REWARDS CARDS: Many reward-card holders say they're getting less than $50 annually.
REWARDS CARDS: Many reward-card holders say they're getting less than $50 annually. DragonImages

Fifty bucks a year isn't much reward for loyalty

IF YOU'VE got a rewards credit card, chances are it's leaving you out of pocket.

The freebies can be meagre, and they can come at a big cost.

In Australia's crowded credit card market, plenty of cards are linked to reward programs. But according to ME Bank research, over half of reward-card holders say they're getting rewards worth less than $50 annually. Close to two out of five believe their card is costing them money rather returning any value.

The first thing to be clear on is that reward cards come with high interest rates, often hovering around 20%.

So, unless you pay off the balance in full, each and every month, the interest charge can quickly wipe out the value of any rewards. And don't even get me started on the annual card fees, which can run into several hundreds of dollars.

The ME study also found that one-in-three people don't understand how much value they're getting from their card. That's a worry given that many people only have a credit card in the hope of scoring rewards.

The best way to know if you're getting decent value from your card rewards is to work out how many points it takes to get one dollar of reward.

Let's say you need 5000 points to get a free toaster. If the toaster normally sells for around $50 it's going to cost you 100 points for each dollar of reward. Or maybe you could use 6000 points to get two free movie tickets normally costing $40 - that works out to 150 points per dollar of reward.

As the toaster calls for fewer points per dollar of reward, it offers better value. But knowing this involves shopping around to work out the market value of your reward. It's a fair bet most people don't do this. After all, where's the fun of it all if you have to spend time researching and crunching numbers?

Perhaps the bigger worry with reward cards is the psychological impact they can have. We all love a freebie, and the prospect of rewards can entice us to spend more on the card chasing points.

If the bait of rewards is seeing you spend up big on your credit card, it's time to rethink the whole deal.

There's a reason why so many reward programs are on offer - they can be a big money spinner for banks and card issuers. But I can't recall anyone ever getting rich on reward points.

Paul Clitheroe is Chairman of InvestSMART, Chairman of the Australian Government Financial Literacy Board and chief commentator for Money Magazine.

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