Airline miles, bookstore gift certificates, cash back. Yawn.
You can upgrade the precious metals, hire celebrity spokes-hotties, and have your PR company send freebies to financial journalists (thanks for the facial cream, Avon Visa folks!), but when it comes time to plunk down the plastic and run up the rewards, don't hate me because I'm bored.
I gave Providian Financial (NYSE: PVN ) a hard time for its Real Rewards program, which sweetens the points pot for customers who keep balances on their cards. And while I'm a fan of the yearly cash-back check and striking jester featured on our own MBNA (NYSE: KRB ) Motley Fool Visa card, I always encourage folks to hold it up to other offers before they sign on the dotted line.
So when I clicked over to Cardweb.com to review its list of the most innovative programs of 2004, I wasn't expecting to find any head-turning offers. Listed there were the usual suspects: Citigroup's (NYSE: C ) Home Rebate Platinum Select MasterCard, Merrill Lynch's (NYSE: MER ) Merrill + Visa card, and a host of MBNA offerings.
The Providian rewards program I skewered got a mention, as did the American DreamCard Platinum MasterCard, which enrolls you in a sweepstakes to win a monthly cash jackpot of $25,000 or more. (That one sounded a tad too much like our April Fool's joke, FOOLottery!, to me.)
A few highly specialized cards earned mentions, including the American Express (NYSE: AXP ) card for New Yorkers (which offers VIP access to some concert halls) and the $1,500-a-year white Visa card offered by U.S. Bank and Stratus Rewards, where 200,000 points earns you a free hour on a private jet.
But then I got a pleasant surprise -- Cardweb's choice for the most unusual card for 2004 was TCF Financial's TCF MilesPlus VISA. (Unfortunately you must visit a TCF bank branch to open an account.) What's so great about this rewards card? It's a model for the Foolish credit card I've long dreamed we would offer our customers someday. The free card offers the requisite miles-points programs. But here's the kicker: The credit card is packaged with the company's "TCF Premier Checking Plus" account. Card purchases are automatically deducted from the checking account 15 days after the statement is generated.
A credit card that pays itself off every month? Now there's a program that I hope serves as a model for the rest of the rewards-card industry.