Rewards Cards: Watch Out for These Category Catches

Playing the rewards-card game is not without some pitfalls. We warn you about the biggest.

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You drop a hundred bucks on groceries at Walmart, fill your tank at the store’s gas station and pay for both purchases with a credit card that claims to offer heightened rewards on grocery and gas spending. But when you check your statement later, you find that the transactions got a measly 1% cash back, instead of the 3% or more you were expecting. What gives?

Purchases from certain types of merchants are commonly excluded from a card’s top-earning categories. Gas or groceries bought at superstores, such as Walmart and Target, or wholesale clubs, such as Costco Wholesale and Sam’s Club, often don’t count. Or your card may not provide higher rebates on dining at restaurants or cafes that exist within another, larger establishment, such as a hotel, department store or grocery store.

“Entertainment” can be a particularly squishy category. The Capital One Savor card, for example, which offers 4% cash back on entertainment purchases, doesn’t include tickets for collegiate sporting events in the 4% category, although live professional events are covered. Citi Premier, which provides two points per dollar spent on entertainment, excludes bowling alleys.

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Read your card’s fine print to make sure you understand how purchases are categorized. And if you believe you haven’t received rewards that are rightfully yours, ask the issuer whether it will correct the problem.

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Lisa Gerstner
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Lisa has spent 15 years with Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and heads up the magazine’s annual rankings of the best banks, best rewards credit cards, and financial-services firms with the best customer service. She reports on a variety of other topics, too, from retirement to health care to money concerns for millennials. She has shared her expertise as a guest on the Today Show, CNN, Fox, NPR, Cheddar and many other media outlets around the nation. Lisa graduated from Ball State University and received the school’s “Graduate of the Last Decade” award in 2014. A military spouse, she has moved around the U.S. and currently lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two sons.