This Site Shows You the Money You Could Be Making in Credit Card Rewards

A man poses for a portrait in his parent's backyard garden.
After building his credit, Jake Kohler was ready to open his first rewards credit card. He used Birched Finance to help him make the right decision. It recommended signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. By making that card his primary card, he could earn $612.68 in rewards during his first year. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder
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Too many times I’ve written about my credit card fears.

And I’m not the only millennial who feels this way. Take my 22-year-old brother, Jake Kohler, for example.

I mean, it could have something to do with the way we were raised.

My dad instilled in us the “never buy something you can’t afford” Dave Ramsey-like mantra. I distinctly remember him fiddling through his wallet in a checkout line and looking for exact change. In tow, we’d get antsy: “Hurry up, Dad!”

Consequently, I didn’t open a credit card until my senior year of college, only because I’d heard people talking about that whole building-credit thing.

Then, once I proved to myself I could pay it off each month and not rack up exorbitant interest fees, I signed up for a rewards card. This has since paid for a handful of flights and trips I’d otherwise not be able to afford.

My brother on the other hand? He graduated college this past May — sans credit card.

After securing a full-time job as an associate engineer, he decided to get his finances organized. Because he now has a steady income, he wants to open a rewards card.

The only snafu: His credit history is nonexistent. After getting denied from several credit cards, he had to start from scratch with the most basic, rewardless option from Capital One.

Since July, he’s watched his credit build. Now, he’s ready to hunt down the perfect rewards card.

Why is Researching Rewards Cards So Dang Difficult?

My brother is the Kohler child who researches the crap out of anything and everything. (I, on the other hand, make more impulsive decisions.)

Thus, he’s poured hours into exploring rewards credit cards. However, the process proved difficult.

“There are too many options,” he says. “And when you think you’ve found the right one, the next thing you see are negative reviews. Or you find the next ‘best’ option.”

There’s also the whole combing-through-the-fine-print part, not to mention hunting down fees, reward contingencies, so on and so forth. Also, how do points translate to dollars? That’s kind of like comparing apples and oranges.

Another issue: With such a young credit report, Jake didn’t know exactly which cards he’d qualify for, and he didn’t want to provoke multiple hard inquiries.

An Easy Way to Find the Best Rewards Credit Card For You

A brother and sister pose for a portrait in their parents' backyard garden in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Carson and Jake Kohler have their portrait taken in St. Petersburg, Fla., Nov. 10, 2017. Carson Kohler gave her brother, Jake Kohler, advice when he was ready to open a rewards credit card. She recommended signing up for Birch Finance, which recommended he use the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. This could earn him $612.68 in rewards during his first year using the card. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Don’t worry. Big Sis (me!) came to the rescue.

Birch Finance is a website that offers customized rewards-card suggestions.

Birch notes that the average shopper misses out on more than $200 in credit-card rewards each year. Its goal is to help by partnering with more than 100 rewards credit cards and delivering hand-picked options based on your spending habits.

I suggested Jake give it a try over dinner one night. While eating, he signed up. It took about five minutes. (The most time-consuming part was remembering his usernames and passwords.)

Here’s how it worked:

  1. Jake created an account and selected his bank accounts: Suntrust and Capital One. He linked these two by simply sharing his login information — no account numbers or anything like that.(Also note: Jake’s paranoid about security, so he combed through notes on security before moving forward.)
  1. He then optimized his rewards recommendations by selecting his interests from a variety of categories including flights, hotels, cash back, car rentals, shopping and gift cards. Jake was most interested in cash back and shopping.He skipped the preferred airport option and selected his credit-score range. He also had the option of selecting cards without annual fees and ones that didn’t come with foreign-transaction fees.
  1. Birch analyzed his spending habits and selected three rewards cards that best suited him.

Here’s What Birch Finance Recommended

As soon as Birch does its thing, it delivers a grade.

Jake, the straight-A child, received his first F in his life. Birch announced: “You used the right card on 18% of your purchases.”

Total missed rewards in the three months? $80.23.

If Jake’s willing to pay an annual fee, which he is, if the rewards are right, Birch recommends he sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. (Which is actually the one I use.)

Birch lets him know that, by making this his primary card, he could earn $612.68 in rewards during his first year. This is based on his spending patterns since July 22 of this year. I asked him how this made him feel, and he responded, “All warm inside.”

But in seriousness, he said he felt like he was missing out on a free $600 check.

He scrolled down to find the no-longer fine print.

With this card, he could snag double the points on food and drink, flights, parking and ride-sharing services. He’d earn single points on all other eligible purchases.

Birch also made note of the sign-up bonus, annual fee, APR, foreign-transaction fees and other benefits, like fraud protection, extended warranties and rental-car insurance.

“This just helps me organize all these cards and see my options in one place,” he says. “It takes away all the flashy advertising and straight up compares my options.”

Birch also lets you know the credit needed to be approved, as well as your approval odds. In order to snag that Chase card, Jake’s odds were deemed fair. So he plans to hold out a few more months before applying, in hopes of increasing his odds.

“When you see (the recommendation) is based on where you spend money, it’s kind of a no-brainer, unless you think you’ll seriously change your spending habits in the next year, which is highly unlikely,” he says.

Jake, my brother who’s forever skeptical — especially when his sister recommends something — finally has concrete plans to sign up for a rewards credit card.

I mean, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I totally am.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s the eldest Kohler child; although at 5’8”, she’s the shortest in her family.