Are credit card surcharges worth the points?

When a retailer charges a surcharge for paying with your credit card do you pause and instead pay using EFTPOS (from your savings account)?

Or do you say “that’s ok” and perhaps think “I want the points”?

In this month’s Mens Health magazine (May issue) I’m quoted in an article on how to make good use of your Qantas frequent flyer points. Several of the tips I’ve covered in my earlier article here.

One tip that didn’t fit into the Mens Health article was that paying a credit card surcharge is often not worth the reward points.

Credit card surcharges

Most credit card surcharges are over 1% of the transaction amount. So for every $100 you pay at least an extra $1.

In fact the average surcharge is much higher than 1 per cent. According to a East & Partners’ survey reported by the RBA, “in December 2010, the average surcharge for MasterCard credit cards was 1.8 per cent, for Visa it was 1.9 per cent, for American Express it was 2.9 per cent, and for Diners Club it was 4 per cent.”

Value of a Qantas Frequent Flyer reward point

As I mentioned in my earlier article each Qantas frequent flyer point is only worth about 0.69 cents. That reward therefore is equivalent to about a 0.69% discount.

Deciding if you will pay the surcharge

If you earn 1 reward point per dollar and the credit card surcharge is 1% then you are paying an extra dollar and only earning 69 cents back. By paying with your credit card you just lost 31 cents.

If you earn 2 reward points per dollar then the surcharge needs to be less than 1.38% to make it worth handing over your credit card.

At many retailers you’ll need to be earning 3 reward points per dollar to make the surcharge palatable. Points are usually only that high for retailers aligned with the credit card issuer.

Often when faced with a credit card surcharge you are better off handing over your EFTPOS card and paying from your savings account. (That’s better for most people’s budgeting too.)

Next time you go shopping carry both cards with you.

Cash in your frequent flyer award points

In September 2001 I lost over 100,000 frequent flyer points when Ansett Australia collapsed. I had been accumulating reward points with the intent of funding an overseas flight. To that end I’d even paid for a domestic flight rather than use some of my points.

What a waste!

Back then it was a common complaint that reward seats were scarce and never when most people wanted to fly. Ten years on reward flights are easier to come by and you can even use points to partially fund a flight.

And there has been one other excellent development.

You can now cash in your frequent flyer points!

Woolworths $100 gift cardThe Qantas Frequent Flyer Store currently includes 214 gift vouchers. The vouchers that excite me the most are the ones for everyday essentials like groceries, fuel and clothes.

Myer Gift Card from the Qantas Frequent Flyer StoreThe best value gift voucher I have found is just 13,500 points for a $100 voucher. This rate applies for many of the retail stores, such as Big W, Myer and Adairs, and also for car hire, hotels and Qantas Holidays.

Most other gift vouchers for Woolworths Group stores cost 14,500 points for a $100 voucher. That means your points are worth about 0.69 cents each. (Yes, less than one cent per point.)

Flights or gift cards?

Yes, redeeming your points for a flight award may offer slightly better value depending on when you fly. However if you usually fly only on cheap fares and specials then you’ll probably find, as I have, that the savings are about the same.

By redeeming your points for vouchers you can reduce the impact of rising costs. And, if you’re on the ball, you should therefore be able to boost your cash savings.

Even better, if you direct those savings into additional mortgage repayments you will be able to own your home sooner. Awesome!

When weighing up whether to accrue your points for flights or redeem them for cash keep this in mind – you don’t earn interest on your frequent flyer points.

In fact it seems that even though flight prices haven’t increased much the amount of points required has increased. So the value of your award points is actually decreasing.

Getting started is easy

With just 3,750 points you can redeem a $25 gift card. So log on right now and start redeeming.

Automate it

Qantas Frequent Flyer has recently introduced Auto Rewards. You can elect to automatically redeem your points for a Woolworths gift card every three months.

The current maximum amount is a $20 gift card costing 3,000 points. (That’s a value of 0.66 cents per point.)

Worried about security?

Yes gift cards are cash-like so you are right to give some thought to security.

At the very least you should have a decent padlock on your mail box to help protect yourself from identity theft. That will also help against theft of your gift cards.

Alternatively use a post office box – either your own or where you work.

Take the pressure down this Christmas

There are gift vouchers that will cover most items that will hit your budget this Christmas, including gifts. From general retail stores to travel, auto, hardware, electronics, food and liquor.

You may even decide to just give the voucher to someone as a gift. Hmm, that gives me an idea. I might redeem some points for a Bunnings voucher for my father-in-law.

Seventy percent of credit card debt accrues interest

“Did I just read that right?” I thought as I put down my coffee and twice re-read this paragraph:

‘Consumers are still cautious about the debt they build up on credit cards. An analysis by card operator Mastercard shows that only 70.8 per cent of the total $46.9bn in credit card debt is accruing interest, which is the lowest level in a year.’

Shoppers splash out $21bn on their credit cards” by David Uren, The Weekend Australian, February 13-14, 2010″

Over seventy percent of credit card debt is accruing interest. That’s outrageous! I hope that is a large amount of debt held by a small percentage of card holders – but I already know I hope in vain. Other research shows that around fifty percent of credit card holders regularly pay interest on their credit cards.

The first, most important rule of getting rich

It’s outrageous that in 2010 this is the case when the basic rule of personal financial management (and wealth creation) is to spend less than you earn. Such credit card statistics just reinforce the fact that as a society we are terrible at this basic rule and so we can only point the finger inward when we are dissatisfied with our financial achievements

But that is not what made me double-back over the paragraph. What astounded me was that the journalist Mr Uren described that high percentage as consumers being cautious about the debt built up on their credit cards.

Repay debt before building cash savings

On Wednesday I was again asked a question I am commonly asked by people with large credit cards debts, “should I use my cash savings to repay part of my credit card?”

Absolutely! Mathematically it is a no-brainer.

You earn less interest on your cash savings than the interest you pay on the credit card debt. So you are further ahead by actually having less cash and less debt.

After giving that advice the next thing I sometimes hear is “oh yeah but that cash is savings for a…[big holiday]”.

You’re joking right? Don’t even think about splashing out and probably getting into more debt while you’ve got this big anchor of credit card debt accruing interest. You’ll never get rich that way, let alone have enough money for what’s really important. (In the flesh I am much more diplomatic, honest.)

What do you think?

  • Am I over-reacting to be outraged and astounded by this newspaper paragraph and credit card statistic?
  • Is my suggestion about savings vs credit card to simplistic to be realistic? What makes you struggle to implement it? (share it below and I’ll reply with some suggestions.)
  • Are we perhaps not socially and behaviouraly mature enough to handle credit cards? Are they legal weapons of mass financial destruction?

Please share your opinions in the comment section below. I read them all and respond as often as I can.