How I Learned to Stop Worrying and (Responsibly) Love My Credit Card

Like most people, I’ve had a credit card since college.

I remember exactly how it went down: I was at a Washington Capitals game, and a man in front of a folding table with lots of forms and important paperwork on it said he’d give me a free t-shirt if I signed up for a Capital One card. I like free things. I may have been drinking. I signed my name and selected Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” as my background image. That got the ball rolling: I got an Express card so I could buy a dress for a fraternity formal. I got an Old Navy card because I had bad taste. I showed them to my parents, proud of my financial independence. They worried.

But they didn’t have to, because if I have one money philosophy, it is this: If I’m paying for something, I better get something in return. I’m not cheap, just calculating. I sometimes pay $9 for some kind of fancy gourmet ice cream from cows that eat only grass and roses and probably dollar bills (it is local, naturally). But I will threaten to cancel HBO if it hasn’t been watched in a week, and I have no problem walking ten blocks to save $3 on an ATM fee.

So it goes without saying that I wasn’t about to spend money on interest. That’s not to say my record is clear—when I moved to New York after college, I didn’t even update the address on my old store credit cards. I checked my credit report a few years later and was relieved to find out they’d been canceled; no one had a closet full of performance fleeces on my dime. But for the most part, I’ve learned to play the credit card game. Up until recently, I had one card I used regularly: It was a Chase card—1% cash back, with up to 5% in rotating categories like grocery stores (awesome) and Kohl’s (not).  

But in October, I moved from Brooklyn to Charlottesville, Virginia. In the spirit of “why walk when you can drive,” I started spending $120 on gas every month. My drives landed me at Whole Foods, whereas in Brooklyn, I took the 52 bus to Trader Joe’s. I was swiping my credit card a lot. Chase took some of my rewards away because I no longer had a bank account with them. I needed a new credit card.

So I crunched some numbers, added up old grocery and gas charges, breathed deeply and paced quite a bit. There are a lot of rewards credit cards out there, in case you didn’t know! I felt a lot of pressure to select the perfect one. I knew I wanted cash back because, well, money. I could use it to travel, or pay my rent, or take myself out to dinner.

Of course, different cards have different programs. Some will give you a flat rate, like one percent. Some will give you extra cash in certain categories, like the grocery store or gas stations. And some will rotate those categories, like my old Chase card. So for a few months you’d get five percent back at the movies, and then a few months later, maybe it’d be hotels (I’ve yet to see a liquor store offer. But here’s hoping!).

To make things more stressful, some of the cards I liked—the ones that had big upfront cash bonuses, or better ongoing perks—charged an annual fee. That’s $60-$100 a year, depending on the card, and paying it would completely go against my philosophy.

But once I started doing some math, I realized that if you spend enough money, the annual fee is worth it. Take the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card, which is what I finally picked. It costs $75 a year. That’s a lot of money to me. But it also pays six percent cash back at supermarkets, three percent at gas stations and department stores, and one percent on all other purchases. It will pay for itself if I spend just $25 on groceries a week and, um, did I mention Whole Foods? I pretty much spend that on chocolate covered almonds alone!

I’ve had the card for about three months, and it’s working for me because I am obsessed with these rewards. I use my credit card for every possible purchase, I yell at my husband when he doesn’t, I check the balance every day, and I pay it off when I start to get itchy. I feel pretty comfortable with my choice—as comfortable as a completely neurotic person can feel—mostly because I used this site to do a few projections. It lets you plug in how much you spend in certain categories, what kind of credit score you have and other relevant info and it will spit back some suggested cards. The first on the list it generated for me was my Amex. There is also a community of nerds like me who review the cards like they’re toasters on Amazon. They tell me that Amazon counts as a department store (score), but Walmart doesn’t count as a grocery store (don’t care; hate that place).

The thing is, you have to spend money. It’s the way of the world. And if you’re spending money anyway, and you’re paying your credit card bill off every month, why not get something in return? And if you’re going to get something in return, why not get the absolute most you possibly can? It’s worth an initial time investment, because at the end of the year, I’ll have enough in rewards to buy, like, 20 pints of that ice cream.


Arielle O’Shea lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and writes about money. Photo: Clemson/Flickr


14 Comments / Post A Comment

Mike Dang (#2)

Oh gosh, did we all have that “Starry Night” image on our first credit cards?

@Mike Dang Still do…. eep.

kellyography (#250)

@myrna.minkoff Oh god, me too. I’ve had my first credit card for like five years. I have great credit in that I pay off the balance every month and pay my full student loan payment every month, but it apparently takes way more than that to qualify for things like rewards cards and/or a higher credit limit (even though I would also be skeptical about paying a yearly fee for a credit card).

probs (#296)

Word up to cashback credit cards. As long as you’re only using them to make purchases you would’ve made anyway, they make a ton of sense. I use a Chase card like you used to have. I’m against American Express because they sent an offer for their Zinc card, which seems like a slap in the face with their other cards being like, Gold, Silver and Swanky Alloy, or whatever. I don’t want to use a credit card that reminds me of multivitamins. A logical thought process.

DrFeelGood (#401)

@probs My card is the Lead card then. Pb.

I similarly signed up for a credit in return for free stuff – in my case, a pizza – but then I made the mistake of maxing it out a couple years later when my financial aid was three months late, and then not paying it off right away! Oops! Now cards with nice rewards are the stuff of dreams until I can resuscitate my credit score a bit.

jfruh (#161)

I have the Chase Visa and for the last two months their Rewards site has been mysteriously nonfunctional? Like, it was always slightly a pain to actually get the cash back (you had to click through two non-obvious layers) but now when you do you just get a blank page that never goes anywhere. Kind of convenient for them, yes/

I have one credit card with a great interest rate (which have never availed myself of) through the bank I do all my banking with, and I’ve been kind of afraid to get another one. I know lots of people use several banks, but to me it sounds like a hassle!

Lenora Jane (#395)

My mother’s credit card put cash in my college fund and that shit paid for a semester of my degree. All about rewards that make sense for your lifestyle.

Maven (#402)

I’ve had an Amazon rewards card for years and I just use it for everything and pay it off every month. So far I’ve gotten $800 worth of plane tickets and countless Amazon gift certificates. I second the word up!

pearl (#153)

I’ve got an embarrassing number of credit cards for a 22 year old (six, plus 2 store cards), but! I pay each and every one of them off each month, even on my paltry salary. Most of them are rewards cards, which garnered me lots of free hotel nights and miles for free trips, so I think it’s worth it. My credit score is pretty good (760s), the credit limits aren’t high but I’m not spending much. I’m satisfied. Also, on most cards, you can sort of talk your way out of the annual fee if you threaten to cancel, such as my Citi Aadvantage card.

Thanks for sharing your experience, I love the article.I also do not mind using credit cards and do not see anything negative in this if you use it RESPONSIBLY.So I think that people, who just are not responsible about loans, cridits and making debts have negative opinion about credit card and think that it’s an evil.People like to take something for free, but when it comes time to give something in return or to pay for what they have taken,they usually become nervous and frustrated.So if you aren’t ready to pay money back or to pay your bills, why do you borrow money?My mom has a very careful attitude to finances, sometimes she uses her card, but always pays money back in time. So she has never had a truoble with her credit because she was responsible about it.
Brian from CashAdvancesUS

marbing (#1,834)

This goes to show that wise use of credit is beneficial. I use my credit card to pay day to day purchases such as gas, groceries, utilities, etc. I always make it a point to pay off the balance full at the end of each month. As such, they don’t make any money out of me in interest and I get to accrue whatever rewards they offer.

Keck (#2,466)

I’ve gotten credit card companies to remove the annual fee by threatening to cancel my card. I’m sure that doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.

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