Chasing Points: How Many of Us Use Credit Cards Just for the Rewards?

This post originally appeared on Finder.com.

Almost 120 million Americans pay with plastic for the perks.

More than a third (47%) of American adults say they’ve used a credit card solely to rack up rewards points, according to the latest Chasing Points study from Finder, an annual study of roughly 1,800 American adults about their credit card spending habits. That’s about 119.8 million of rewards cardholders, up 38% from the 2019 survey’s 87.1 million who admitted to the same.

Even though more adults are swiping their credit card for the points than last year, they’re spending less on average. Our study found that Americans cardholders charged an average of $1,179.36 each to take advantage of loyalty programs associated with their rewards cards, a decrease of -35% from an average of $1,814.75 last year. 

However, while more people than last year appear to be pulling out plastic in the hunt for rewards, the total amount they’re spending is on the way down. Americans spent $141 billion on their credit cards for rewards, which is roughly 11% less than the $158 billion spent in the previous year, the second year in a row of a decrease in rewards spending.

What Were People Buying?

Finder’s study found that of the nearly $1,179.36 spent by American cardholders looking to earn points on their purchases, they spent the most on groceries on average ($505.01), followed by dining out ($139.48). Flights ($118.99) and hotels ($90.31) come in next, showing that American cardholders are looking for an escape despite COVID-19 restrictions.

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    ResponsesAmount Spent% of respondentsTotal spend
    Groceries$505.01$60.5 billion
    Dining out$139.48$16.7 billion
    Flight$118.99$14.3 billion
    Hotels$90.31$10.8 billion
    Household items$86.13$10.3 billion
    TV / computer purchases$78.86$9.4 billion
    Other$67.83$8.1 billion
    Shoes$44.75$5.4 billion
    Cosmetics and fragrances$27.22$3.3 billion
    Literature$11.15$1.3 billion
    Music$9.63$1.2 billion

    Let’s break it down

    Gender

    Of our respondents, men both spent more and are more likely to buy with a credit card just for the rewards. Some 51% of men say they’ve paid with plastic for points, and they’re spending an average of $1,291.88 a year on their cards, compared with 43% of women who charge at an average of $1,059.66 a year.

    In 9 of 11 spending categories, men are more likely than women to spend money to get points. Women are slightly more likely than men to spend money on groceries and cosmetics/fragrances.

    Reward It
    ResponsesMenWomen
    Groceries$488.90$522.16
    Dining out$164.09$113.29
    Flight$157.63$77.89
    Hotels$108.39$71.07
    Household items$88.66$83.44
    TV / computer purchases$106.56$49.38
    Other$77.79$57.23
    Shoes$50.21$38.95
    Cosmetics and fragrances$22.74$31.98
    Literature$13.20$8.97
    Music$13.70$5.30
    Total$1,291.88$1,059.66

    Generation

    We all gotta eat. And across generations, groceries are the top purchase for credit card points hunters. It’s also the category in which all generations spend the most.

    Generation% that said they made a credit card purchase for pointsAverage spendWhat they’re most likely to buy
    Gen Z47.57%$479.89Groceries
    Millennial49.15%$990.95Groceries
    Gen X51.18%$1,170.49Groceries
    Baby Boomers41.09%$1,473.46Groceries
    Silent Gen45.71%$1,683.58Groceries

    The generation most committed to racking up loyalty points? Gen X, with 51.18% admitting to using a credit card for points, followed by millennials (49.15%) and Gen Z (47.57%).

    However, baby boomers spend the most on average on rewards cards across the board, averaging $1,473.46 per person, followed by the silent gen ($1,683.58) and Gen X ($1,170.49). 

    Household Income

    It may not shock you that the more money people have, the more likely they are to spend money on their credit cards to score loyalty rewards. 63.25% of cardholders who earn more than $120,000 say they made a credit card purchase for points, compared to only 31.81% of those making less than $20,000. However, although adults earning $120,000 or over were mostly likely to spend, cardholders with an annual income of $80,000 to $99,999 spent the most on average at $1,583.63.

    Household income% that said they made a credit card purchase for pointsAverage spend
    Less than $20,00031.81%$679.14
    $20,000 to $39,99940.47%$870.53
    $40,000 to $59,99951.13%$1,326.52
    $60,000 to $79,99958.80%$1,487.66
    $80,000 to $99,99953.02%$1,583.63
    $100,000 to $119,99963.16%$1,272.49
    $120,000 or over63.25%$1,382.92

    Are Rewards Programs Worth It?

    Rewards cards can offer incredible perks. But whether they’re the right choice depends on your financial needs, spending habits and goals. Weigh the pros and cons of your rewards card, and map out how much you need to spend to reap the biggest rewards.

    When looking for a card, caarefully read any limits and restrictions on how you can redeem points, and look for eligibility on bonus points at signup. The potential for travel perks, cash back and bonus points could cause you to spend more than normal, potentially resulting in high fees and interest on those purchases.

    COVID-19 has changed the way many people have used  their credit cards in the past year. As a result, many providers have updated their rewards structure to reflect what people are spending most on during the pandemic (such as more rewards for spending on streaming services and less for travel).

    Methodology

    Our data is based on an online survey of 1,790 US adults born between 1928 to 2002 commissioned by Finder and conducted by Pureprofile in September 2020. Participants were paid volunteers.

    We assume the participants in our survey represent the US population of 254.7 million Americans who are at least 18 years old according to the July 2019 US Census Bureau estimate. This assumption was made at the 95% confidence level with a 2.32% margin of error.

    The survey asked respondents whether they have spent on a credit card because of the rewards program and, if so, how much have they spent in the past 12 months.

    We define generations by birth year according to the Pew Research Center’s generational guidelines:

    • Gen Z — 1997-2002
    • Millennials — 1981-1996
    • Gen X — 1965-1980
    • Baby Boomers — 1946-1964
    • The Silent Generation — 1928-1945
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