Kiplinger's Credit Card Methodology
How We Choose our Rewards Credit Cards
In our selection of the best rewards credit cards, we highlight cards that we believe will serve a variety of cardholders with strong paybacks on purchases and other benefits. Here’s how we arrive at our list of winners.
Ease and Flexibility of Rewards Redemption
We assess whether cardholders must have a minimum balance of cash back, points or miles to redeem their rewards and the range of redemption options available. If a card offers points or miles, we consider the cash value at which the cardholder can exchange their rewards for cash back, travel, gift cards and other redemption options.
Value of Additional Benefits
We evaluate the benefits that credit cards offer besides points, cash back or miles earned on spending. Such benefits may include statement credits up to a certain amount for spending in specific categories, reimbursement or waiving of fees charged for qualifying services or subscriptions, free memberships to eligible organizations or services, access to special events, and free hotel nights.
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Membership and Account Requirements
We consider whether the cardholder must be a member of a club or financial institution or use an institution’s other services to apply for a card or to earn maximum rewards from it.
To apply for a credit card issued by a wholesale club, for example, you typically must be a club member. Credit unions often require members to live in a certain geographic area, work for certain employers, or join eligible organizations. Some credit cards provide the highest rewards rates to customers who also use the issuer’s other products and services, such as bank accounts.
Typical Annual Rewards Earnings
Where we provide typical annual rewards earnings we do this based primarily on spending patterns in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. For spending categories not listed in the Consumer Expenditure Survey, we estimate typical spending based on other surveys and data sources.
- For most cards, we assume a total of $25,000 spent on the card annually, estimated from the sum of typical annual expenditure categories that consumers may charge to a credit card.
- For student credit cards, we assume $3,000 is spent annually, given students are likely to have smaller credit card expenditures than other consumers.
- For small-business credit cards, we assume $32,000 spent annually (based on 2021 data gathered by creditcards.com.)
To determine a card’s typical annual rewards earnings for the first year of card membership, we add together the value of the sign-up bonus, if one is offered, and the value of rewards from cash back, points or miles that the consumer earns from spending on the card throughout the year. If the card offers a bonus of cash back, points or miles on the card member’s account anniversary, we add the value of the bonus to the total, unless the bonus requires the cardholder to spend a minimum amount on the card that would not be achieved based on our typical annual spending estimates. If an annual fee is charged the first year, we subtract it from the sum of rewards earned.
To determine a card’s typical annual earnings the second year of card membership, we calculate the value of rewards from cash back, points or miles that the consumer earns from spending on the card throughout the year. If the card offers a bonus of cash back, points or miles on the card member’s account anniversary, we add the value of the bonus to the total, unless the bonus requires the cardholder to spend a minimum amount on the card that would not be achieved based on our typical annual spending estimates. If an annual fee is charged the second year, we subtract it from the sum of rewards earned.
Fees, Caps and Expiration of Rewards
In addition to annual fees, we check cards for other relevant fees. Among travel rewards credit cards, for example, we consider whether a card charges a foreign-transaction fee. If we recommend a card in one of our travel categories that charges a foreign-transaction fee, we list the fee in our review.
We also note whether cards limit the amount of rewards that cardholders can earn and whether cash back, points or miles have expiration dates. Our reviews list caps and expiration dates where applicable.
Interest rates, fees, rewards and other terms listed in our reviews are subject to change. Before you apply for a credit card, check its current terms and conditions with the issuer.
Lisa has spent more than15 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.
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