According to researchers at the National Retail Federation, American shoppers typically spend more than $500 each on gifts during the holiday season. Count all holiday items, like decorations, festive clothing, and party snacks, and that number rises well above $700. Add up everyone in your household with their own shopping lists, and your year-end spending spree quickly hops well into four-digit territory.
Although plenty of banks tout the size of their year-end rebates and rewards, not every credit card makes a great companion at the checkout counter. Watch for five key elements that make cash-back credit cards ideal for holiday shopping:
- No annual fee or low annual fee. If you must pay a modest annual fee for a credit card, make sure you're getting your money's worth with extended warranty, product replacement, or loss protection benefits.
- Zero APR promotions. You can stretch your budget a little further with help from a new card's low introductory offer. Just make sure you've got a plan to pay down the entire balance before you hit the end of your promotional period.
- Easy and inexpensive balance transfers. If you can't resist the siren song of a retail credit card, find a no-frills credit card with a balance transfer rate between zero and 3 percent. That way, you can score bonus points or special store perks without subjecting yourself to extra high APRs.
- Bonus rebates and rewards at your preferred retailers. NRF statistics show that we'll spend more than half our holiday budgets at discount, big box or department stores. Bring along a credit card that rewards you, even at stores where you're already seeing big sales.
- Comprehensive fraud protection and lost card replacement. The NRF estimates that more than half of Americans wait until the week before Christmas to purchase the last item on their gift lists. You don't want to be stuck waiting on a replacement for a lost or stolen card during that last-minute shopping frenzy.
With a clear budget and a plan to maximize your rebates, consider the potential for these high-quality cards to help you manage your holiday spending:
This year, as in years past, Chase Freedom has targeted select department stores for its quarterly cash-back bonus, in addition to Amazon.com and Zappos.com. That means cardholders will enjoy a 5 percent rebate on up to $1,500 in combined qualifying purchases (once they opt in) through the end of the year. Cardholders who hit that spending cap will still earn the same 1 percent rebate on department store purchases that they collect on all other eligible transactions.
However, Chase has upped the ante with a Cash Back Boost that doubles Freedom's promotional rebate to 10 percent when shopping online at Macy's, JCPenney, Sears and Nordstrom. The rewards don't end with those four department stores, though -- shop through Cash Back Boost and receive up to an additional 10 percent back at a variety of retailers, everywhere from Neiman Marcus to Best Buy. With no annual fee and signup rewards that can add up to $125 to your rewards balance, Chase Freedom can help you squeeze a few extra pennies from each dollar in your holiday budget.
Just like Chase Freedom, the Discover it card cycles department stores into its 5 percent bonus offer in the last few months of the year. When Discover launched the Discover it card, the issuer emphasized customer conveniences and support that come in handy during the stressful holiday shopping season. In addition to flexibility for delayed payments or an occasional overlimit purchase, Discover's free FICO credit score access and fraud liability program can help defend against identity theft.
Like Chase, Discover also operates its own online mall, ShopDiscover.com. Sign in, shop through special retail shopping links and you can earn cash-back awards as high as 20 percent. While some of Discover's largest rebate partners include gift and flower retailers, the company offers 5 percent discounts with popular brands such as Apple, Gap, Sony and Tory Burch. Best of all, these bonus awards don't count against your card's quarterly rebate cap.
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
This card offers an everyday rebate of 2 percent on eligible purchases at select U.S. department stores. (The Blue Cash Preferred® version of this card bumps that reward to 3 percent, but charges a $75 annual fee.) Your cash back earned is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit. While not as high of a rebate rate as many other cards on this list, American Express adds value with features including extended warranty, purchase protection and return protection and be sure to read the exclusions and restrictions that apply to these features. Terms and restrictions apply.
Citi® Double Cash Card
This innovative, recent addition to the Citi lineup offers a 1 percent rebate on eligible transactions at the time of purchase, plus an additional 1 percent rebate as you pay down your balance. With no annual fee, no caps and no category restrictions, this is one of the most generous cash back cards on the market, especially among cards that aren't tied to a brokerage relationship.
In many ways, Citi has put their own spin on some of its competitors' best features. Like Discover, Citi's offering late fee flexibility the first time you miss a minimum payment. This card's purchase protection and extended warranty programs operate much like those from American Express, but with a 120-day window for replacement (compared to AmEx's 90 days). Another holiday helper connected to this card is Citi Price Rewind -- if the same item you buy is found at a retailer's site within 60 days, you can be refunded the price difference up to $300 per item, and up to $1,200 per year. A zero-percent introductory APR period as long as 15 months means you might even make it through two holiday seasons before you have to worry about paying finance charges (as long as you make your monthly minimum payments on time).
Smart shoppers already know not to dive into debt over holiday spending -- especially when APRs on cash-back credit cards tend to lean higher than those of no-frills accounts. However, with the opportunity to earn extra rebates, the right card can let even a frugal shopper squeeze a few extra bucks into their year-end budget.