8 ways to use credit card rewards to stay on budget during the holidays

Americans expect to spend an average of over $1,000 this holiday season. If that's your plan, too, let your credit card points do some of the shopping instead. It's a strategy common among rewards cardholders.

"This is probably our customers' favorite time of year when it comes to rewards," says Tammy McIntosh, senior vice president of customer rewards at PNC Bank. "They save throughout the year just for the holidays. That's when when we see redemptions just spike."

There are plenty of ways to tap those rewards to help you stay within your budget, McIntosh says. Remember that you may not always maximize the dollar value of your points, but it’s better than emptying your wallet, or worse, racking up credit card debt you can’t pay off.

Here are eight ways to use points to alleviate your holiday spending:

Some retailers partner with credit card rewards programs so you can pay for your purchase with points. For instance, you can use your American Express, Chase, Citi and Discover rewards for Amazon purchases. You can also use Amex rewards for online purchases at Staples, Walmart, Best Buy and Rite Aid, among others.

You can also use Citi points at Best Buy and 1-800-Flowers.com, but there’s a hitch. You need to pay first with your card. The points are deducted later, and you get a statement credit within days of the purchase.

They may be impersonal, but gift cards are consistently the most popular and most requested present for at least a decade, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade association. They are also practical and easy to send.

Most credit card rewards programs allow you to redeem your points or rewards for gift cards from major retailers, often at a discount. 

McIntosh sees procrastinators take advantage of sending digital gift cards at the last minute. Others redeem their points for a card and use it themselves at the store to buy presents for loved ones, she says.

If you don’t have enough points, here’s a way to supercharge getting rewards while you shop. Instead of purchasing directly from a retailer’s website, go through your credit card’s online shopping portal where you can shop at major stores like Banana Republic and Best Buy. When you buy through the portal, you earn extra rewards points. You can use those later for a statement credit to reduce your total spending.

Browse your card issuer’s merchandise catalog for possible gift ideas. These catalogs often feature, luggage, jewelry, electronics and even toys that can be bought using rewards or points. Generally, you ultimately pay more for these items than if you purchased them directly from a store. But if you have no other use for your rewards and need to stick to a budget, this is a convenient way to do it.

For those recipients on your list that have everything already, buy an experience with your rewards. For instance, get concert or other event tickets from Live Nation using your Citi ThankYou points, or from TicketMaster using your American Express rewards. 

"We see customers will use rewards to book travel, but not for holiday time," McIntosh. "They book a Disney cruise and give that as a gift that maybe doesn’t happen until February."

If you promise to “be home for Christmas,” use rewards to get there. Points can be used to book a hotel near family or fly your special someone to you. If you don’t have enough to cover a flight, some issuers, like Citi and American Express, let you use rewards to pay for some or all of a purchase on Expedia.com. Capital One cardholders also can use rewards they earn during the holidays to pay for travel purchases they made 90 days before.

Embrace the spirit of the season and donate your points in your loved one’s name. It’s tax-deductible, too. Most issuers allow this, but some offer more options than others. For example, you can choose from over a million charities to donate your American Express rewards to. But you can donate to only three charities with your Citi card: American Red Cross Disaster Relief, American Red Cross International Services, and Smile Train, a not-for-profit that provides cleft repair surgery in developing countries.

"The fallback is just redeeming for cash. They can go out and buy a gift or travel and redeem for cash," says McIntosh. "It still feels pretty rewarding because that cash didn’t come out of their wallet or their budget."


November 14, 2018

Sources: USA Today

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