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Maximize your credit card rewards with minimal effort

Credit card rewards can help you get some money back on every dollar you spend, but they can also be confusing. First, there’s deciding which card to apply for if you don’t yet carry a rewards card. Then, there’s how and where best to use it. And finally, the good stuff: cashing in your earned rewards.

Rewards program rules can get intense. Points may be worth a certain value when redeemed for travel but have another value if traded in for cash back. Sometimes you can transfer points to airline or hotel loyalty programs, or combine them with someone else’s points. Airline miles might be worth more for international travel bookings, but if you just want a cheaper ticket for a domestic flight, your points wouldn’t be reaching their full potential.

It’s enough to make anyone want to toss their wallet out a window. But with some gentle strategizing, maximizing rewards is possible. (And, yes, if what you want most is discounted domestic travel, go for it.)

MATCH YOUR LIFESTYLE AND DESIRED LEVEL OF EFFORT

Friends may have strong opinions about which card is best, but your ideal card doesn’t need to be trendy. Think about where you spend money the most, how much effort you’re willing to put in to manage cards and rewards and what you’d like to redeem rewards for.

If what you want is simplicity, opt for a card that earns a high flat rate on everything. If you’re comfortable with some additional complexity, select cards that earn higher rates for your specific spending, such as at grocery stores, gas stations or restaurants, or on travel-related purchases.

Cash-back cards offer the easiest redemption options, typically a statement credit that lowers your next credit card bill, or perhaps a direct deposit into your bank account. Travel cards offer the glamorous promise of cheaper vacations, but using points and miles requires some longer-term planning.

“Try to avoid groupthink and allowing others to influence what card is right for you,” says Juan Ruiz, co-founder of JetBetter, a travel concierge and award booking service. “Picking the right card is like being prescribed medication by a doctor.”

SPEND WITH A STRATEGY

Generous sign-up bonuses make rewards cards extra appealing. If you hit a certain spending target, like $3,000 in the first three months you have the card, you can earn a bonus worth hundreds of dollars.

As exciting as this can be, proceed with caution. Think of rewards as something you earn when you buy the things you would have purchased anyway, like groceries or gas. Racking up a big credit card bill just for the points could leave you owing more than you can afford to pay back, in which case interest will outweigh rewards. A spending minimum that’s out of your budget is a sign that a card isn’t right for you.

“Don’t twist yourself into knots to try and buy things that you shouldn’t,” says Robert Walker, founder of AwardCat, a service that helps travelers find and book award travel. “Think ahead and be strategic with it.” Walker recommends looking for regular expenses you might not have thought to put on a credit card, such as utility bills or even taxes. If you don’t incur an extra fee to pay with a credit card, or if the fee is negated by a sign-up bonus, this is another way to make everyday costs work harder for you.

ENJOY YOUR REWARDS

Credit card rewards are worth nothing if unredeemed, so there’s no reason to admire your pile of points for too long. With some cash-back cards, you can redeem any number of points, though some cards require you to save up a certain minimum number before making a redemption.

For travel, you can certainly spend months agonizing over how to best use your points, but don’t get lost in the research for long. “People get caught up trying to do the smartest thing, but the value of the reward is what you get out of it,” says Matthew Goldman, founder of Totavi, a financial technology consulting firm.

Goldman suggests establishing the minimum value you’d accept per point and aim for a redemption that meets that. So if you can redeem points for 1 cent each for travel, but only 0.8 cent each for gift cards, skip the gift cards. Still, even a less-than-perfect redemption is worthwhile compared with holding onto your points forever. “They’re not part of your legacy or your estate,” Goldman says. “Don’t stress yourself out so much. Do something that’s enjoyable.”

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Sara Rathner is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: srathner@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @SaraKRathner.

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