One of the main selling points of credit cards over the past decade has been the balance transfer offer, where customers are tempted into applying for a new card with the promise of obtaining effectively free credit. By making use of a 0% transfer deal, they can put off having to pay any interest on an existing debt for a period of six months or more.
These offers were incredibly popular, and led to millions of people regularly moving their balances around from card to card, much to the chagrin of the credit card companies who, victims of their own marketing success, found themselves losing out on billions in interest payments.
As financial organisations are not on the whole known for their generosity, they had to find a way out of their predicament, and introduced the balance transfer 'handling charge' which made the whole balance transfer game much less attractive to cardholders who wished to gain the most benefit from their accounts. Luckily for these clued-up credit card customers, there is another kind of offer which can make using a credit card positively profitable: rewards and cashback programs.
Although sometimes treated as different kinds of incentive, cashback programs and rewards schemes are really two sides of the same coin, in that they pay the cardholder back a percentage of what's spent on the card. The key difference is that with a cashback program you're repaid in cold hard cash, while with a rewards program your payment comes in the form of 'free' gifts, discounts on shopping or services, or other benefits in kind.
With cashback, the percentages involved are pretty small. One per cent of the amount you spend on purchases is the average figure to be looking for, although some cards can pay up to 3% if you take account of introductory deals. The situation with rewards schemes is slightly different, as your spending builds up 'points' at a rate which varies from card to card, as does the value of the points in terms of what you can exchange them for.
The decision on whether to choose a card with cashback or rewards is largely down to whether the reward scheme in question is one you'll find personally beneficial. Some programs operate within specific niches such as travel, gas, or entertainment, and if these niches play a prominent role in your lifestyle then they could work out to be very valuable to you. Many people, however, prefer to take the cash with no strings attached, and for this cashback is the logical choice.
Are either of the two options really worth having? The first thing to check is whether the benefits you receive are outweighed by a higher standard interest rate on the card. A cashback rate of 1% would be easily swallowed up by an APR that's a couple of percentage points higher than a similar card without the cashback feature.
And that brings us to the final point: in order to maximize the benefits you get from either cashback or rewards, you should try to avoid carrying a balance on your card. By paying off your spending in full every month, you'll avoid all interest and yet still receive the cashback or reward points. In effect, you'll be being paid for using a credit card!
Michael writes for Card Sense, which reviews and compares UK credit cards from issuers including Egg, Marbles, Capital One, and many more.