Why It Can Make Sense to Pass Up Higher Credit Card Rewards

by Virginia C McGuire

If you have a rewards credit card in your wallet, you might have chosen it because you want the highest possible reward rates. Maybe you're earning 3% cash back with a gas credit card, or 5% cash back on rotating bonus categories such as groceries and Amazon purchases.

If so, you're earning higher credit card rewards than I am.

My main credit card, the one I carry everywhere and use for almost every purchase, pays 2% cash back -- but it deposits those rewards directly into my son's 529 college savings plan.

Why do I settle for rewards that aren't always as high as they could be in absolute dollars? Because college savings requiring no additional effort or expense on my part are what I value most.

The whole point of rewards is that they give you a little something extra for maintaining a strong credit score and using the card when you shop. I can't put as much money as I'd like toward college savings for my kid, so for me, that 2% is a treat -- something extra that exists outside my regular budget.

Credit card rewards can fulfill desires that aren't covered by the typical household spending plan.

  • Travel rewards. Watching airline miles or hotel points build up in your rewards account each month can fuel many an escapist fantasy. Travel rewards offer the promise that all you have to do to land on a beach chair in Maui is keep on paying the bills with your card every month and save your points. Every dollar spent brings you a little closer.
  • Cash back. Rather than promising a specific treat, cash back gives you the flexibility to use your rewards on just about anything your heart desires. Some people opt to take their cash back rewards as a statement credit, giving them a little relief from their monthly bills. Others use their cash rewards to pay for something they couldn't otherwise afford, like a day on the golf course or at the spa.
  • Merchandise. Many credit card issuers offer a rewards mall where you can redeem your points directly. You can choose from the available merchandise or cash in your points for a gift card to a major retailer. Although redemption rates for merchandise often aren't as high as for the other two options above, it can be fun to choose a gift for yourself that you wouldn't ordinarily buy.

Whether you choose to save your rewards for the vacation of a lifetime, use them to pay off a small chunk of your monthly credit card bill, or buy yourself a little present, the right rewards for you might not carry the absolute highest possible value. Perhaps, like me, you'd rather have rewards that will increase in value over time, like college account contributions, or money to help you pay off your student loans or your mortgage.

The best rewards are the ones that ultimately give you the most satisfaction.

Virginia C. McGuire is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: virginia@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @vcmcguire.

This story originally appeared on NerdWallet.