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A lot of things changed in 2020. How we live, how we work -- and how we spend. For me, this meant that my credit card collection, carefully curated over the years to earn me optimum rewards, was put to the test. Some cards became more useful, while other cards gathered a lot of dust (looking at you, co-branded travel cards).
Overall, however, my rewards credit cards did their job. I earned more than $800 in cash back and points over the course of the year. While certainly not my most lucrative rewards haul -- I only earned one sign-up bonus in 2020 -- that extra $800 during a time when most of us are tightening our belts was $800 I was happy to see.
When I took a good look at which cards earned what, I saw that a lot of the heavy lifting was done by just three cards. Here's a breakdown of what I earned, and which cards did the earning.
$552 with the U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card
I wrote about this card earlier in the year, but it's definitely worth mentioning again. The U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card was a fantastic addition to my card portfolio, netting me a solid $552 in cash back between the purchase rewards and sign-up bonus.
For me, the U.S. Bank Cash+™ card really stood out for its unusual bonus rewards categories. Cardholders can earn 5% cash back in two categories you can select yourself, on up to $2,000 in eligible spending each quarter. Two 5% categories would be impressive regardless, but these two options really stood out: home utilities and cellphone providers.
All in all, my U.S. Bank card brought in $400 in cash back on my major bills thanks to maxing out my earnings each quarter. Factoring in the flat-rate fee for paying my utilities via credit card -- but not an annual fee, as this card doesn't have one -- and you have $352 in cash back earnings from just one card.
Oh, and don't forget that sign-up bonus I mentioned. It only took $500 in spending -- also known as less than two months of electricity -- to earn the $200 sign-up bonus. Not bad for pretty much zero effort on my part. The sign-up bonus added to my regular purchase rewards meant my card netted $552 in cash back in 2020.
$175 with the American Express® Gold Card
Although this card gained some utility via its awesome grocery rewards this year, the decrease in my restaurant spending actually meant I earned fewer points overall. Without spending as much on dining -- and no flights in 2020 -- my Amex Gold Card left a lot to be desired in terms of its value potential. Especially with a hefty $250 annual fee.
The total earned figure for this card is a combination of purchase rewards and sporadic use of the card's $120 annual dining credit (which is redeemed as up to $10 a month). Specifically, I used the dining credit three times in 2020, for a total of $30 in credits.
The hardest part of figuring out the value for my actual purchase rewards is that the card earns Membership Rewards® points, not cash back. So, the remaining $145 figure is more of an estimation based on the approximately 14,500 points I earned in 2020.
Essentially, I valued them based on the idea of $0.01 per point. Though this is more than you'd get if you redeemed them directly for cash back -- that earns only $0.006 per point -- a good travel redemption (when travel is safe again) can net three times that, so it seemed a fair compromise for the sake of this exercise.
$87 with the American Express Blue Cash Preferred® Card
As with my other American Express card, my Blue Cash Preferred® Card wasn't quite as valuable this year as it has been in the past. In fact, with cash back rewards of just $87 from all of 2020, the card didn't even pay for its own $95 annual fee. The two changes that really impacted my earnings? Less driving -- and my Amex Gold Card.
First, the earnings. Nearly every streaming service I use gets paid for via the Blue Cash Preferred® Card to take advantage of its 6% cash back on select streaming services. At that rate, the cost of Hulu, Netflix, HBO, and half a dozen other services generated nearly the full $87 in cash back I earned this year.
Since this used to be a great rewards card for me, I did some digging. As it turns out, moving my grocery spending onto the Amex Gold Card in 2019 bit deeply into my Blue Cash Preferred® earning potential. The other big change was no more commute. I went from a new tank of gas every week to filling up just five times all year. So the 3% back on gas was only worth $4.50 in 2020.
It may be time for some new cards
Taking a long, hard look at my rewards earnings for 2020 uncovered a lot of room for improvement. Two out of my three main rewards cards performed under expectations, which means my annual credit card audit may have some casualties.
In the end, the decision will probably hinge on the actual value I place on Amex Membership Rewards® points. If I think I can redeem them for some high-value travel sometime soon, then my Amex Gold Card may be worth its fee. Otherwise, it may be time for a downgrade. (But that's another article!)