The Best Credit Cards, January 2013

As the new year begins, it's a good opportunity to review the best credit card offers available and see which - if any - make sense for you. The best credit cards of 2013 offer a combination of sign-up bonuses, reward programs, low-APR promotional periods, and other benefits that can be used to your advantage if you pay attention.

When used properly, credit cards can be an effective tool for managing your finances, earning rewards on everyday spending, building a solid credit history, and maintaining your cash flow, but these tools can be also used incorrectly, damaging your finances in the process.

Consider the following offers if you plan to open a new credit card or if you're looking to make the most out of your everyday spending. But if you are a “Type A” credit card user - if you use credit cards to spend more than you can afford and have difficulty making payments - consider improving your finances and getting out of debt before applying for a new credit card.

The best card for balance transfers

Slate® from Chase. Right now, the best credit card offer for balance transfers is Slate from Chase. Open a card with an offer like this when you have a balance on a card with a high interest rate that you'd like to pay off without owing additional interest. For example, if you have a $15,000 balance on a card with an ongoing APR of 15%, you could save $2,250 by moving that balance to Slate from Chase and paying the remainder of the $15,000 before the introductory period ends.

The introductory period is fifteen months, during which time you'll be able to pay your transferred balances off without any interest. While Slate from Chase and other cards generally charge a balance transfer fee, in the 60 days after being approved for Slate from Chase, you'll be able to transfer your balance without a fee. After those 60 days have passed, the balance transfer fee is $5 or 3% of the transfer, whichever is greater.

You can transfer up to $15,000, but if Chase determines your credit limit should be lower, you will be limited to the lower amount.

The 0% introductory APR also applies to purchases, making this card a good option for buying a larger item. If you've saved up to purchase some furniture, for example, you can use the introductory purchase APR of 0% to use the credit card issuer's money to improve your cash flow. This leverage technique is risky. If you end up using the credit card for an emergency, you can make it more difficult to repay your balance before the introductory period is complete. On the other hand, it leaves you with more cash in your bank account.

After the introductory period of fifteen months is complete, Chase will assign a variable APR to your purchases and balance transfers, currently ranging from 11.99% to 21.99%. You will need good to excellent credit to qualify for this Slate from Chase offer.

If you have good to excellent credit, the Slate® from Chase offers a 0% introductory APR on both purchases and balance transfers for fifteen months, without charging the dreaded balance transfer fee on transfers made within 60 days of account opening. All other transfers will be charged $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater. After the introductory period, purchases and balance transfer APR's will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate and is currently between 11.99% to 21.99% variable, depending on your credit history. In addition Slate® from Chase comes with Patented Fraud Protection and zero liability on unauthorized purchases.

The best credit card cash back rewards

Credit card issuers have become much savvier about operating their cash back rewards programs. Most issuers now require cardholders to remember to enroll several times throughout the year in order to receive the cash back they advertise. That's why I recommend a card that doesn't require you to jump through hoops to accumulate the cash back promised in the ads.

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express. Most cash back credit cards offer 1% cash back on all purchases as a baseline, with certain categories of expenses earning additional cash back. With some cards, the categories change throughout the year. To keep life simple, the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express remains consistent each month.

Cardholders will receive 3% cash back on purchases at U.S. stand-alone supermarkets on the first $6,000 of purchases per calendar year (1% thereafter), 2% cash back on gasoline purchases made at U.S. stand-alone gas stations, 2% cash back at select major department stores, and 1% cash back on other purchases. You don't need to sign up for the program in addition to applying for the card. Cash back is earned only on eligible purchases. And cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit. You can redeem the “Reward Dollars” you earn at any time after they are credited to your account, after you have at least $25 in your reward bank.

In addition to the rewards program, for a limited time, new cardholders may qualify for a welcome bonus. After spending at least $1,000 on the card over the course of the first three months, you can receive 100 Reward Dollars. Also for a limited time, American Express is offering an introductory 0% APR on all purchases for twelve months. If you like the idea of a simple rewards program, consider the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express.

Chase Freedom® Visa. If you are willing to do a little more work in return for the potential for higher cash back rewards, take a look at the Chase Freedom Visa. Every three months, Chase changes offers bonus categories that earn 5% cash back, but you need to call or go online to “activate” these categories to receive this bonus. Furthermore, the 5% you can earn is limited to a total spending amount of $1,500 each quarter, so the maximum you can receive from this bonus is $75.

For the last three months of 2012, the bonus categories were hotels and airlines, as well as purchases at Best Buy and Kohl's. The bonus categories for the first three months of 2013 is 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent between January 1 and March 31, 2013 at gas stations, drugstores and Starbucks® stores. There are new 5% categories every three months like gas stations, restaurants and Amazon.com. In addition to the cash back program, Chase is offering $100 in bonus cash back after spending $500 on your new Chase Freedom Visa card over the course of first three months from account opening.

The best credit card for airline miles

Most often, the best way to make the most out of your credit card spending for your travel needs is to use the credit card that is tied directly to the airline you travel most frequently. For better or worse, United Airlines flies the routes I generally travel for the best prices, so I use a credit card where I earn rewards in the form of United MileagePlus points. There are cards that are more flexible for travelers who use multiple airlines or don't have one such frequently-traveled route.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is arguably the best option for earning flexible travel rewards. You will earn one point for every dollar spent on purchases with the card. Your travel expenses as well as your restaurant dining expenses earn double. Each year, Chase will credit a 7% Annual Points Dividend on every point you earned during the prior 12 months, even if you've already redeemed the points.

Chase is encouraging its cardholders to book travel through their own online agency. When you do, your points are worth 20% more. For example, a $500 flight normally requires 50,000 points; booking through Chase reduces that requirement to 40,000 points. If you'd rather book directly with your airline, you can transfer your points to participating airline frequent flyer programs on a one-to-one basis.

New cardholders can earn 40,000 bonus points (enough for $500 in travel rewards as mentioned above, or transferable to frequent flyer programs) by spending $3,000 by the end of the first three months after being approved for the card. Another benefit for travelers is the 0% foreign transaction fee.

There is a downside to owning this card. Chase charges a $95 annual fee, but it is waived for the first year. If you make heavy use of travel rewards, it might be worth the $95. If the benefits outweigh the cost, apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

For a less expensive travel rewards card, the $75 Blue Sky Preferred® from American Express offers a 15,000 bonus point sign-up bonus (after spending $1,000 in the first three months). 15,000 points are worth a $200 statement credit, so the ratio of rewards to points is more favorable.

The best credit card sign-up bonus

Ink Cash® Business Card. Although it's a card for business owners, I like the bonus Chase is offering. For new cardholders that spend $3,000 in the first three months of owning the card, the Ink Cash Business Card provides a $200 cash back bonus.

The card also offers a generous rewards program. In addition to the standard 1% cash back on purchases, cardholders can earn 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent each year with office supply stores, mobile phone carriers, and internet and cable television services. Equipment purchases aren't included in that category, unfortunately. Cardholders can also earn 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent annually at gas stations and restaurants. Take note that introductory offers and APRs change often, so be sure to review the application and the terms and conditions carefully when you apply for the Ink Cash Business Card. Also, although it's a business card, any qualified individual can apply.

I've mentioned some good sign-up bonuses earlier in this article, but also worth noting is the Citi Dividend Platinum Select Visa Card - $100 Cash Back. With this card from Citibank, new members earn a $100 cash back bonus after spending only $500 in the first three months of account opening. This card has a low threshold, making the bonus easier to attain for more consumers. The ongoing cash back rewards include 1% cash back on every purchase as well as categories earning 5% that rotate (and require enrollment) throughout the year.

Other cards worth noting

Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card. While the Citi Diamond Preferred Card does not include a rewards program, there is a 0% introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for a full 18 months. There is a balance transfer fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer. The regular APR is 11.99% - 21.99% variable, depending on credit history, and this card includes no annual fee. The Citi Diamond Preferred Card provides cardholders a concierge service, which can be used for just about everything, from booking hotel rooms and flights to purchasing concert tickets and making restaurant reservations.

Fidelity Investment Rewards Visa Signature Card. Consistently a reader favorite, the Fidelity Investment Rewards Visa Signature Card offers a unique reward program. Earn 1.5 points for each $1 spent on the first $15,000 in purchases per year, and if you spend more than $15,000 annually that reward is increased to 2 points per $1 in purchases. When you reach 5,000 points they can be converted into deposits into your eligible Fidelity investment account. The card also participates in the WorldPoints program, so if you do not want cash back in your Fidelity account or if you don't have an investment account, you can redeem for travel on major U.S. airlines with no blackout dates or for purchases from a selection of available merchandise.

Citi ThankYou® Preferred Rewards Card. The cousin of the ThankYou Premier, the Citi ThankYou® Preferred Rewards Card is a scaled-down version of the card with slightly smaller bonuses and rewards. If you spend $1,000 within the first three months of account opening, Citi provides cardholders with 15,000 bonus ThankYou® points, good for a $150 gift card. Customers earn extra points when they shop through the ThankYou® Bonus Center, a network of 600+ retailers. The Citi ThankYou® Preferred Rewards Card does not carry an annual fee.

Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card. One of the leading credit cards for travel rewards, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card offers up to 25,000 bonus Starpoints. Consumers earn those 25,000 bonus Starpoints as follows - 10,000 Starpoints after their first purchase and an additional 15,000 Starpoints after spending $5,000 in the first six months as a cardholder. The card has no annual fee for the first year ($65 thereafter). At the recent Financial Blogger Conference, there was a significant consensus at my dinner with a number of top bloggers that the rewards offered on this card and its business counterpart are the best. And your Starpoints can be redeemed for nearly any travel expense.

TrueEarnings® Card from Costco and American Express. Rounding out the best American Express cards, the TrueEarnings® Card from Costco and American Express offers 3% cash back for gasoline purchases at U.S. stand-alone gas stations, including at Costco, of up to $4,000 per year (1% thereafter), 2% cash back on eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants, 2% cash back on eligible travel purchases, and 1% on other purchases, including at Costco. Cash back is earned only on eligible purchases and your cash back reward will be in the form of an annual reward coupon. The card has a low comparable variable APR and an introductory offer of 0% APR on purchases for six months.

Capital One® Venture Rewards Credit Card. The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is as straightforward as it gets. Earn two miles for every dollar you spend and an additional one-time bonus of 10,000 miles when you spend $1,000 in your first three months. There is a $59 annual fee, but it is waived the first year you have the card. The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a Visa Signature card, so the card offers the Signature set of extended benefits such as complimentary concierge services and travel upgrades.

BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Card. The BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Card offers 3% cash back on gasoline purchases, 2% on groceries and 1% on all purchases thereafter. Cardholders have the opportunity to earn an additional 10% cash back if they redeem into a Bank of America checking or savings account. The BankAmericard Cash Rewards Card offers an introductory rate of 0% APR on purchases for the first twelve statement closing dates following the opening of the account. This card does not carry an annual fee.

Simmons First Visa Platinum Rewards. The Simmons First Visa Platinum Rewards Card made the list because of its low standard purchase APR. At 9.25% variable, the only card with a lower standard purchase APR we could find was the Simmons First Visa card but that card didn't have a rewards program. With the Simmons First Visa Platinum Rewards Card, you earn one point for every net dollar you spend, and the card carries no annual fee. If you're planning to make a balance transfer onto this card, you'll be happy to know there is no balance transfer fee either.

Note: If you use credit cards as a tool for convenience, pay your bills in full every month, and are otherwise financially self-aware, consider some of these credit cards. If you use credit cards to pay for things you can't afford, paying interest every month, then start thinking about paying off debt.

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