Would you say ‘No’, if a complete stranger handed you £200 a year with no strings attached? How about £100? £50?

That’s why I use credit cards. The right ones insist on giving me free money for the privilege of sitting in my wallet and funding purchases that I’m going to make anyway.

By smartly slaloming through the system, you can pick up special offers and free coins like Super Mario gobbling power-ups, and so earn a bit extra every year.

As long as you can follow the credit card house rules (see below) you merely need to choose the right tool for the job.

Turn your credit card into a smart card

A credit card for every occasion

Whatever kind of credit card you’re after, it’s out there. Of course, we don’t want the loan advancing, wage-slavery inducing variety.

Here is a quick guide to the savvier weapons of choice:

Cashback cards
A small percentage of your spending is returned to you every year in cash. You should accept no less than 0.5% cashback and can earn up to 5% with a bit of extra effort. A 1% cashback rate would earn you £100, if you spend £10,000 that year.

Reward scheme cards
The same deal as cashback credit cards, but your pounds equal points and points mean prizes. Prizes like free flights, shopping vouchers and so on. Compare reward schemes versus cashback cards to see which is more worthwhile.

0% spending cards
Credit cards can fund a cheeky little saving scheme known as stoozing. You spend as usual but on a card that offers 0% interest on new purchases. Make the minimum repayments on the card every month and save your accumulating cash in the best instant access savings account. Just before the 0% period expires, use the money saved to pay off the debt. The interest earned equals your profit.

Overseas spending cards
Spend abroad on commission-free credit cards to get the best exchange rates possible. It’s a lot easier than wandering around with a money-belt stuffed full of local currency – the international expression for “mug me”.

Special offer cards
Here some glittering freebie dangles like bait to hook you onto an otherwise uncompetitive card. Take the bait, do the bare minimum to bag the bonus, then ditch the card like Jerry mouse eluding the ponderous Tom again.

A few house rules on credit cards

Credit cards are great as long as you follow the rules.

The number one rule is do not get into debt. If you run up a debt on a 0% card, for example, it should be matched by savings elsewhere. This way you remain debt neutral, since your savings offset your liability.

Do not fall into the credit card debt trap! Lenders hope that by giving you this ‘free’ money, you will eventually get sloppy, skip payments, and become another debt sucker. Don’t risk credit cards unless you’re as anally retentive about avoiding debt as a German politician in Athens.

Decided to sally forth to claim your share of lolly? Here are some rules I live by:

Choosing a credit card

  • Don’t apply for lots of cards when you’re in the market for a loan you actually need. Credit checks lower your credit score. I try to avoid more than one application every other month.
  • Card fees are OK as long as you spend enough to make sure the offer is still worth it. Maths and budget planning are required.
  • Jump in quick if an offer is good. Cashback deals can last for years on legacy cards, even when they’re closed to new customers.
  • Partners are handy if you want to revisit new customer offers. (This is not the only use for partners, I believe).

Spending on credit cards

  • Put as much of your spending as possible on (your carefully selected) credit cards to maximize your returns…
  • …but only spend what you would have done anyway.
  • Don’t withdraw cash on your card. You’ll pay fees.
  • Don’t put recurring payments on your credit card e.g. subscriptions. They can be hard to stop. Use direct debits instead.

Managing your balance and credit limit

  • Always pay off the outstanding balance in full every month by direct debit to avoid paying interest. (Except if you’re using a 0% card to stooze.)
  • Don’t exceed your credit limit. You’ll lose bonuses, pay fees, and generally wreck your upside.

Hacks and hints

  • Tippex a stripe on any credit cards that look similar to your debit card to avoid mix ups at cashpoints when you’re not paying attention.
  • Double the power of an offer by putting a loving partner on your account to increase spending. (See? I knew there was another use for them!)
  • Remember you can claim money back from your card issuer if something goes wrong with any item you’ve bought costing more than £100. A handy feature in these days of failing retailers and online shopping.

Again, there’s no shame in deciding you’d rather not take the risks of credit cards.

Wheezes like these are tasty extras for hardcore money hackers. They’re not essential for sound financial planning.

The best credit cards

The following cards are all highly competitive in their specialist category, at the time of writing.

You may well find offers that suit your circumstances better, depending on where you shop and the lavishness of your budget, so do hunt around.

Oh, and when choosing between simplicity and exception-riddled complexity, I’ve plumped for simplicity every time.

Cashback credit cards

Aim for a card that bags a cashback rate of 1% or better a year.

Favourite for cashback

Aqua Reward Credit Card
Cashback: 3%
Max payout: £100 (spend £3334 to max the cashback)
Annual fee: 0
APR: 34.9% (representative)
Issuer: Mastercard

Best feature The amazing 3% rate.

Worst feature Low initial credit limits (most applicants get £250 – £500).

  • Beat the low credit limits by paying off your account balance early. Spend £200 on the credit card, then make a £200 payment to your Aqua account via your bank. Don’t wait for the direct debit.
  • It’s aimed at consumers with a poor credit history or none at all, so it’s pretty easy to get.
  • Also best for spending abroad.

For a spending splurge

Barclaycard Cashback Credit Card
Cashback: 6% for first 3 months, 0.5% – 2% after that
Max payout: £120 for the first 3 months. £75,000 annual spend limit
Annual fee: £24
APR: 24.6% inc fee (representative)
Issuer: Visa

Best feature 6% cashback on your five biggest purchases of the month, for the first three months, if you make 15 purchases in the month.

Worst feature It’s complicated. See below.

  • Your top five monthly purchases earn 2% cashback after the 6% rate expires.
  • Except for your anniversary month when the top five rake in 4%.
  • You need to make 15 purchases a month to get the boosted cashback rate.
  • Monthly purchases beyond your top five earn cashback at 0.5%.

After Aqua 

American Express Platinum Cashback Credit Card
Cashback: 5% for first 3 months, 1.25% after that
Max payout: £125 at the 5% rate. Unlimited thereafter (spend £2,500 to max the 5% cashback)
Annual fee: £25
APR: 18.5% inc fee (representative)
Issuer: Amex

Best feature 5% introductory rate for new customers. Great when you’re about to spend big.

Worst feature Amex is not accepted by some retailers. Always have a back-up card if you go the Amex route.

  • 2.5% cashback for your anniversary month, if you’ve spent over £10,000 in the previous year.
  • Minimum household income of £20,000 required.
  • The cashback return is still good in year two (near enough 1%), if you spend over £9,000 a year.

Alternative to Amex

Capital One Aspire World Credit Card
Cashback: 5% for first 3 months, 0.5% up to £6,000, 1% £6-10,000, 1.25% above £10,000
Max payout: £100 at the 5% rate. Unlimited thereafter (spend £2,000 to max the 5% cashback)
Annual fee: 0
APR: 19.9% inc fee (representative)
Issuer: Mastercard

Best feature 5% intro rate for new customers. Good for the Xmas run-up or other big spending period.

Worst feature Complicated cashback tiers.

  • Minimum household income of £20,000 required.
  • The year two cashback return only closes in on 1% if you spend over £20,000 per year. The cashback rate is 0.7% for a £10,000 spend.

The commuter’s choice

Santander 123 Cashback card
This tricky little number is well worth a look if you spend over £100 a month on petrol, rail travel, or London Oyster cards, or you can’t stay out of places like John Lewis and Debenhams.

Rewards and flights

For those who demand their backhanders in goods and services.

Favourite reward card

Amazon.co.uk Credit Card
Reward: Amazon vouchers
1 point = 1p
Annual fee: 0
APR: 16.9% inc fee (representative)
Issuer: Mastercard

Best feature Essentially a 1% cashback card. It goes up to 2% when shopping on Amazon as £1 spent there equals 2 points.

Worst feature Can be beaten by rival rewards cards if you spend BIG at Tesco or Sainsbury’s.

  • Earn 3 points for every £1 spent in the first 90 days.
  • £5 Amazon voucher just for passing the trial-by-application-form.

Favourite free flights card

Lloyds Duo Avios Credit Card
Intro bonus: 18,000 Avios points
Miles: 1 for every £1 spent (on the Amex version)
Annual fee: 0
APR: 17.9% (representative)
Issuer: Amex and Mastercard

Best feature Relatively simple, and good if you’re a low earner.

Worst feature There are better cards if you don’t mind fees but they need a massive spend.

  • The duo bit means you get an Amex and a Mastercard. Amex is better for miles.
  • Convert Tesco Clubcard points into Avios points.
  • 18,000 point intro bonus if you apply before April 3 2013 and spend £500 per month in the first three months.

Stoozing credit cards

To best arbitrage interest rates, you need plastic that combines a long 0% spending stint with rewards thrown into the bargain.

Remember: There will still be minimum monthly repayments. Set up a Direct Debit to ensure you make them!

Favourite 0% spending card

Tesco Clubcard Credit Card
0% on spending: 16 months
Min repay: Greater of 1% of balance plus interest or £25
Reward: Tesco Clubcard points
Annual fee: 0
APR: 16.9% (representative)
Issuer: Mastercard

Best feature Other than the 0% period, Money Saving Expert calculates that the Clubcard points make this a 0.75% cashback credit card.

Worst feature A relatively high min repayment, but it’s no biggie.

  • Collect 1 point per £4 spent (£4 min).
  • Also counts as a Tesco Clubcard. So if you shop in Tesco, you get your Reward points, plus your Clubcard points (and bonus points on Tesco fuel).
  • Exploiting Tesco Clubcard points is a science in itself. As usual the Money Saving Expert guys are all over it.

Alternative stoozing card

M&S Credit Card
0% on spending: 15 months
Min repay: Greater of 2.5% or £5
Reward: 0.5% back in M&S vouchers
Annual fee: 0
APR: 15.9% (representative)
Issuer: Mastercard

Best feature As well as the 0% period, you get 0.5% back in M&S vouchers as a reward – that’s doubled to 1% for any spending done in M&S.

Worst feature No issues to report.

Prolong the stooze: Instead of paying off the debt when the 0% spending period expires, you can shift it to a 0% balance transfer card. It’s a stay of execution on the debt, enabling you to carry on racking up interest in your savings account. This only works if the balance transfer fee on the new card is less than your savings account interest rate (after tax). Remember to keep servicing the minimum payments and don’t put any new purchases on the 0% balance transfer card – it’s unlikely to give you 0% interest on new spending. You can keep deferring pay-back day like this for a while, though eventually large debts could hurt your credit score. At some point, you’ll need to take the money out of your savings and start again.

Cheap travel money

We’re after a specialist credit card that doesn’t tack commission onto its foreign exchange rates.

Favourite travelling companion

Aqua Reward Credit Card
Commission: Europe 0%, World 0%
Cash withdrawals: Fee: 3% (min £3),
Cash interest: Yes, even if paid off in full
Annual fee: 0
APR: 34.9% (representative), Cash: 39.95% – 59.95%
Issuer: Mastercard

Best feature 3% cashback even abroad.

Worst feature The low credit limit (most applicants get £250 – £500).

Alternatively

Halifax Clarity Credit Card
Commission: Europe 0%, World 0%
Cash withdrawals: Free,
Cash interest: Yes, even if paid off in full
Annual fee: 0
APR: 12.9% (representative), Cash: 12.92 – 21.95%
Issuer: Mastercard

Best feature Free cash withdrawals. Still best to avoid though as you’ll pay interest regardless of direct debit settings.

Worst feature No concerns.

  • You get £5 cashback per month for spending over £300, if you also have a Halifax Reward Current account.

Special offers

Grab the shiny thing, then toss the card away.

Quick hit and run

Barclaycard Freedom Rewards Credit Card
Freebie: £30 shopping voucher
Condition: Earn 10,500 points by spending £500 in the first 3 months.
Annual fee: 0
APR: 18.9% (representative)
Issuer: Visa

Best feature Low hurdle freebie and good range of retailers.

Worst feature The reward scheme is complex and points are generally worth less than half a penny each.

  • Earn 1 point for every £1 spent. 2 points at supermarkets and petrol stations and 3 points with certain retailers.

Eyes on a bigger prize

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold Card
Freebie: £100 gift card or BA flights
Condition: Spend £2,000 in the first 3 months
Annual fee: £125 (free in first year)
APR: It’s a charge card. £12 fee if you don’t pay the balance off
Issuer: Amex

Best feature Fly to major European capitals or spend the gift card in the likes of Amazon or M&S.

Worst feature You pay taxes on the flights. Around £30 per person.

  • Spend £2000 in three months and you’ll earn 20,000 Reward points to spend on the freebie of your choice.
  • Cancel the card so you don’t cop the big fee in year 2.
  • Two complimentary airport VIP lounge passes.
  • Double points on travel, petrol and supermarket spending.
  • Min household income of £20,000.

Closing credits

So that’s our pick of the best credit card deals available. We hope you find a useful flexible friend among that lot. If anyone has a better choices then please let us know below and we’ll add it in.

Do remember we are not financial advisers. The above pointers are not any sort of personal recommendation as to what you should do. The only thing we’d recommend to everyone is do your own research.

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

Further reading:

  1. Should you cancel your unused credit cards?
  2. The truth behind the Natwest Black Card’s shocking APR
  3. Buy on credit and you’ll pay for it twice


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