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Tapping Into the World of Credit Cards

Gone are the days of fumbling around for change in your wallet to make a purchase—the era of credit cards has come, and it’s here for the long run. For this reason, we surveyed 1,011 Americans to learn more about all things related to their credit card usage.

How diligent are respondents with their credit card payments? What rewards are they most interested in, and, on the other hand, what’s stopping them from getting a credit card in the first place? How much debt are respondents taking on? These questions, and more, will be answered within our findings—read on to find out more!

  • Just over 1 in 5 people are unlikely to make their credit card payments every month.
  • The most popular and satisfactory credit card reward was no annual fee.
  • Respondents with children were 20 percentage points more likely to have made a credit card transaction they knew they couldn’t pay back right away.

Goodbye, Paper Money

Saving money is no joke, which is why over half of respondents said they take their budgets seriously. Of them, baby boomers (and older) were the most rigid with their budgets, whereas Gen Zers were likely to give themselves a little more leeway. Nearly 80% said there’s a good chance of them paying off their credit cards each month, with respondents having two to four of them in their name, on average. Staying on top of payments eliminates the headache of interest charges and is the single best way to improve your credit score.

basic stats regarding credit card usage

When making payments, the majority of people opted to use their credit cards. Debit cards were also a popular choice, while very few people (7%) opted to use cash.

So why do people prefer to use credit cards over other payment methods? Well, there are rewards to be realized. First and foremost, many companies offer cards that have no annual fee, meaning you can enjoy the other benefits they offer without paying the price. Among all benefits, people were particularly satisfied with a lack of annual fees, high spending limits, no foreign transaction fees, cash and points back programs, no interest for a number of months and low overall interest rates, and free balance transfers.

most common credit card rewards

Incentives and Deterrents

Different credit card companies offer different perks, and respondents agreed that the top five best ones were cash back programs, no annual fee, low-interest rates, point rewards, and a high spending limit.

the most important rewards when choosing a credit card

While these cards and their added benefits are desirable, some people can’t bring themselves to get one. The biggest issue for 31% of respondents was the annual fees. While there is no set amount, annual fees typically range from $30 to $150 per year, with the majority of rewards cards charging about $120. While the benefits and rewards of the cards can outweigh the flat fee (especially if you use your credit card for most of your purchases), it’s evidently still enough to dissuade nearly a third of people from signing up.

reasons why people don't get credit cards

Turning a Blind Eye

Sometimes, people can get a little carried away with their credit card spending, and half of respondents were using one, knowing full well they would not be able to pay it back. Millennials were most guilty of this. Households making anywhere from less than $35,000 to $149,999 also weren’t great about paying their credit cards back on time, but those making more than $150,000 were much more responsible. The same goes for respondents without kids, who were more likely to pay back their credit card on time as opposed to parents.

people who made big purchases with credit cards knowing they can't pay it off

People who aren’t paying their credit cards on time are probably not in good financial standing. Ironically, being late with payments can come with expensive consequences—late fees, a worse credit score, and higher interest rates are all likely repercussions.

On IOUs

Naturally, those who can’t pay off their cards accumulate debt, and the average amount per individual respondent was $3,000. According to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, the median amount of credit card debt for families in the U.S. was $2,700 and the mean was $6,270 in 2019. Baby boomers held the most, and Gen Zers were in very good financial standing compared to older generations. By household income, more money generally meant higher levels of debt, but people making between $75,000 and $149,999 had the most.

The term ‘debt’ usually has negative connotations, because it's never good to be in a position where you need to owe money. If you are borrowing money to buy a depreciating asset, like a car, that is considered bad debt. Although, good debt does exist when you borrow money with the goal of generating more income (financing your education, business, or your home, for example).

average individual amount of credit card

Regarding monthly spending, respondents spent the most money on groceries, as well as on their cars and general transportation fees. For many of the listed expenses, credit cards were clearly the most used transaction method.

COVID Credit Cards

For just under half of respondents, credit card usage has remained more or less the same during the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, roughly a third reported higher usage—and the younger the generation/the lower the household income, the higher it was.

credit card usage during COVID

Regardless of how respondents’ credit card usage has changed, the resounding majority of them said they would make an effort to pay their credit cards back on time and avoid some of the negative consequences we previously outlined. Still, though, nearly a third of people who have been using theirs more since the pandemic began said it was unlikely that they would be able to pay their credit card off regularly.

Handle With Care

Just over half of respondents said they take their budgeting seriously, but nearly 80% said they try to pay off their credit cards every month. Also, credit cards were the most popular choice when it came to choosing a transaction method, followed by debit cards, while using cash was a relatively rare occurrence. Benefits such as cash back programs, no annual fees, and low interest rates were reason enough for people to prefer using credit cards, but others were dissuaded by potentially high annual fees and high interest rates (especially if they weren’t able to stay on top of their payments).

Respondents also carried $3,000 of debt, on average, which isn’t always a bad thing, and we learned that the younger the generation and the lower the household income, the higher the credit card usage was. Overall, people were also trying to be better about paying their credit cards back on time to reap the full benefit of the rewards. Speaking of rewards, CouponFollow’s free Chrome app scours the web to find you any and all available discounts at your favorite stores—shop smarter, save more, maximize that credit score. It’s as easy as that.

Methodology and Limitations

We collected 1,011 responses from Americans on Amazon Mechanical Turk. 56% of our participants identified as men, and 44% identified as women. Participants ranged in age from 19 to 84 with a mean of 39 and a standard deviation of 11.3. Those who reported no current employment or who failed an attention-check question were disqualified.

The data we are presenting rely on self-report. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include, but are not limited to, the following: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration.

Fair Use Statement

Don’t forget about your upcoming credit card payments! We hope this piece, at the very least, served as a reminder for that. Feel free to share the article with friends and family but for noncommercial purposes only. We also kindly ask that you provide them with a link back to the original page so contributors can earn credit for their work.

about the author

Marc Mezzacca
Marc Mezzacca is CEO of CouponFollow, a consumer savings engine that surfaces popular coupons. He has been in the coupon and deals industry for over a decade with a deep interest in evolving e-commerce technologies.