Credit card companies judge you based on your credit score—are you judging them? They hope not. With thousands of cards vying for today’s credit card user, there is plenty of room for selectivity on the consumer end, but in an industry driven by marketing, preapproved credit cards and the instant gratification of introductory offers, the right investment vehicle can be (intentionally) difficult to spot.
“When marketing drives decision-making, you can’t be sure that the product you’ve selected is actually right for you,” says Lindsay Konsko, a credit card analyst for NerdWallet, a website that aggregates information to help consumers make financial decisions for things like credit cards, loans and insurance.
The U. S. credit card industry generated more than $161 billion in top-line revenue from fees and interest in 2014, according to bank card advisory firm R. K. Hammer, though such fees are increasingly tempered by fierce competition amongst issuers, creating a constantly shifting middle ground between profit and pleasing the customer. “So far in 2015, the trend seems to be towards dropping certain nuisance fees and charges,” says Konsko. “When one issuer introduces a hot product, others know that they will need to improve the value of their cards to compete.”
This year’s best credit cards highlight a trend toward simplicity and flexibility, which Konsko says issuers are incorporating into reward programs, in an effort to win customers. Here are my picks from this year’s credit crop:
Best Flat-Rate Cash Back
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards, Citi Double Cash Card (tie)
Capital One’s Quicksilver Cash Rewards card offers a flat 1.5 percent back on all purchases. Making this card unique is the lack of limit on reward-earning potential and the ability to redeem rewards for any amount as a statement credit, gift card or good old-fashioned check. Boasting free credit score tracking, there are no annual or foreign transaction fees, and after spending $500 within three months of opening the account, a $100 sign-up bonus generously sweetens the deal.
The Citi Double Cash Card features a flat 1 percent cash back on all purchases and an additional 1 percent cash back as you make payments. There are no limits on rewards and no annual fee. Also offered is a 15-month 0 percent APR on balance transfers (though a balance transfer fee of the greater of $5 or 3 percent applies). An added bonus: Citi waives its charge on your first late payment.
Best Cash Back
Blue Cash Preferred Card (American Express)
For anyone who eats, drives a car or wears clothes—American Express’ Blue Cash Preferred Card offers an industry-topping 6 percent cash back on groceries (up to $6,000 in purchases per year), 3 percent on gas and select department stores (Macy’s, Kohl’s, Nordstrom and more) and 1 percent on everything else. Balance transfer and purchases made within 30 days of the opening account enjoy 0 percent APR for 15 months, and users earn a $150 statement credit after spending $1,000 within three months of opening the account. As with most AmEx cards, there is an annual fee—$75—for this one.
Best 0 Percent APR
Citi Simplicity Card
What’s in a name? In this case, everything. There are no late fees, penalty rates or annual fees on the Citi Simplicity Card, and its 21-month 0 percent APR on balance transfers and purchases cannot be beat, making it ideal for those planning large purchases or who need extra time to pay off an existing balance. There is a three percent balance transfer fee, which should be factored into savings considerations.
Best Balance Transfer
While a 0 percent APR period has almost become common stock, so have balance transfer fees. The Chase Slate card waives its 3 percent balance transfer fee during the first 60 days of opening an account, which is good news for anyone looking to save on existing balances. There is no annual fee, and a monthly FICO score is provided free of charge.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Twice the points on travel and dining and no foreign transaction fee, combined with the simplicity of a 1:1 points transfer for leading frequent travel programs, such as Southwest Airlines RapidRewards and Marriott Rewards, make the Chase Sapphire stand out in an industry overbooked with complicated travel cards. While other airline/hotel-specific cards make more financial sense to certain travelers, Chase Sapphire is a winner for the general and/or international traveler, even considering the $95 annual fee. New users earn 40,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within three months of opening their account.