CreditCards.com

Living with credit, Rewards

Do you know where your rewards are?

Here are 10 $20 bills, and a $5 bill. Take them. They’re free. You want them?

Apparently you don’t.

In a time when saving is in vogue, you’d think $205 would be enough money to care about. Yet the average household that participates in a credit card loyalty program fails to redeem $205 of $622 in rewards each year, be it airline miles or points, accrued from shopping and credit card use.

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Overall, of the $48 billion in rewards issued in America each year, about one-third of that amount — $16 billion — goes unclaimed, according to a joint study by Colloquy, a loyalty industry research organization, and Swift Exchange, a marketing group.

When you read this, you may scoff like I did: Who doesn’t want to spend “free” money? But about two seconds after posing the question, I had a nagging feeling that perhaps I had some unused points at The Limited. I checked my account and discovered three archived messages informing me that my Virtual Dollars all expired in April.

Whoops.

That prompted me to investigate the status of my other loyalty program rewards. Much to my surprise, the bonus points I amassed by charging on my Express credit card were gone. They quietly disappeared amid the excitement and chaos of finals, graduation and starting my new job. I forgot to spend my free money. And then I hung my head as I realized I’m one of “those” people.

Perhaps some personality trait makes me incapable of managing the eight loyalty reward programs that I’ve joined. At least I’m not alone. The average American household belongs to more than 18 different rewards programs, up from about 14 in 2009. However, Colloquy estimates that households actively engage in only about eight loyalty programs.

Rewards programs should be, well, rewarding, not a memory tax. There are online point tracking sites available, but as helpful as they are to some people, I find them just another organizational device that I’ll eventually abandon. My new plan to maximize my earnings involves focus and goal setting.

You, too, may be able to eke more out of your dollar without making drastic changes. The retail industry, although it makes up 40 percent of all loyalty program memberships, is the stingiest with its rewards, giving out $12 billion a year. The financial services sector and the travel/hospitality sector pay more — $18 billion and $17 billion, respectively, according to Colloquy.

As for me, I’m quitting the programs I don’t frequently use in favor of concentrating my spending on several specific brands. Additionally, the programs that I’ve selected are complementary to one another, and with them, I’m creating a vacation fund. I earn airline miles in one program, and cash back or prepaid gift cards for hotel stays, eating out and rental car services in the others. It’s easy to forget about half-off a blouse, but no matter how occupied I am, I’ll never overlook a “free” vacation.

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  • Sarah Noel

    Great article! I too have several credit cards and have yet to redeem any points. I’ve looking into the ‘free item of the day’ type offers that the programs offer but they’ve never been anything I would want and as a result I have lost many of my points too.
    I think I will follow your lead and try to spend more effectively to earn free stuff I actually want!