Search

Credit Cards: Why So Much Fuss?

Using a credit card for online shopping

By now you may have noticed an increasing number of credit card offers via mail, email, and more recently even through social media. For many credit card companies, physicians are among the most sought after clients because they tend to have higher incomes and due to the generally economic-resistant nature of our profession, and lower credit risk. When sorting through the piles of offers, it can be confusing when determining whether to choose a card with cash back, points, or other travel perks.

I’ve found a number of online sources to be helpful in sorting this out including my personal favorite, The Points Guy (TPG), followed closely by Nerd Wallet. From reviewing many of their articles and trying to customize it to some of the unique features of physician spending, below I’ve offered my tips in finding the right card for you and some powerful combinations of cards that have worked well for me.

Where to Begin?

First, you want to know and understand your credit score. This is based on a multitude of sources including prior credit cards, mortgage payment history, utility bills, and outstanding bank loans, to name a few. Many credit cards and websites (AnnualCredit Report.com) will offer free annual access to your credit score.

Next, figure out what you’re trying to achieve. For instance if you are trying to look for a lower interest credit card the APR% will be most important, but if you are trying to maximize rewards you will be evaluating the card benefits and offsetting annual fees.

The main rule of using credit cards is to never carry a balance on your credit card because the interest you will pay will be astronomically high.

Given this rule, if you are in credit card debt, first choose cards that allow you to pay down your debt as quickly as possible with the lowest APR%.  Once that has been addressed, I suggest moving on to credit cards that maximize your rewards.

Rewards

Rewards come at (1) different times, (2) in different forms, and (3) with different categories. Let’s review each of these more carefully.

1. Reward Timing

Typically credit card companies have a sign-on bonus or introductory bonus offer. Often, websites such as TPG and Nerd Wallet will advertise the best publicly available offers to sign on. In addition to introductory offers, rewards will accrue as you use your card over time. Ongoing rewards typically accrue at some ratio of the number of points/rewards for every dollar you spend. While the rewards per dollars spent typically don’t vary from publicly listed to targeted offers, the introductory bonuses can vary substantially.

Once you have a card in mind I recommend using the CardMatch tool from CreditCards.com to identify any special bonuses that are specifically targeted to you. Given that many physicians tend to be high earners and subsequently high spenders, often you can beat the publicly available introductory offer.

2. Reward Forms

The bulk of your rewards come through as points, but not all points are created equal. TPG does a monthly update on the value of each point.

I find anything over 2 cents per point to be very valuable and indeed as of December 2018 only four credit cards  (Amtrak Guest Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Diners Club Rewards, and Starwood Starpoints) meet these lofty expectations.

These points can sometimes be used to receive cash back (usually the lowest return on your points), to purchase gift cards, or for dining and travel (usually the highest return on your points).

In addition, many cards carry various other benefits which can be helpful depending on how you spend your money. For instance, some cards such as Chase Sapphire Reserve have travel credit that helps to offset the otherwise hefty annual fee — more on that later. Many cards also carry additional insurance coverage so that you can decline car rental insurance or get up to an extra year beyond the standard product warranty.

Finally, other unique offers may be card specific such as waved baggage fees on air travel, access to lounges at airports, and the possibility of free room upgrades at hotels. You’ll have to judge for yourself the frequency of utilizing these benefits to determine their true worth. Personally I have found these benefits to be helpful, but still secondary to the points which is where the true credit card value rests.

3. Reward Categories

Finally, the number of points earned can vary significantly based on the reward categories that earn bonuses. For instance, within the Chase family of credit cards, some such as Chase Freedom Unlimited earn 1.5x on every dollar spent regardless of category, but the Chase Sapphire Reserve earns 3x on dining and travel with 1x on everything else. If you carry both of these credit cards you’d only use your Chase Sapphire Reserve on the 3x point categories and the Chase Freedom Unlimited on everything else to maximize your points.

Costs

Many of the cards with the highest rewards have a large annual fee. While I was personally against the concept of paying an annual fee, when done selectively, these cards can still return an incredible value to you far exceeding the annual premium. The annual fees can be substantial (ie AMEX Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve $550 and $450 annually, respectively).

Final Thoughts

I’d like to share my personal approach to credit cards that I’ve adapted based on strategies recommended by TPG and Nerd Wallet. I carry the Chase Sapphire Reserve which allows me to earn 3x on dining/travel expenses and redeem points on travel at a %50 (or 1.5x) premium (ie the same as getting a 33% discount on any hotel, flight, or activity that you book through Chase). I couple that with a Chase Freedom Unlimited Personal card and Chase Ink Business Unlimited Card. I put all my non-dining/travel expenses on my personal Chase Freedom Unlimited Card and since the majority of medical office expenses don’t fall under traditional business categories, I find the Chase Business Ink Unlimited Card to be helpful to maximize points. Next I transfer all of the points from my personal and business cards to my Chase Sapphire Reserve account where I can redeem them at a 50% premium on travel.

I have found this combination to really maximize the point value of Chase Unlimited Rewards because effectively I earn 3% on dining and travel expenses that directly go on my Chase Sapphire Reserve Card plus 2.25 points per dollar (1.5x on personal and business, which then gets a 50% or 1.5x boost when transferred to my Chase Sapphire Reserve account) for all other expenses. This combination has allowed me to take some amazing vacations that simply wouldn’t have been possible without these rewards benefits.

Happy credit carding!

Summary/Take-Away Points

  1. Once you’ve achieved a consistent zero balance policy for your credit cards, consider finding cards that offer the best rewards.
  2. Look out for individualized offers or seek them out prior to applying for a new credit card.
  3. Strongly consider using a “family” of credit cards to maximize the points for every dollar spent and the value at time of redemption.
Join the discussion

1 comment