Published in: Credit Cards | Oct. 19, 2019

Why Now Is a Great Time to Get a Rewards Card

By:  Lyle Daly

We are committed to full transparency as part of our mission to make the world smarter, happier, & richer. You should know that offers on The Ascent may be from our partners - it's how we make money. That transparency to you is core to our editorial integrity, which isn’t influenced by compensation.

Consumers who procrastinate could miss out.

If you've been thinking about applying for a rewards credit card but haven't gotten around to it yet, one of two things is probably stopping you: Picking a card or simply making the time to apply.

Even though you can earn quite a bit back from the best credit cards, it's understandable that getting one wouldn't be at the top of your priority list. You may figure that you can do it whenever, so there's no rush.

But that procrastination could be something you come to regret. In a recent report on credit cards by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), there were several indicators that if you want a rewards card, now is the time to get it.

A man in an airport sitting on his suitcase.

Image source: Getty Images

Rewards cards are costing credit card companies more

For years, credit card companies have been in a sort of arms race. One will release a card with a huge bonus offer or valuable new perks, and then the competition needs to follow suit so they don't get left behind.

It's great for consumers, but it's not ideal for credit card companies. The CFPB report showed that in 2015, each rewards card cost the card issuer $139 in rewards-related expenses. That jumped to $167 in 2018. That $27 cost difference per card becomes extremely expensive spread across millions of cardholders.

Here's an example of just how much this can affect card issuers: According to Chase, credit card rewards cost it $330 million in the second quarter of 2018.

Card issuers obviously don't want hefty rewards expenses eating into their profits, and so they are cutting back on benefits and raising the annual fees.

Credit card companies are cutting back on benefits

Credit card benefits and rewards programs can change at any time, and a common cost-cutting measure for card issuers is to reduce or eliminate certain card perks.

In some cases, card issuers will get rid of benefits that aren't used very often, such as price protection or trip cancellation insurance. But there have also been more significant changes that came without much warning.

For example, certain credit cards have cut their sign-up bonuses in half. Considering that there have been bonuses worth $500 to $1,000 or more, a cut like that is a big loss for customers.

Many airlines and hotels have raised the cost of award airfare and hotel stays, meaning the points consumers earn with their travel cards have less value.

The last thing you want to do is miss out on benefits, such as a sign up bonus, because you waited too long to get your rewards card. There are still plenty of cards offering the best perks they've ever had, but there's no guarantee of how long it will stay that way.

Annual fees are going up

If you wait to get a rewards card, there's also a good chance that you'll be paying more for it. Annual fees for credit cards have been steadily climbing for years. Among cards that have annual fees, the average fee amount has gone from just over $60 in 2015 to $80 in 2018.

Rewards cards are known to have much higher annual fees than non-rewards cards, on average. At the high end, the most feature-packed travel cards can carry annual fees of $450 or more, which can make sense for those who will maximize the benefits.

Don't worry if you're not interested in committing $450 to a credit card every year. There are plenty of cards in the $100-or-less range, as well as no-annual-fee cards for those who don't want to pay for a card. But overall, the cost of owning a credit card has been ticking upward and will likely continue to do so.

Why wait?

There's an argument that right now, rewards cards are as good as they've ever been. Even though some benefits have been cut and annual fees have risen, many of these cards still have the highest rewards rates and the biggest sign-up bonuses we've ever seen.

Considering the potential value you'll get from a rewards card, it makes sense to start using one ASAP. You don't want to put it off, only for the card you're looking at to lose benefits or have its annual fee go up.

Our #1 cash back pick has a surprise bonus

This may be the perfect cash back card! That's because it packs in $1,148 of value. Cardholders can earn up to 5% cash back, double rewards in the first year, and avoid interest well into 2020. With such a deep bench of perks you'll wonder how this card packs in a $0 annual fee. Best yet, you can apply and get a decision in two minutes. Learn more with our in-depth review.

Find the right card for you

Cash Back & Rewards