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.