How to Break Free of Credit Card Inertia

Chris Chmura spends his days investigating companies on behalf of consumers as a reporter for NBC Bay Area in San Francisco. But when it comes to his own credit cards, he knows he may not be making the best choices. He and his wife have been using the same airline card for years, even though he acknowledges he could likely earn a higher rewards rate with other cards.

“While I know there are better cards out there for me, the gravitational pull of the airline loyalty program completely clouds my judgment,” he says.

“I know I could do better with a 2% cash-back card,” he says. But, he adds, he doesn’t see himself switching anytime soon: “If I were to start using a cash-back card, I would feel as though I was cheating on the airline.”

Perhaps you, too, are caught in the trap of credit card inertia — feeling stuck with credit cards that aren’t fully optimized for your spending habits or preferences, whether out of program loyalty or habit, or because the task of finding a different card just seems daunting. If so, you have company: 36% of people use a rewards card issued by their bank as their primary credit card, suggesting that they may not have looked around much before making their choice, according to a recent study by Aite Group, a financial services industry research company.

If you’re thinking about breaking free, here’s what to consider.

Evaluate your wallet and your financial health

Even consumers who might initially have chosen a card that suits their lifestyle may not explore the finer details of the card deeply enough to truly get the most out of it. And they may not be willing to switch cards if their financial situation changes.

Todd J. Zywicki — professor of law and economics at George Mason University’s law school and co-author of “Consumer Credit and the American Economy” — says that when it comes to specific credit card details, such as rewards rates, people might not take the time to dig in and do their research.

“For a lot of people, it’s just not worth constantly searching for a better card, and to some extent, they are fine with the card they have,” he says.

Still, Zywicki adds, it’s worthwhile to periodically check to see whether you can get a better card (with better rewards, for example) because your income or credit score has improved.

“Some people don’t think to do that,” he says. And in the meantime, hundreds of dollars’ worth of rewards can be lost. A recent NerdWallet study found that people can earn $277, on average, annually in ongoing rewards by using travel credit cards to pay for everyday expenses, and $901 the first year because of bonuses for new cardholders. Yet many don’t take advantage of card offers. (It should be noted that not everyone is able to do so because these offers are generally available only to those with good to excellent credit.)

Set goals and priorities to comparison shop

Larry Dodd, who lives in the Southeastern U.S., knows the feeling of lost rewards well. He and his wife had been using a travel rewards credit card to accrue points since they married three years ago. The card was a remnant from before they met, when his wife used it to earn rewards she could redeem on entertainment for her young children.

Even when the card was no longer a good fit for their needs as a couple, “we didn’t do anything,” he says. It was easier to keep using the same old card, despite the less-than-ideal rewards that no longer worked well for the older children. They continued using the card for about three years, until a month ago, when they finally applied for a new credit card that better suited their lifestyle.

“We decided we were going to take the kids to Europe on vacation, and we needed a card without a 3% foreign transaction fee,” he says. After doing research, they applied for a card with no foreign transaction fee and double points on travel-related spending, among other benefits.

Comparison shopping for credit cards is a key step to take. A deadline, such as an upcoming vacation that you want to earn travel rewards for, can help motivate you to invest the time and effort.

“I’m paralyzed from making a decision unless I’m making the perfect decision,” Dodd says. By waiting so long to apply for a new credit card, “we absolutely missed out on a considerable amount of points,” he says.

His advice for others? “Don’t hesitate — you’ll only regret waiting. Why didn’t I do it sooner? I could have had all those rewards.”

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

But inertia doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if you’re still getting the expected value out of your current card.

For Chmura, sticking with an airline card has its benefits. After accruing rewards on his credit card for about five years, he and his wife, Nicole, cashed in their miles in 2011 to take a virtually free luxury trip to the Maldives, complete with business-class airline tickets and 12 nights in a luxury hotel that normally cost $1,000 a night. He estimates that the trip would have cost $22,000 without rewards.

Chmura says that whenever he sees an appealing cash-back credit card offer, he is tempted to apply— but then remembers that trip.

“When I look back at the great time we had in the Maldives for free, it’s hard to compare that to 22 cents I could save on my most recent, completely forgettable Amazon purchase” by using a cash-back card, he says.

“It’s more of an experience-based decision,” he says. He and his wife are already planning their next luxury trip to the Maldives, which they plan to pay for once again with their accrued rewards points.

Photo of Chris and Nicole Chmura’s 2011 vacationcourtesy of Chris Chmura.This article was written by NerdWalletand was originally published by Forbes.

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