallet and MaxRewards.
AwardWallet is an established favorite among points and miles enthusiasts for its ability to keep everything—and I mean everything—in one place. This includes not only your entire suite of credit card rewards, but frequent flyer programs, upcoming trips, and vaccine cards. You can even link your loyalty cards at places like CVS and Petco.
Once you link your credit cards, AwardWallet will show you how many points per dollar you’ve earned on past transactions and give suggestions for other cards that could earn you more:
The app offers a limited free version, or for $30 a year, you can get the additional features of AwardWallet Plus, which include historical data and points expiration dates.
The MaxRewards app is a similar concept, but it focuses on credit card rewards rather than other loyalty programs. For each card you link, it shows a handy breakdown of points categories. (The app multiplies these by their estimated point value, which I find confusing, but it’s easy to reset the point value to 1).
MaxRewards also recommends the best cards to use at nearby merchants. The paid version, MaxRewards Gold, can keep track of other card benefits and automatically activate special offers (more on that later). Gold seems pretty affordable since they let users choose their own price based on how much value they think the app provides.
Mind the merchant code
To make things even more complicated, not all cards put the same merchants in the same categories. I patted myself on the back recently for using my Hyatt card, which earns 2x points on gym memberships, at my local yoga studio—I bet these other sweaty losers aren’t getting extra points, I thought smugly—only to discover that Chase codes that particular merchant as “entertainment.” Sometimes the best-laid plans still don’t work out, simply because of the bizarre nature of merchant coding.
What can you do about it? AwardWallet has a helpful merchant lookup tool that lets you check how a specific merchant will code:
Although I’ve been happy with my spreadsheet for years, this feature alone could convince me to step into the 21st century and embrace the AwardWallet app. They even have a “reverse” version that lets you search for merchants that fall into a certain card’s bonus categories. I’m never going to use the wrong card again!
Don’t forget foreign transaction fees
Another thing I always note on my spreadsheet is whether a card charges foreign transaction fees. This is critical when you go out of the country. You might be used to using a certain card for gas, groceries, and other bonus categories—but if that card charges foreign transaction fees, the amount you pay in fees will negate the extra points you earn.
I always check my spreadsheet before I leave on an international trip and take any cards with foreign transaction fees out of my wallet. Then I determine, among the remaining cards, which are best for my most common expense categories, like dining out and buying souvenirs.
Don’t let card benefits go unused
Accruing points on your everyday purchases is just one side of the magical world of credit card rewards. Your cards may offer a variety of other benefits, like statement credits, free hotel stays, cashback offers, and more. We’ll walk through these and how to keep track of them all to ensure you’re not leaving any benefits on the table.
Travel cards often provide annual statement credits (basically cash back) on travel—in some form or other. Most credit card companies make it easy to check the status of your annual travel credits. For instance, on the Chase portal you’ll find a “rewards dashboard” or “card benefits” section, depending on which card you have. Once you click in, you’ll find how much of your travel credit you’ve received this year as well as when the credit will reset for the next year.
Some cards offer statement credits unrelated to travel, which may be monthly or biannual rather than yearly. For instance, the Amex Platinum gives you credit for up to $15 in Uber purchases per month, and up to $50 in Sake Fifth Avenue purchases every six months. These credits tend to be “use it or lose it,” so if you don’t use them by the end of the month, they’ll disappear from your account.
Hotel free nights
Many hotel co-branded cards, like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless and IHG One Rewards Premier, provide a free night every cardmember anniversary. Some cards, like World of Hyatt, will give you an additional free night if you spend a certain amount on the card per year.
These rewards can be a little harder to find. They don’t usually appear with the other rewards on your credit card website, because you redeem them through the hotel’s loyalty program rather than the card. You’ll have to check your hotel account to see them, or link your hotel account to an app like AwardWallet.
Here’s what a free night from my World of Hyatt credit card looks like in my Hyatt account:
Unlike most credit card rewards, free night certificates tend to take a few weeks to show up in your account. I always check my Hyatt account in the month or two after my card anniversary to ensure my free night has appeared. I also make note of when it expires—usually at least a year after earning it—so I don’t forget to use it.
Many cards will give you rotating offers for cash back or statement credits at specific merchants, and these can add up quickly. I just saved $80 by timing a Southwest ticket purchase with two 10% back Chase offers.
The only downside is that these offers generally require activation. They aren’t automatically applied to your credit card; you have to scroll through them and click on the ones you want to activate. That’s why I recommend setting aside a time every week or two to check in with your points and miles. You can look over your cards’ most recent offers, activate the ones you want to use, and even set an alarm on your phone so you don’t forget to use them.
Sometimes credit card companies will offer temporary bonuses, which look a little different. Several of my Chase cards have recently offered statement credits if I use them to pay for a certain dollar amount of utilities in a certain period of time. Last year, my partner’s United Explorer card offered a holiday bonus: if he spent $1500 per month on the card for the months of November, December, and January, he could earn an extra 7,500 United miles.
Offers like these can be lucrative, and they’re often easy to achieve—but you have to be paying attention. You’ll need to activate these offers and read the fine print to understand which purchases qualify and when the offer expires.
Since these offers typically arrive via email, they’ll show up in your inbox but not on your credit card’s website. It’s a good idea to check your email regularly, and don’t ignore the ones from your card issuer—they can save you a lot of money. Or, if you pay for MaxRewards Gold, the app will automatically activate offers for you.
Scoring the signup bonus
Card issuers always offer some kind of welcome bonus to encourage people to sign up for their credit cards. These vary widely and could be things like 40,000 bonus miles, three free night awards, or even a yearly companion pass.
These bonuses can be extremely lucrative, but they all require a certain amount of spending on the card within a certain amount of time: $4,000 in the first three months, $6,000 in the first six months, etc. Many signup bonuses are attainable if you put all your spending on your new card, or if you time your card application with a big purchase (it’s no coincidence that I added two new cards to my wallet right before getting LASIK). But to ensure you’re on track for the bonus, you’ll want to keep a close eye on your spending for the first couple of months.
Some card companies make this easy by tracking your progress for you. For instance, if you’re working toward the signup bonus on a Chase card, you’ll find a handy progress bar under “your new account bonus” in the Ultimate Rewards section of your Chase portal. Citi has a similar feature called the “new cardmember bonus tracker.”
Most other card companies don’t make it so easy, so you’ll have to track it yourself by watching your credit card statements. The MaxRewards app also has a welcome bonus tracker, which shows how much you’ve spent and how much you have left.
What about expiration dates?
Thankfully, credit card points generally don’t expire unless you cancel a card. So as long as you’re still using and paying off your credit cards, you don’t need to worry about your points’ expiration date.
However, other points through airline and hotel loyalty programs do expire. You can check their expiration dates directly through those loyalty accounts, or if you spring for AwardWallet Plus, the app will track expiration dates for you.
There are also some credit card benefits with important expiration dates. For instance, my Chase Sapphire Preferred gave me a couple years of free DashPass membership—which I love when I use DoorDash. But when it expires next December, DoorDash will automatically start charging my card $10 a month. I made a note in my spreadsheet and set an alarm in my phone to make sure I cancel before the membership expires.
> Read more about how to keep your points and miles from expiring
For savvy users, credit cards can provide thousands of dollars of value in travel rewards, cash back, and other perks. But making the most of all of these benefits takes some time and practice. Use these tips to start tracking your rewards and find a system that works for you. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll see it’s worth the extra effort.
More tips for maximizing your cards, points, and miles:
Published December 7, 2023
Last updated December 21, 2023
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