There's a reason why so many entrepreneurs apply for credit cards designed specifically for business: These small business credit cards often come with lucrative rewards programs. And because many business owners use their credit cards to buy a steady stream of costly equipment and supplies, they can quickly rack up the points they need to qualify for airline tickets or large cash-back bonuses.
But not all business rewards cards are created equal. And some, no matter how strong their points programs are, might not be the best card for you. Let's face it: A rewards card is only as good as your ability to maximize the rewards you earn and then redeem those rewards in a way that benefits you and your business..
The key to choosing the right business rewards card? It remains the same as choosing the right personal credit card: You need to consider a card's interest rate and annual fees. You need, too, to look closely at the penalties a card might levy against you if you miss a payment or send a payment in late. You also need to understand your own spending habits and your expectations for the perks and features of a credit card.
"There are many business rewards cards that have great perks," says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network. "But sometimes these perks are offset by annual fees. Others might come with high interest rates. You need to look at the whole card, and not just the rewards program, when you're looking for the right card for your business."
Points, cash, miles and perks
Business rewards cards come in several categories: Some allow you to build up points or miles that you can then turn into free or upgraded flights on a particular airline or across a variety of airlines. Others simply refund you a certain percentage of cash based on your purchases during the month. Still others allow you to redeem points for hotel stays or merchandise.
Many cards come with tiered rewards programs. You might earn five rewards points for every dollar you charge for office supplies but just three points for every dollar you spend on gas or restaurant meals.
It's important, then, for business owners to consider their own specific businesses when choosing a rewards card.
"There is no one right business rewards card for every customer," says Beverly Harzog, an Atlanta-based credit-card expert and author of the book "Confessions of a Credit Junkie: Everything You Need to Know to Avoid the Mistakes I Made." "One card might be perfect for one business owner but the wrong choice for another."
For instance, there are excellent airline-branded small business credit cards out there that come with a slew of bonus opportunities and even the chance to earn a free companion travel ticket. The thing is, if you never have to travel for business, that card likely isn't going to be the one that allows you to maximize rewards and cash in on the rewards you earn.
That's an obvious example, but it's often more nuanced than that. Maybe you buy a lot of office supplies, but you tend to do it through Amazon rather than through a traditional office supply store. In that case, credit cards that offer bonus on your "office supply purchases" likely aren't going to benefit you even though they sound good at face value.
Bottom line: Entrepreneurs need to consider the type of purchases they tend to charge each month. Those entrepreneurs who spend more time entertaining clients than buying supplies might do better with a business rewards card that provides more points for dollars spent on hotel stays and restaurant meals.
Entrepreneurs should also look at their own needs when debating the merits of business rewards cards. Some owners might fly across the country on a regular basis. A card that allows entrepreneurs to turn points into reward flights obviously might make sense; however, it's important to think beyond the rewards to things like free checked bags, airport lounge access or complimentary Wi-Fi, all perks and features that can help you decide between two cards with similar reward programs.
Others might earn income sporadically from their businesses. In that case, a rewards card that offers a robust cash-back program might help these owners with monthly cash-flow issues.
"You want to have a rewards program that matches up with the type of business you have," says Melinda Opperman, senior vice president of community outreach and industry relations with Springboard Nonprofit Consumer Credit Management, based in Riverside, California. "When you are searching for a business credit card, look for rewards and incentives that are tailored to your business needs. Travel rewards might not make a lot of sense for a home-based business if you don't travel a lot. Find a card that has the features that pertain to your business and your needs."
The fine print
Many of the protections provided on consumer credit cards from the Credit CARD Act of 2009 do not apply to small business credit cards. This means that the interest rates connected to business credit cards can rise quickly. At the same time, late or over-the-limit fees on business credit cards are not capped.
The act does state, though, that the issuers of business credit cards must inform their customers in writing before they raise their interest rates. This means that it's important for entrepreneurs to pay attention. They can't let a robust rewards program distract them from the fact that their interest rate will soon skyrocket, especially if they plan on carrying a balance on their business card.
Those business owners who struggle to send in their payments on time -- either because of cash-flow or organizational issues -- need to be especially careful. Late payments can bring big penalties and send interest rates to new heights. Even if a card has a generous rewards program, then, owners with a history of late payments would be better off searching for an alternative card with less severe late-payment penalties.
"You need to plan, especially if you will carry a balance on that card," Opperman says. "This means that business cards should be treated with much more care than you treat personal credit cards. They don't come with as much protection."
Business owners might be tempted by generous rewards programs to use their business credit cards to charge personal purchases. This, too, is a mistake, Opperman said. Business owners should use personal credit cards to make personal charges and business cards to charge office supplies, equipment and other company expenses.
What if they don't? If someone sues a business owner, that owner's personal assets could be subject to legal action. Furthermore, one of the top reason to have a small business credit card is to help you keep your business and personal expenses separate. You'll be glad you did come tax time each year.
"I've seen far too many business owners make this mistake," says Gallegos. "It becomes all too easy for them to buy some groceries or charge a non-business dinner to their card. And if the card comes with especially attractive rewards or terms, it's even easier. But it can lead to some big problems in the future. It's always best to keep personal charges and business charges separate."
Today's small business credit cards often come with a wealth of lucrative rewards programs. But the rewards card that is perfect for your competitor might not work as well for you. And if your card's other terms -- special perks, interest rate, late fees, grace periods and over-the-limit fees -- are especially onerous, not even the most generous of rewards programs can make a card a smart choice for your business.
Still have questions about small business credit cards? Wondering whether you even qualify? Check out our comprehensive resource "Small business credit cards 101"