When the Citi Thank You network was first launched it was hailed as being the future of banking: relationship-based rewards for having multiple accounts. Yet now, nearly a decade later (it was launched in ’04) we have seen very few major banks come out with similar programs. Why not? And what are the pros and cons? Just because I advertise their cards doesn’t mean I’m going to hold back on telling you both the good and bad that comes with this rewards program. I’ve updated this review for 2013…
- If you have a qualified Citibank checking account and Citi credit card, the points you earn from them go into one Thank You account. Obviously, this makes it easier to rack up rewards fast.
- The Citi Thank You rewards program continues to grow larger and I expect the variety of redemption options to keep getting bigger. Why? Because Citi seems to be transitioning more of their cards to the Thank You points network (as evidenced by the launch and heavy promotion of the Citi Thank You Premier).
- Like many card issuers, Citi has a bonus points “mall” that allows you to earn extra Thank You Points for online shopping. What’s nice about the Citi program is that it’s the largest with over 600 merchants participating.
I wouldn’t recommend every Citi card that uses Thank You Points, but there is one in particular that is extremely generous with its 5x points on restaurants, fast food, and entertainment categories, which is the no annual fee Forward card.
- The biggest drawback in my opinion is that your redemption options are not always 1 point = 1 cent.
For example, a $25 Starbucks gift cards cost 35,000 points (that’s about 0.71 cents per point). However if you go with gift cards in higher increments of $100+ you can usually get a full 1 cent per point conversion.Update: Thankfully now many $25 and $50 gift cards will give you full point 1 cent value per point.
- The Citi Thank You Bonus Points Center for online shopping does indeed have the biggest selection of merchants, but the rewards you earn tend to usually be quite a bit lower than ShopDiscover (for Discover credit cards). For example, Citi gives 2 pts/dollar at Walmart.com while Discover gives 5% cash back.
- The bulk of your Thank You points will likely come from your Citi credit card spending, not your checking account. While it is generous for Citi to reward you for things like online bill payments, the truth of the matter is these are lower-margin areas of Citi’s business (especially with the debit card fee crackdown) so don’t expect to get huge rewards on them. My guess is that’s the reason other banks haven’t adapted similar programs – not because customers don’t like them, but simply because it’s less profitable to pay rewards on checking account activity.
Best ways to spend your Thank You points?
When it comes time to redeem, how can you get the highest Citi Thank You point value possible? Well I touched on a couple pointers above but here’s closer look at what is and isn’t the best value:
- Avoid gas cards. Yes, you can buy a Sunoco $100 gift card for 10,000 points (1 cent per point value) but when you do that, you’re missing out on the 3-5% in rewards you would be earning by paying with a good gas rebate credit card. Same applies to department stores and restaurants, if you have a credit card that gives higher rewards for those categories.
- Avoid cash and equivalents.
A $100 cash reward will cost you 16,000 points (0.625 cents per point). The statement credit options for higher amounts do give you a slightly better conversion, but still fall far short of getting a penny per point (35,000 points = $250 statement credit = 0.714 cents/point). For 2012/2013, the cash conversion ratio is now slightly worse at 10,000 points = $50 (1/2 cent per point).
- Avoid most merchandise. Not to single out the Citi Thank You network, because this holds true for most credit card rewards programs. More often than not the merchandise doesn’t give you the best bang for your buck. Here’s an example…
- Music downloads. For all increments – even as little as $1.00 worth of music – you get 1 cent value per point. If you only have a few points and are itching to spend them, this is a good deal. You can get downloads from artists on Sony and Universal labels (hint: Although these aren’t through iTunes you can still put them on your iPod/iPhone).
- Charitable donations. On donations of 5,000 points and up, you get 1 cent/point for donations to Red Cross. The drawback though is this will not count as a tax-deductible donation (but that only matters if you itemize your deductions, anyway).
- $25+ gift cards. In my opinion, the best way to use Citi Thank You points (how I usually spend mine) is the gift cards from partners. Depending on the merchant, you can get full value on many $25 and $50 gift cards. But as mentioned, it’s best to choose retailers that wouldn’t take away from high reward earning opportunities you get through credit card spending (i.e. the gas card example).
Ultimately, the Citi Thank You rewards program is what you make of it. If you redeem your points in a strategic manner, you can get a great rebate on your spending (especially with the Citi Forward and its 5x points). On the other hand, if you redeem for whatever your heart desires, your Thank You points value may be up to 50% less than what the “good ideas” above will give you.
What do you like best (and least) about this rewards program?