If there's one thing we can learn from the current state of the credit card market, it's that having excellent credit pays. Heightened post-recession competition for the most responsible and economically-resilient consumers has spurred the rise of lucrative zero percent financing deals and initial rewards bonuses, while putting downward pressure on the ongoing interest rates offered to people with top-tier credit histories, according to the latest CardHub Landscape Report.
Savvy, established credit users therefore have the opportunity to save hundreds of dollars via bypassed finance charges and expense subsidies, while everyone else has a clear chance of maximizing their credit standing.
The spoils of excellent credit. For years, credit card issuers have been offering eye-catching sign-up offers to attract customers who managed to avoid serious financial difficulties during the worst of the Great Recession. But, until recently, we thought their value had peaked. During the first quarter of 2013, however, the average length of zero percent introductory terms rose more than 2 percent to well over 10 months. Likewise, the value of the average cash back initial rewards bonus rose more than15 percent to $76.81.
Keep in mind those are only averages, though. Those of you with excellent credit should set your sights higher. The following offers represent the cream of the credit card crop and would make a great addition to anyone's wallet:
-- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Charging at least $3,000 to this card during the first three months that you have it will trigger a 40,000-point rewards bonus. That bounty is redeemable for $500 in travel booked through Chase or a $400 statement credit. Alternatively, you can transfer your points to one of Chase's many rewards partners, including US Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Marriott and Hyatt. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year.
-- Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard. This card also offers a 40,000-mile bonus, but users only need to spend $1,000 during the first 90 days to qualify for it. Miles can be redeemed for a $400 statement credit to pay for any travel-related charge. The $89 annual fee is waived the first year.
-- Slate Card from Chase. Known as a free balance transfer card, Slate enables you to trade in a high interest rate for 15 months of zero percent financing--without paying any fees--to significantly lower the cost of existing debt.
-- Citi Diamond Preferred Card. This card offers zero percent financing on new purchases for a year and a half, which would prove quite lucrative for anyone considering a big-ticket buy that will take a while to pay off. The card also has no annual fee.
Roadmap to better credit. What if you don't have above-average credit? Well, we're seeing a stabilization of terms available to people in the middle of the credit spectrum coinciding with the economic recovery. The lower credit levels have been marked by a lack of competition ever since Capital One's May 2012 acquisition of HSBC, which had previously been active in this riskier space.
Regardless, if you have average or below-average credit, your top priority should be to minimize costs and maximize your credit score. The most efficient way to do so is to use a card that has no annual fee and make on-time payments every month. Consequently, positive information will stream into your credit reports on a monthly basis, gradually devaluing any negative information already in there or simply adding to a thin file.
Final thoughts. It's clear the economic recovery and personal finance regulatory makeover we've witnessed in recent years have combined to create a fairly healthy credit card market. The availability of increasingly valuable sign-up perks is just one example of that. Another is how receptive issuers have proven to be in adjusting product terms to consumer preferences.
The average foreign transaction fee has fallen nearly 6 percent since last year, while the number of no foreign fee cards has grown considerably as more and more people have experienced how costly these pesky charges can be. That's true whether you're traveling abroad or buying something from a foreign merchant from the comfort of your own home. Keep these credit tips in mind while planning your summer vacation or making appointments for a bit of good old-fashioned retail therapy.
Odysseas Papadimitriou is the CEO of CardHub.com, a website that helps you compare more than 1,000 credit card offers, including no fee cards.