Consumer Reports Picks Top 3 Credit Cards for Your Needs
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Figuring out which credit card works best for your lifestyle and spending habits can feel like a financial Where's Waldo, leaving you scanning over a sea of card offers, hoping that the one you're looking for will pop up in your vision.
Consumer Reports — the non-profit organization that rates everything from airlines to air conditioners — recently put their Money Lab to task on the credit card problem, evaluating 53 cards to come up with the top options in three categories: cash back rewards, travel rewards, and balance transfer / low-rate cards. We've featured the highlights of their findings below, along with some commentary and additional information.
Please note that the rates and rewards for these cards are based on creditworthy users. If your credit is poor or you can't pay off your card entirely every month, there is nothing wrong with not using credit cards. It's always much better to avoid debt than to start carrying a balance, trying to chase rewards. (Although if you do have an existing balance, it might be worth it to check out the balance transfer / low rate category below.)
Best Balance Transfer / Low Rate Cards
According to Consumer Reports, these cards are great for consumers who want to transfer a balance of $10,000.
|Top 3 Cards for Balance Transfers
Costs columns assume $10,000 balance remains constant over the 1/2/3 years.
|Transfer Fees & Interest Costs After|
|1 Year||2 Years||3 Years|
APR: 0% intro APR on balance transfers and purchases for 15 months; 13.24%-23.24% variable after
Key Features: No intro transfer fee if balance is transferred within 60 days of account opening; after that, it's $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater. Cheapest card for balance transfers.
|Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card from our partner Citi
APR: 0% Intro APR on balance transfers and purchases for 21 months; 12.24-22.24% regular APR after
Key Features: 21 month 0% introductory rate on balance transfers and purchases is longest in industry. 3% balance transfer fee.
|PenFed Promise Visa
APR: 4.99% on balance transfers; 7.49% on purchases for 36 months, then switches to prime rate (currently 9.99%)
Key Features: 4.99% lifetime APR on balance transfers, plus no balance transfer fees, makes this card the best deal if it will take you more than 2 years to pay off the balance. Requires membership in Pentagon Federal Credit Union.
Key Features About Balance Transfer Cards
If you're trying to pay down credit card debt, the only card you should consider getting is a balance-transfer card. You have two options here:
Balance-transfer cards are a great option if you can pay your debt off within the introductory rate period (usually a year to a year-and-a-half). After paying the transfer fee of 3 or 4% required by most cards, you'll enjoy a 0% rate for that introductory period. After that, the rate jumps up.
Low-rate cards, Consumer Reports points out, are better for those with longer-term debt — instead of possibly jumping up to a rate over 20%, these will stay at a lower-than normal rate for a longer period — for example, the low-rate card they picked stays at a rate of 4.99% on balance transfers for 36 months, where the balance-transfer cards are 0% for 15-18 months, then jump to a rate between 11.99% to 21.99%.
Best Cash Rewards Cards
These picks from Consumer Reports are based on a family spending $400 a month on gas, $600 on groceries, and $1,000 elsewhere.
|Top 3 Cash Rewards Credit Cards||Rewards Earned After|
|1 Year||2 Years||3 Years|
|Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
APR: 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months. After that, your APR will be a variable rate, currently 13.24%-23.24%, with the flexibility to pay over time.
Key Features: Get $350 back after meeting purchase requirements (special offer ends 6/15/16). 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000/year. Also get 3% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, and 1% on other purchases. Cash back comes in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit. Terms and limitations apply.
|Fidelity Rewards American Express
Key Features: 2% cash back on all purchases is highest available rate; must be linked to a Fidelity IRA, brokerage account, or 529 savings plan. Terms and restrictions apply.
|Capital One Cash Rewards
APR: 0% intro for 12 months; 12.9-20.9% variable after
Key Features: No foreign transaction fee. Get a 50% bonus at the end of the year on your cash back earned throughout the year. (So keep the card for at least until the end of the year to turn your 1% cash back into the equivalent of 1.5% cash back.) (Note: This offer is currently unavailable.
Key Features About Cash Back Cards
Cash back cards are a good option for many people. Consumer Reports quotes Tim Winship, editor of FrequentFlier.com — "Before you even think about an airline card or other points card, consider what you’d get from a cash-rebate card — it’s cash in hand with no restrictions."
If you are thinking about getting a cash-back card, take some time first to look at your budget and financial goals. Since many cards do offer different levels of cash back on different categories, there is no one-size-fits-all best cash-back card; what works best for a person who commutes two hours each way to work might not work best for someone who spends more at the grocery store.
Best Travel Rewards Cards
Again, these picks from Consumer Reports are based on a family spending $400 a month on gas, $600 on groceries, and $1,000 elsewhere:
|Top 3 Travel Rewards Credit Cards
Best cards for frequent travellers.
|Rewards Earned After|
|1 Year||2 Years||3 Years|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
APR: 16.24%-23.24% variable
Key Features: 2 points per dollar on dining and travel; 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. 50,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in first 3 months from account opening ($625 value if used at Chase Ultimate Rewards portal). $95 annual fee; waived first year. No foreign transaction fees.
|Blue Sky Preferred® Card from American Express
APR: 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months; 17.24-22.24% after
Key Features: $100 annual allowance on checked baggage fees, leg-room upgrades, and in-flight meals and purchases. Earn 2X points at US restaurants, for hotel rooms purchased directly from hotels and with car rentals purchased directly with select car rental companies. Earn 1X point on other purchases. $75 annual fee. 15,000 bonus points (worth $200) after spending $1,000 in first 3 months. Terms and restrictions apply. (Note: This offer is no longer available.)
|Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
APR: 13.24-23.24% (variable)
Key Features: 40,000 one-time bonus points ($400 value) after spending $3,000 first 3 months. Earn unlimited 2x miles per dollar on every purchase; miles don't expire. $59 annual fee; waived first year. No foreign transaction fee.
Key Features About Travel Rewards Cards
Consumer Reports points out that travel rewards cards often offer big sign-up bonuses for new customers — sometimes enough to get one or more round-trip tickets. These cards do often have annual fees, but perks like free checked baggage, travel insurance, and lounge access more than make up for the fee. These fancy freebies used to be only available to business travelers, but thanks to the competitiveness of the market they are now offered to regular consumers as well.
We're proud to note that our credit card experts independently came up with pretty much the exact same list of cards. Consumer Reports' top choice for each category has been recommended by Wise Bread for months!
Check out our credit card guides for the best:
- 0% balance-transfer credit cards
- low interest rate credit cards
- travel rewards credit cards
- cash-back credit cards
If you found this information helpful, we recommend subscribing to Consumer Reports — it's a great resource, especially if you're planning to make big purchases soon.
Do you agree with the cards selected? What cards would you put on the list?
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any bank, card issuer, airline or hotel chain.