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credit & debt

Best Rewards Credit Cards, 2013

The right choice for you depends on your spending patterns and the kind of perks you prefer.

Rewards card issuers are stepping up their game. On top of paying up to 6% back on certain purchases, card issuers are luring customers with enticing sign-up bonuses for those who spend a certain amount -- typically between $500 and $3,000 -- within the first few months of getting the card in the mail. You can get an instant cash sign-up bonus of $100 or $150, or as much as 50,000 miles, depending on the type of card you choose. The Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, which has an $89 annual fee that’s waived the first year, offers 40,000 miles if you spend $1,000 in the first three months. That’s worth a $400 plane ticket.

We've picked top credit card offers in a few categories, depending on how you spend and the type of rewards you prefer. Among those with annual fees, the potential return for charging thousands of dollars each year more than covers the fee. Plus, you often get extra benefits, such as discounts on certain purchases and additional bonus points. Don’t think you’ll spend enough to justify the fees? The American Express Blue Cash Preferred, Capital One Venture Rewards and Chase Sapphire Preferred cards all have worthy free companion cards with skimpier rewards. Unless otherwise noted, these cards don’t impose caps or expirations on the points you earn.

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Good rewards cards not only make it easy to accumulate points or miles but also are generous when it’s time to redeem them. To determine the typical annual rebate, we assumed you would charge $20,000 each year, based on the average spending patterns outlined in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. The rebates we calculated don’t include the sign-up bonus, nor do they reflect the annual fee if it’s waived the first year. As a general rule, it takes 100 points to earn $1 in cash, as a statement credit or as a gift card.

To snag the best cards, you’ll need an excellent credit profile, often including a FICO score of about 750 or higher (though a score in the neighborhood of 700 to 749 can also get you a decent card). Wait at least six months between applying for cards to minimize damage to your credit score from the inquiries on your credit report, suggests Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub.com

BEST REWARDS CARDS BY CATEGORY: Cash-Back | Travel | Gas/Retail | Airline

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