If you’re good with your finances, credit card companies are literally throwing money at you to get you to become a customer. Issuers are laying their cards on the table with bonus offers of up to $400, trying to seize the momentum of a rebounding economy.
“You have a slugfest among the big guys over those people who pay their bill in full every month,” says David Robertson, publisher of the credit card industry newsletter The Nilson Report. He also says banks are willing to take a little more risk with customers who may have had years or even decades of sterling credit before the recession. “This was a person who was good as gold a decade ago, and the recession shot them off their horse, so to speak,” he says. For banks, these customers are starting to look attractive again.
"The Great Recession is the driving force behind the emergence and staying power of lucrative credit card initial bonuses,” says Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of Evolution Finance, parent company of personal finance sites CardHub.com and WalletHub.com.
So which issuers are dangling the biggest carrots?
“If you aren't a frequent traveler and you're just looking for some extra cash to pay off everyday expenses, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is the way to go,” says John Kiernan, senior analyst at Evolution Finance. “It offers 40,000 bonus points redeemable for a $400 statement credit, in return for new cardholders spending at least $3,000 during the first three months,” he says. Cardholders can boost the value of that pool of points up to $500 — but there’s a catch: The higher value only applies if you use the points for air or hotel redemptions made through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program. There’s also a fairly steep annual fee of $149, although it’s waived for the first year.
“Another great offer is the Barclaycard Arrival,” says Credit.com credit card expert Jason Steele. This card will be most appealing to frequent travelers or people looking to take a vacation, since its $400 bonus (issued as 40,000 reward miles) has to be redeemed as a statement credit towards travel-related charges. As with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you also have to spend $3,000 in the first 90 days after opening the account, and after the first year, there’s an $89 annual fee.
But even if you don’t charge a lot from month to month or don’t want to pay an annual fee, you can still find signup bonuses for new cards, says Amber Stubbs, managing editor at CardRatings.com.
“The standard seems to be $100 bonus cash back right now and you can get that with the Chase Freedom, Citi Dividend Platinum Select or the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card, to name a few,” she says. No, it’s a far cry from $400, but here's the good part: None of these have an annual fee, and you only have to spend $500 in three months — rather than $3,000 — to get the bonus.
“I like Quicksilver’s ongoing rewards program better because you earn a straight 1.5% cash back on all purchases, so no need to worry about rotating bonus categories or caps,” Stubbs says.
The Discover It card, which also has no annual fee, is being promoted on some third-party credit card sites with a $150 cash back bonus for users who spend $750 in the first three months. “I'm sure Discover is trying to make that card stand out,” says Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com. “It does have the leading cash back — not points — bonus at the moment,” he says, although the spending threshold is $250 higher than its competitors.
These "free money" offers might sound great, but the experts say before you rush out to sign up for a new credit cards, there are some things to keep in mind.
If you plan to revolve a balance, you should look for the card with the lowest APR rather than chasing bonuses — the amount you’ll pay in interest charges will outstrip the value of any rewards you earn, since APRs tend to be higher on rewards cards.
And while customers with less-than-perfect credit are being courted by banks again, people with the best credit are still the biggest catch. “Given that such people safely navigated the housing market collapse and resulting struggles, they likely possess solid financial values,” Papadimitriou says. If your credit is blemished, you’ll only damage it further by applying and getting rejected.
“It’s important for consumers to think beyond the introductory offer and find the card that offers the most value for the long run,” Stubbs says.