Photo: Tom Barrett

The credit card market is, basically, a rewards market. With the exception of beginner cards for building or rebuilding credit, each card tries to knock the others off of the podium with its best rewards program. These rewards come in various forms—cash back, points and miles—but they all do the same thing: give something back for spending money with that credit card. Though they're similar in effect, they're very different in whom they benefit. Choosing the right card means understanding your own spending habits and what rewards will benefit you the most.


Miles and points cards operate in the same way. You'll accumulate a balance of miles or points at a certain rate that you'll eventually redeem for rewards. And while true cash back cards automatically apply your cash back as statement credit, some actually behave like a points card. If a card offers 1 point for every $100 spent, that point is worth $1 and it will stay in your account until you accumulate enough to redeem them.

The main difference between points cards and miles cards is in the rewards offered. Points cards tend to be more flexible because a miles card is typically sponsored by one airline. A United Airlines Explorer card will earn United rewards: flight discounts, free upgrades, free bags, etc. A Chase Ultimate Rewards card, on the other hand, offers 1¢ per dollar spent to use on shopping sites like Amazon.

Here, it is important to understand your spending habits. Many points cards let you redeem points on specific rewards, or partner websites. Meanwhile, some cash back cards, even those that are basically points cards, give higher cash back value for certain categories, such as restaurants or gas. What you buy and what you want to receive for your points or miles will signal which card is best.

If you travel frequently, the rewards of a miles card will probably justify being locked into one airline. If you're paying off student loans, Citi ThankYou Points offers rebates to help. If you love to try new restaurants, the Uber Visa card will give 4% back on dining purchases. One surprising study showed that hotel-affiliated rewards cards actually offered better rewards rates than airline cards or cash back programs, even when used on everyday purchases. The average rewards rate for hotel cards was 2.5%, higher than many other points- or miles-earning cards.

The other important factor to consider is the sign-up bonus that might be offered by one card and not another. For example, the Uber Visa card earns a $100 bonus after you spend $500 in the first 3 months. The Citi ThankYou card earns 15,000 points after $1,000 spent in 3 months. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card gives you 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 in 3 months. This card's points can become miles—50,000 points becomes $625 towards airfare. It also offers double the points earned for travel purchases and dining, so it's a good example of how cards can cross over into other categories regardless of whether they earn "points" or "miles."

While shopping for a card with high rewards, be careful of annual fees. After the first year, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card charges $95 per year. Depending on the amount you spend, this fee (and the similar fees on other cards) could start to cancel out some of the rewards you earn. The Uber Visa card, on the other hand, has no annual fee. Read the details of any credit card agreement carefully because an annual fee might start (or increase) only after the first year.

The credit card market is full of great rewards through various partnerships with airlines, hotels, websites and other companies. Though it takes time and patience to sort through the fine print of dozens of cards, your work will pay off for years, whether it's in cash back, points or miles.

Tom Twardzik is a personal finance writer for Paypath. He also covers music, film, TV and gaming for Popdust, social issues and current events for The Liberty Project and travel for The Journiest. Read more on his page and follow him on Twitter

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I thought I had a pretty good handle on my finances out of school. I worked several jobs while attending university and had little to no problem managing my income. However, once I graduated, I realized how much more complicated personal accounting could really be.

There were so many variables I needed to keep track of. Biweekly bills, monthly charges, and general necessities amounted to a heap of confusing numbers that were often impossible to decipher. The funniest part was that I was actually trying to do this by hand (I don't know what I was trying to prove to myself, either).

After messing up for the 17th time, I decided to give Microsoft Excel a shot. I used Excel a bit in school and I knew all the big-wig finance people used it, so what could I possibly have to lose? The answer is about six hours of my precious time. Excel isn't much of an improvement over handwriting and it's still dependent on the user to manually input all of the information. It's like doing everything by hand with the slightest help, meaning that it still required a tremendous amount of time and concentration. Well that was all for nothing, I guess.

It's sort of funny. I was certain that I could manage my personal finances with ease, when it's practically a full-time job. I was already stressed out enough with my first job and I knew I didn't have enough time to give my finances the attention it deserved.

That's why I decided to try out a budgeting app. My best friend told me that he uses an app called Truebill to manage his finances. "What does it even mean to manage your finances?" I asked him. He told me that Truebill was the personal financial assistant I wished I could have. It could aggregate all of my account information into one place and give me specific insights and actions.

I loved the idea of having full control over my finances, especially during a time of financial uncertainty, and I realized that Truebill would be the easiest way to accomplish this. The user interface is incredibly simple and intuitive, so it doesn't even feel like a finance app! Truebill offers a multitude of features, with their most popular being the ability to cancel subscriptions with the press of a button.

Okay, I had no idea how many subscriptions I was still subscribed to. In fact, I wasn't even using a quarter of the subscription services I was signed up for. Subscription boxes, streaming services, my old gym, and even an old subscription to my favorite magazine--it was all there and I was livid. How could I let myself waste all of this money and how did I never catch this? Thank goodness for Truebill.

Truebill also offers bill negotiations. There is a 40% fee based on how much you save and Truebill even claims that there is an 85% chance that they'll be able to lower your bill once a negotiation is requested. Why wouldn't I take them up on this? There was zero risk and I would only have to pay once my bill was lowered (which means that I would be saving money regardless).

More standard features of Truebill include the ability to generate a credit report on-demand and even request a pay advance. I only used the pay advance feature once when I wanted to buy a gift for my mom, but didn't have enough cash in hand and Truebill automatically reimbursed itself when I got my next paycheck.

The credit report is another fantastic feature and practically taught me what good credit meant. Truebill's credit report basically shows you which financial decisions have the most significant impact on your credit score and ways that you can improve your credit month-over-month. I've never had such control over my credit and it feels good.

I'll be the first to admit that I was extremely naive coming out of school. I figured that as long as I was attentive, I could manage my finances with ease. We manage money to some extent throughout our entire lives, but once you're thrown out on your own, it's a completely different story. With Truebill, I've finally been able to take control over my finances and stay on top of all of my responsibilities.

Update: Our friends at Truebill are extending a special offer to our readers! Follow this link to sign-up for Truebill.