Best credit cards for back-to-school expenses

With nearly 20 million American students heading for college and another 55 million kids in K-12 schools, parents often have to scramble for the extra cash necessary to buy books, clothing, backpacks, shoes, and everything else today's students need to succeed in the classroom.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, American shoppers spent $7.4 billion in family clothing stores to get ready for the 2010 back-to-school season. Families spent another $2.2 billion in bookstores during the same period.

What back to school really costs

American Express breaks down the real costs of going to school in the latest edition of its nationwide Spending & Saving Tracker study. Over two-thirds of parents surveyed told researchers that they planned to purchase name-brand sneakers and jeans for their children before the first school bell rings this fall. A quarter of parents said they planned to outfit students with new portable computers before sending them off to campus, while two in five respondents revealed a desire to get their kids a good haircut at the end of the summer.

In total, the average American family of four will spend about $800 to get their kids ready for a new semester, according to American Express. Today's best credit card deals can help you recapture some of that household budget for yourself, or spread out part of those costs over the next few months.

Here are some options that may fit your need if you have back to school shopping or traveling to do.

Best credit cards for back-to-school shopping

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

The Blue Cash Everyday Card offers an exceptional set of year-round rebates that may help you save money during back-to-school season on eligible purchases. You can earn 3 percent cash back at U.S. supermarkets, up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%). If you plan on making a few road trips back and forth between home and campus, this card's 2 percent cash back on gasoline at U.S. gas stations may come in handy. You may also earn savings by using Blue Cash Everyday for its 2 percent cash back at select U.S. department stores. Terms and limitations apply.

Every eligible purchase you make with the Blue Cash Everyday Card earns you at least 1 percent cash back. Your cash back rewards are received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit. Terms and restrictions apply.

Chase Freedom®

This card offers cash back of 5 percent every three months in rotating categories, up to $1,500 in combined purchases when you activate your bonus categories each quarter. This card also offers unlimited cash back of 1 percent on all other purchases.

American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card

OK, this might sound like an unconventional pick for back-to-school shopping, since it's usually the card of choice for plane-hopping business travelers. Despite its $175 annual fee, which the current offer has an introductory annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $175, this charge card could potentially help you earn rewards points if you're sending a child off to a faraway college and you book flights directly with airlines. When you use the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card to book airline tickets directly with the airlines, you can earn 3X Membership Rewards points for flights booked directly on scheduled U.S. and international passenger airlines. You can convert your point balance to miles in your favorite frequent flier program or use your points to pay for discount airfare through American Express's travel rewards website. High-flying college students can rack up miles and rewards quickly, especially during semester breaks and holiday visits. Be sure to enroll in the Membership Rewards Program to start earning points.

At the moment, American Express offers new Card Members 25,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $2,000 on eligible purchases on your new card in the first three months of Card Membership. Terms and restrictions apply.

How to find the best credit card for you

Here are a few tips for choosing the best credit card deal:

  1. Compare credit cards based on their annual fees, their reward structures, and their partner relationships to learn which lender has the best deal for your family.
  2. Because opening a new credit card account can impact your FICO score, look beyond any short-term bonuses and think about how a card can get you the best long-term rewards.
  3. Remember to consider whether issuing an extra card to your college student can help them learn to manage cash responsibly while preparing them for emergencies.
  4. If you partner with your student to handle routine expenses through a single rewards credit card, you can maximize your rewards while eliminating late-night cash transfers.

As with all credit cards, protect your credit history by using them responsibly, reading the agreement carefully before signing up, planning your purchases to maximize any rewards and sign-up bonuses, and setting a budget and payment schedule that you can handle.

About the Author

arnold

Curtis Arnold, a nationally recognized consumer educator and advocate, has been educating consumers about credit cards since 1998. New! Curtis is the author of 'How You Can Profit from Credit Cards: Using Credit to Improve Your Financial Life and Bottom Line' (FT Press, 2008). He is also the co-author of the upcoming Complete Idiot's Guide to Person-to-Person Lending (Alpha Books/Pengiun Group USA, April 2009), a contribitor to The Ultimate Allowance (InnerWealth Publishing, 2008) and is extensively featured in 42 RulesTM for Driving Success With Books (Super Star Press, January 2009).