The number of credit card offers being mailed to American consumers has more than doubled in the past five years; from 456 million in the first quarter to just shy of a billion in the same time period this year. Credit has definitely gotten much easier to get over the past few years, but they certainly haven't gotten cheaper.
In order to offer bigger and better rewards programs, annual fees have been climbing. In fact, there are a bunch of cards with annual fees of several hundred dollars from companies like American Express (NYSE:AXP) and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM).
So, how do you figure out if the annual fees are worth it for you? Here are a few questions to ask yourself to see if the credit card you're considering is actually a good deal.
Are the "perks" useful to you?
A card with a high annual fee can be a waste of money or an absolute bargain. It all depends how much you use what they offer.
For example, getting an expensive airline credit card with a ton of benefits is a waste if you only fly a few times per year. The United Club Card issued by JPMorgan Chase comes with a $395 annual fee. Sure, it lets you earn airline miles, but there are cards with $49 annual fees that do too. However, for frequent travelers, the free United Club membership, two free checked bags per person, and elite status at certain hotels could easily justify the annual fee.
The American Express Delta Sky Miles Reserve card is even more expensive at $450 per year, but adds the ability to earn status qualification miles; a benefit that can easily pay for itself in free first-class upgrades and other preferential treatment. Still, it is only worthwhile if the benefits are important to you.
First determine what type of benefits you'll use most. If you don't fly a lot, maybe rewards at your favorite retailer or cash back is the best way to go.
Will you use them enough to justify the cost?
Once you determine what kind of rewards are most useful to you, do a little number-crunching to see if you'll use the benefits enough to justify the fee.
Let's say you're thinking of applying for the Platinum American Express charge card, which comes with a $450 annual fee. If you spend $15,000 per year on the card, you'll get 15,000 membership rewards points, which are worth about one cent each, or $150 total.
If you travel, American Express will reimburse up to $200 in airline fees per year. And, for frequent travelers, the free airport club access is worth around $500 per year. So, these three benefits alone are worth a lot more than the annual fee. Plus, if you fly internationally, you can get a complementary or deeply discounted first class companion ticket when you pay for one. This benefit alone can be worth thousands of dollars per year...if you use it.
Is it worth it for you?
The reality is that basic, low-cost credit cards are the best deal for the vast majority of American consumers.
However, if you travel a lot or spend a lot of money on credit cards in general, one of the high-fee, high-benefit cards might make financial sense for you. Before you decide, figure out what benefits will produce the most value for your lifestyle and then determine whether or not you'll use those benefits enough to justify a "premium" credit card.