For one thing, the best credit card offers are about as attractive as they’ve ever been. Initial rewards bonuses have recently stabilized near historical highs, according to CardHub’s latest Credit Card Landscape Report, with the average cash-based sign-up incentive more than tripling in value since 2010 and point/mile bounties doubling over that same timeframe. The longest 0% interest introductory term has also been extended by nine months.
Furthermore, despite the credit card market now being more transparent and competitive in the wake of the Great Recession, we are once again racking up balances by the billion. The way things are currently looking, we will end 2015 with roughly $120 billion more debt than we had at the beginning of 2014. That would bring the average indebted household’s balance to $7,813.
In short, the stakes are high and picking the wrong card would be like skipping the house that gives out King Size candy bars on All Hallows’ Eve. To help people avoid making scary credit card choices this year, we compared more than 1,000 offers (some of which originate from advertising partners) and identified both the tricks capable of leaving your wallet crying and the corresponding treats that will make your financial life much sweeter.
Rebuilding From Bad Credit
The Trick: In addition to a 36% interest rate, this card charges a $95 processing fee prior to account opening, a $75.00 annual fee during the first year, a $45 annual fee in each subsequent year, a $6.25 monthly fee beginning in the second year, and a 25% fee for any credit limit increase. That’s a heck of a burden for someone with bad credit to bear.
Note: First Premier sued CardHub in 2013 and subsequently dropped the lawsuit. The case had no bearing on the Gold Card’s inclusion on the list, as selections were purely editorial in nature.
The Treat: The Harley-Davidson Secured Credit Card can be free to use and earns you 1 point per $1 spent. Users are also eligible for a sign-up bonus certificate of $10.
The Trick: The U.S. Bank College Visa Credit Card doesn’t provide any rewards or reduced intro rates, and students may end up with a regular APR as high as 20.99% – one of the highest rates among student cards.
The Treat: The Journey Student Rewards Card from Capital One offers on-time payers 1.25% cash back across all purchases, with no annual fee. Another treat worth looking into is the BankAmericard Cash Rewards for Students Credit Card, which offers 0% on new purchases for the first 12 months, doesn’t charge an annual fee and rewards users with at least 1% cash back on all purchases.
The Trick: In return for paying a $495 annual fee, cardholders get 1 point per $1 spent on most purchases, with the exception of 2 points per $1 on gas and groceries and 3 points per $1 on air travel. The ability to earn 10,000 bonus points in return for spending at least $1,000 during the first three months won’t do much to defray costs in the long-run either, as that one-off payout is only worth about $113, according to CardHub calculations. This card simply doesn’t yield enough value for its annual fee to be a good investment, especially considering how many relative bargains are out there now. There are a variety of cards available that offer more lucrative rewards bonuses, higher ongoing rewards earning rates, and airport lounge access for hundreds of dollars less each year.
The Treat: The Barclaycard Arrival Plus Credit Card is one of 2015’s best all-around travel rewards credit cards. Spending $3,000 during the first 90 days you have it will earn you 40,000 bonus miles, redeemable for a $400 statement credit that can be used to pay for any travel-related expense you charge to the card. Furthermore, you’ll earn the miles-equivalent of 2.1% cash back across all purchases, as long as you redeem for travel. There is no annual fee in the first year ($89 thereafter).
General-Consumer Purchase Financing
The Trick: In a market speckled with 0% offers for well over a year, this card’s combination of a 3.99% intro rate for the first six months and a regular APR that could be anywhere from 12.99% to 22.99%, depending on the applicant’s credit standing, provides quite the costly contrast.
Any card with an introductory interest rate might at first seem attractive, but the disparity that exists on the market among specific intro rates, intro terms, and regular rates means that consumer costs can vary widely if one does not choose their card wisely. As a result, we used CardHub’s credit card calculator to compare credit cards with introductory rates to see how much each would cost a consumer who is trying to pay off a $1,000 purchase over two years. The Toyota Card was the most expensive offer out of the more than 400 cards that we considered in this category.
The Treat: The Citi Diamond Preferred Card offers 0% for 21 months – the longest term on the market – and does not charge an annual fee. And while it does have a relatively-high 11.99% - 21.99% regular APR, it offers such a lengthy respite from finance charges that strategic budgeters can make sure to minimize any balances that remain at that time.
General-Consumer Balance Transfers
The Trick: The Kansas City Royals are in their second consecutive World Series, but the team’s eponymous credit card doesn’t offer much in the way of indebted-fan appreciation. It offers a 3.99% introductory APR on transferred debt for the first six months, which cedes to a regular rate as high as 20.24%, and charges a whopping 5% balance transfer fee. It is the most expensive option among cards with no annual fee that offer reduced introductory rates on balance transfers – the most likely candidates for indebted consumers.
The Treat: The Slate Card from Chase offers 0% on transferred balances for 15 months and charges neither a balance transfer fee nor an annual fee, making it the best balance transfer card on the market.
The Trick: This card charges a $9 annual fee and does not offer rewards or low introductory interest rates. Small business credit cards are known for their business-oriented rewards programs (which are often lucrative enough to warrant paying an annual fee) and business owners who opt for the CorTrust Bank Visa Business Credit Card are forgoing an opportunity to earn a lot of free money.
The Treat: Capital One Spark Miles for Business offers a 50,000-mile initial bonus as well as 2 miles per $1 spent across all purchases. That equates to $500 and 2% cash back, when miles are redeemed for travel. The card’s $59 annual fee is also waived for the first year.
6 Tips for Avoiding a Scary Credit Card
Halloween comes but once per year, yet scary credit cards are always lurking. So, here are some tips that will help you determine whether a given offer is a trick or a treat.
- Evaluate Your Needs: There is no one-size-fits-all credit card. From the credit standing needed for approval to the fee structure and associated perks, there are myriad ways in which one credit card offer may differ from another. And since cards that excel in one particular area – rewards, for example – are likely to be deficient in others, it’s very important that you determine exactly what you need before looking into specific offers.
- Try CardAdvisor: CardHub has a new tool that helps you pick the right credit card for your needs. All you have to do is answer a few anonymous questions based on your credit standing and financial obligations, and CardAdvisor will automatically compare more than 1,000 offers to make a personalized recommendation.
- Use the Island Approach: The Island Approach is a credit card strategy that involves isolating different types of transactions on different accounts in order to garner the best possible collection of terms. For example, this might entail getting a rewards card for everyday expenses that you pay off completely by the end of the month and a 0% balance transfer credit card to lower the cost of existing debt.
- Compare Terms, Not Branding: Consumers too often get hung up on which bank issues their credit card or what cards they’ve seen advertised on TV. Those things don’t matter. Dollars and cents are what counts, so make sure to compare relevant offers across issuers in order to identify the card that will save you the most money.
- Read the Fine Print: While credit card disclosures have improved in recent years, they still aren’t perfect. And even though fine print can lead to headaches, it can also contain crucial information that impacts how much you pay for card use as well as the overall benefit you derive from your card.
- Track Your Progress: Reviewing your monthly account statements and taking advantage of your right to free annual credit reports will enable you to keep tabs on your spending and payment habits, your credit building progress, and erroneous information that could indicate either fraud or credit bureau errors. Using a credit card calculator to plan a debt payoff strategy before transferring a balance or making a big-ticket purchase will also help you minimize interest payments.