America is awash in rewards cards. As a marketing tactic, to say that they have caught on is an understatement. The big question people ask about rewards cards, however, is whether they’re actually worth it or not. The answer to that is the unsatisfying “depends on the card, and it depends on the rewards.”
Rewards cards seek to build brand loyalty. Supermarkets, coffee shops, movie theaters and even dry cleaners all offer rewards cards (or some sort of accrual incentive) in order to get your business on a consistent basis. Incentives such as airline miles are a form of rewards card, too.
Determining whether rewards cards and other accrual incentives are worth it will depend on a number of factors.
Factor 1: What is the reward?
The first is the nature of the reward. A coffee shop, for example, may offer a rewards ticket, where they punch a hole in your card until you’ve reached ten coffees, and at that point you’ll get your eleventh free.
Cards like that are probably the most valuable in terms of saving you money because they’re not compelling you to buy another product — like a buy-two-to-get-one-free deal, which makes you shell out more cash — in order to save money. In this example, the reward you’re getting is worth it because the coffee’s a part of your daily life (and for many people, the foundation of their day’s sanity).
Factor 2: How often do you shop there?
Another factor in determining whether a rewards card actually saves you money boils down to your specific purchasing frequency. For example, if you go to the same supermarket whenever you need to buy food then it makes sense to get one of their rewards cards. Everyone needs food, and we need it all the time.
The same goes for your airline miles. If you travel a lot it makes sense to stick to one airline in order to build up your mileage account so you can then blow it all on a dream trip. That’s a reward that’s clearly worth it.
When rewards cards aren’t worth it
When rewards cards aren’t worth it is when you’re just not going to use them very often, or when you don’t care for the reward. In those instances rewards cards will just clutter up your wallet and possibly drive you crazy when you have to find a card you actually need. Additionally, you may not care for the reward being offered. Sometimes people just don’t want a satin sweatshirt with a garish logo emblazoned it, even if it’s free.
Approach rewards cards with common sense. Are you going to be frequenting the specific establishment with any regularity? Then it probably makes sense to get their rewards card and enjoy the payoff they’re offering for your loyalty. If the rewards card is from a store in a city you’re just passing through, then why bother? The good news is that rewards cards don’t cost you anything, so they’re relatively risk-free.