Q: Hey found this site and you have a lot of good advice man. The reason I came here was because I want to get a credit card, or maybe a few, that have free money on them. Plus I don’t want an annual fee, at least for the first year. Do you have any recommendations?
A: I can definitely help steer you in the right direction, but let me first clarify a couple things. My recommendations can be found at the bottom of the page.
1) The “free money” comes with some strings attached
It used to be you could apply for a credit card a get the bonus right up front. For the most part, credit card issuers have moved away from this type of incentive because a number of people were gaming the system and never using the card. So, a few bad apples ruined it for the rest of us, sadly. So, even though there are no free lunches there are still many compelling deals out there if you don’t mind a few strings.
These days free credit card deals (i.e. cards that don’t have a big upfront annual fee) require you to spend a minimum amount before the signup bonus is earned. So, the truly free lunches of yore are long gone. For example, if a card offers $150 bonus it might require you to spend $500 or more in the first three months of account opening before that bonus is awarded to your account. You technically are not getting anything for free, but if you were going to spend the money anyway you could make that argument. In addition, if you carry a balance and pay interest or an annual fee, that’s something else to factor into the equation. On some you might pay an annual fee after the first year. Banks wised up to the fact that they could steal each others market share all day long but savvy consumers were taking advantage of the situation and not using the card at all after they snagged the signup bonus. So, card issuers began to demand that consumers put some skin in the game and meet some spending thresholds in the first three months of opening the account. This serves two purposes – it gets people in the habit of using the card (a habit which the issuer is betting on becoming a real habit) and it generates enough interchange (and finance charge revenue for those who fail to pay in full) to make the card profitable even with the signup bonus.
2) Don’t open and close an excessive number of cards
Before you make cashing out free card bonuses your second occupation, understand that your FICO score looks at the average age of your accounts. The higher the average age, the better.
This is why you don’t want to go overboard signing up for credit cards with money/airline/point promotions. Try and stick with a card you will actually want to keep and use. And, you should hang on to your oldest card forever, if possible. Even if it has a terrible interest rate you can pay it off and throw it in a sock drawer and it won’t cost you a penny. Just use it once a year to keep it active (some issuers will proactively close an account that stays dormant too long) and pay it off in full when the bill comes. That way the length of your credit history will always be tied to that account over time.
3) A large number of credit checks are not good for your credit score either
Every time you apply for a new card, loan, etc. there is a credit check (also known as a credit inquiry) that is pulled by the lender to see if you’re a good risk in terms of getting a new credit card account. You can always count on bankers to be risk averse.
For about a year following a hard credit pull (involving your full credit profile at the bureau) your score will probably get dinged. Usually not by much – maybe just a five or ten points – but sometimes not at all.
At any given time it’s normal to have a few of these on file. But if you start applying for say, 5 or 10 cards over the period of a couple months, then that’s going to be 5 or 10 credit checks… and that high of a number for such a short period of time and therefore it will potentially torpedo your score (until they are no longer counted – 12 months from date of inquiry).
Don’t go crazy and apply every time you see cards with money on them being offered. Be picky and only go for the best, which I’ve listed here and constantly update. It’s often best to wait at least six months between applications in my opinion but there are some that advocate getting several at once, which can still be better than spreading the credit inquiries over weeks or months.
Here are my top recommendations for 2015:
This is the best deal you will find right now, if it’s a money bonus you’re after. Why? Because you can convert your reward points to cash (statement credits) at a good conversion of 1 point = 1 cent.
You can earn a $150 Bonus Cash Back after you make $500 in purchases within the first 3 months of opening your account. Chase Freedom is a truly excellent card because its generous cash back program makes it worth being your primary card in wallet on a permanent basis. There’s no annual fee.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Next up is another card from Chase which you have also probably heard of before because it’s so popular (I use both this and the Freedom).
If you spend $4,000 within the first 3 months of opening your account, you earn 40,000 bonus points. If you redeem those points for cash back, it’s $400 worth! Or you can redeem the points for travel and get even more value out of them.
Spending $3k within 3 months shouldn’t be excessively challenging if you put everything on the card, as that’s an average of $1k per month in spending. Even if you normally don’t spend that much, you can always buy gift cards from grocery stores, gas stations, etc. in order to help you reach that threshold faster – and then use those gift cards at a later date of give them as gifts during the holidays.
There is an Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95.
Discover it® for Students – New! Good Grades Rewards
Are you in college? If so, check out this card. Admittedly the bonus is not that large, but it’s quite easy to get approved if you are a student (the others above require a good established credit history as where this card already takes into consideration that students have little credit history). Also, you will earn a $20 cash back each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
And this is card you will want to use for the long haul because it earns 5% cash back on categories when you signup for them, 1% on all other purchases.
And guess what? There is no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, no fee for making payments by phone, no fee for going over your credit limit, and no fee on your first late payment!
This post was written or last updated October 28, 2015