This article was updated on June 24, 2018.
With so many credit cards to choose from, it's difficult to compare every card to find the perfect fit for your wallet. But after searching for the best possible deals from several different credit card companies, Fool.com discovered that the list can be whittled down to fewer than 10 cards that fit virtually every need.
Here, we'll show you how to decide which card is right for you based on your purchase patterns, existing credit card balances (if any), and rewards preferences.
If you have credit card debt...
Got debt? If so, it makes sense to prioritize interest rates above all else. After all, lowering the interest rate on existing credit card debt provides more value than getting the best possible reward rates on new spending.
It may be difficult to put into perspective just how valuable 0% APR balance transfers really are, but consider this: A card that offers a 0% APR can save you $600 or more in interest on a $5,000 balance compared with a card with a standard APR of 18%. There are very few opportunities to extract that much value from any rewards card, so it would be prudent for indebted cardholders to focus on getting the lowest possible rate.
There are numerous credit cards that offer 0% interest on balance transfers for periods that span as long as 21 months. It's my view that these balance-transfer cards are one of the best ways to consolidate credit card debt because the rates and terms are substantially better than other methods, such as taking out a personal loan or home equity line of credit.
Of balance-transfer cards on the market today, Chase Slate® may take the top slot. It offers a 0% introductory APR on balance transfers and doesn't charge a fee to transfer a balance in the first 45 days after account opening. Thus, people who have credit card debt could transfer their balances to Chase Slate® and pay nothing in fees or interest to pay down their balance to zero, provided that the balance was paid off in the 15-billing-cycle (15-month) introductory period.
Credit card rewards: Travel or cash back?
If you don't have credit card debt and pay your balances in full each month, then a rewards credit card is a natural fit for your wallet. Generally speaking, credit card rewards come in only two flavors: travel rewards and cash-back rewards.
Which type of rewards program is best for you depends on whether you'd prefer to collect your rewards in the form of free travel or cash. If you know you'll travel frequently, a travel card is a good pick. If you can't know with certainty you will have travel expenses, stick to cash-back cards. (See this article on things to know before applying for a travel card -- many travel cards pay out 20% to 50% less when points or miles are redeemed for cash rather than travel. Thus, if you're on the fence about traveling, cash back is the way to go.)
One or two cards should do
While there is no real limit to the number of credit cards you can have, at some point, having multiple cards becomes unwieldy and difficult to manage. Thus, rather than focus on getting every last point or mile in rewards, we at Fool.com focus on getting the highest possible rewards from the fewest number of cards.
For this reason, we prioritize cards that offer the highest level of rewards on so-called "everyday" spend, goods or services that the average person is most likely to buy on a recurring basis. Therefore, we tend to favor cards that offer flat rewards rates (1.5% or 2% cash back, for example) or those with bonuses for spending on gasoline, groceries, or wholesale stores such as Costco.
The best picks in cash-back rewards
We're partial to the high, flat-rate rewards rate (2%) earned from the Citi® Double Cash. We also like that the card rewards cardholders for paying down their balances, as it pays 1% cash back at the time of purchase, and 1% when balances are paid off. The only disadvantage is that the card doesn't have a new cardholder bonus, whereas many competing cards do.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited® may offer the best of both worlds in the form of high rewards rates and an up-front new-cardholder bonus for qualifying cardholders. It pays a flat 1.5% rewards rate on all spending and front-loads the rewards with a $150 new cardholder bonus when qualifying cardholders meet a minimum spending requirement.
The value of new cardholder bonuses shouldn't be ignored. In this case, the Citi® Double Cash (2% cash back) beats the Chase Freedom Unlimited® (1.5% cash back) on basic rewards rates. However, because of the new cardholder bonus, one would have to spend at least $30,000 for the Citi® Double Cash to be the better pick.
Reaching $30,000 in spending volume is more difficult than it would seem, as most large-budget items such as rent or mortgage payments, insurance premiums, and other expenses can't be paid by credit card. This is just one example of why it pays to read the fine print and do the math on a credit card offer before applying.
What about travel rewards?
The primary difference between travel rewards cards comes down to how rewards are redeemed. All of the travel cards on the market can be put into just two broad categories: travel portal cards, and statement credit cards.
Travel portal cards earn rewards that are redeemed through a bank's portal, or catalog, of potential redemption options. As you accumulate rewards, you'll have the opportunity to redeem these rewards for hotel stays, flights, or unique experiences (concerts, zoos, tours, and more) through the bank's online portal. One of the most popular cards in this category is the Chase Sapphire Preferred®, which earns points that convert to travel at a rate of $0.0125 per dollar of purchase volume. Chase Sapphire Preferred is especially beloved among cardholders who use hotel and airline loyalty programs, since points earned through Chase's program can be transferred to travel partners. (Transferring points can lead to more valuable redemption options.)
On the other hand, statement credit redemption cards allow cardholders to earn points or miles that are redeemed for statement credits. These cards offer more choice, as they allow you to book travel through your preferred method and redeem your points or miles for a statement credit that reverses the charge from your balance. If you like to shop around for the best possible deal and prefer to have more choices, a statement credit card is probably the better pick. Two popular statement credit cards are Bank of America® Travel Rewards and Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite MasterCard®.
The value of each card depends greatly on a cardholder's purchase patterns. The Bank of America® Travel Rewards card is a great all-around card for smaller spenders, since it's the only card in this group that doesn't carry an annual fee. It's especially valuable for Bank of America customers, given that it offers a bonus for customer loyalty, making the rewards rate 10% to 75% higher than its standard rate.
For heavier spenders, it's worth paying an annual fee for higher rewards rates. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite MasterCard® has a high, flat rewards rate on all spending. On the other hand, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® earns at a high rate and offers bonus rewards for travel and restaurant purchases.
How to win the credit card game
Used wisely, credit cards are financial tools that can help you bolster your credit score, pay down debt at 0% APRs, and earn rewards with every purchase. They also offer better fraud protection than debit cards if your card is lost or stolen. However, in the wrong hands, credit cards can lead to financial disaster, as balances can grow at a penalty rate as high as 29.99% per year.
Winning the credit card game requires discipline. Those who always pay cards on time and in full each month get all the benefits of having a credit card without paying a dime in interest and fees. For this reason, credit cards are best for people who follow a strict budget and never carry balances from month to month. Played wisely, credit cards can pay you handsomely, but any mistake (late payments or carried balances) will prove costly.