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Top Credit Card Offers

With over 1,500 credit cards available to consumers, offering everything from airline miles to double cash back on NASCAR purchases, choosing a credit card can be overwhelming. Should you just pick one at random? Fill out that application that arrived in the mail?

Dan Crimmins, financial coach with Crimmins Wealth Management and author of award-winning financial blog Roots of Wealth, has a better idea.

"Review your spending habits, then get the best card for your lifestyle."

For most people, the best credit cards offer rewards like cash back and points based on spending categories: groceries, plane tickets, Amazon purchases, and so on. The key is to compare these cards' reward categories to your biggest expenses and see where they overlap.

For example, if you're shelling out at grocery stores and gas stations, it doesn't get better than the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express, which offers a massive 6% back on groceries and 3% on gas. But those who prefer dining out over cooking in and don't even own a car would be much better served by a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which earns 2x points for dining and travel (including cabs!), and offers a hefty 50,000-mile signup bonus.

We spent over four months researching 100-plus credit cards in 12 different categories. There are seven categories we think will appeal to the most people - and we homed in on the standout cards in each of those categories.

If you know what kind of card you're looking for, jump straight to our recommendations.

If you're still in research mode: read on.

Best for Cash Back

Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express With 6% back on groceries, 3% on gas, and 1% on everything else, this card is worth the $95 annual fee.

When most people think "best credit card," they think rewards: Are they getting the most rewards possible? And when it comes to the most, it's hard to beat the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express.

Here's what you get if you sign up for the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express: 6% cash back at supermarkets, for up to $6,000 in purchases per year; 3% cash back at gas stations and select department stores; and 1% cash back on everything else - plus a $250 cash back bonus after you make $1,000 in purchases in the first three months.

This card comes with a $95 annual fee. This only really matters if your spending habits don't align with the card - you eat out most of the time instead of grocery shop, for example, and take public transportation everywhere. If that's the case, one of our honorable mention cash back cards will likely be a better fit. If your spending habits do align, though, you'll pay off that annual fee with your cash back rewards, and still have more left over than pretty much any other card on the market.

Our Other Favorite Cash Back Credit Cards: Chase Freedom and the Discover it Cashback Match. Both of these no-annual-fee cards offer 5% cash back on rotating categories that change every quarter (for up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter), as well as 1% cash back on all other purchases. Chase Freedom throws in a $150 bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months of opening your account, and Discover it Cashback Match matches all of the cash back you earn in your first year as a cardmember.

Best for Travel

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard Unlimited 2% back on everything that you can use to help pay off your travel purchases.

Credit card rewards tend to fall into two big categories: cash back and travel. You could use a cash back credit card like the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express and pay off travel expenses with your cash back rewards, but the real reason to get a travel credit card instead of - or in addition to - a cash back card is because these cards provide valuable travel benefits like trip cancellation insurance, concierge services, and more.

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard is one of our favorites. Other top travel cards only give you the highest point or mile value when you spend money in specific categories, but the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard gives you 2x miles back on all purchases, no matter what category, with no purchase limit. That means every purchase you make, from your weekly grocery trip to your new pair of hiking boots, earns you 2x miles that you can redeem toward travel expenses.

You also get 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days, and 5% miles back every time you redeem your miles - as well as no foreign transaction fees, a 24/7 travel card concierge service, and travel accident and trip cancellation insurance. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard includes an $89 annual fee, which is waived during the first year of card ownership.

One mile is worth roughly one cent

Your miles/cash back rewards are redeemable as statement credits to pay off the cost of your travel. If you bought a $1,600 round-trip overseas plane ticket, for example, you'd earn 3,200 miles and be able to deduct $32 off that purchase on your credit card statement - plus you'd get a 5% bonus for redeeming your rewards, which would give you 160 more miles, or $1.60. If you put $5,000 on your Barclaycard in the months leading up to your trip, you'd earn 10,000 miles and have $100 to deduct off your plane ticket, plus you'd get the 5% bonus, which would get you another 500 miles.

Our Other Favorite Travel Credit Cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve. Whereas the Barclaycard is designed to reward everyday spending with travel perks, these cards are for anyone who is already spending significant money on travel:

These cards' real value comes in redeeming your points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. Although Chase Ultimate Rewards lets you shop for all sorts of things - like items from Macy's, Sears, and other major retailers - your points increase if you redeem them via the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, through which you can purchase flights, book hotels, and more. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, points are worth 25% more if you redeem them for eligible travel purchases made through Chase Ultimate Rewards; with Chase Sapphire Reserve, your point value jumps by 50%. Each point is worth roughly one cent, so the Chase Sapphire Reserve 50,000 bonus points could be worth $750 when redeemed for travel purchases made through Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Both Chase cards also let you transfer your points at a 1:1 value to other leading frequent travel programs, such as United MileagePlus or Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card's additional travel perks are comparable to the Barclaycard's, but the Chase Sapphire Reserve adds on significantly more perks: complimentary Priority Pass Select membership, which gets you into 900-plus airport lounges worldwide; special car rental privileges from National Car Rental, Avis, and Silvercar when you book with your card; and special benefits during your stay with The Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection. That's why so many people are willing to pay the $450 annual fee to get the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Learn more in our review of the best travel credit cards.

Best First Credit Card

Discover it Cashback Match 5% back on rotating categories, plus Discover matches your cash back at the end of the first year.

If you've never had a credit card before, we recommend one that is going to give you serious rewards, plus double those rewards at the end of your first year. The Discover it Cashback Match's rewards aren't quite as high as our top cash back credit card, the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express, but we think this is a great starter card because:

  • There's no annual fee.
  • You can track your FICO score and learn what factors are affecting your credit score.
  • You get to practice keeping track of your rewards categories.
  • Discover will match all the cash back you earn in your first year.

To get those rewards, the Discover it Cashback Match offers 5% cash back on categories that rotate every quarter for up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter, as well as 1% cash back on all other purchases.

In October to December 2016, for example, Discover let you earn 5% cash back on purchases at Amazon.com, department stores, and Sam's Club. In January to March 2017, you could earn 5% cash back on gas stations, ground transportation, and wholesale clubs. Check out its Cashback Calendar to see what's coming next.

You also have to activate your 5% cash back categories before you can start earning those rewards. Watch your email for an activation announcement, or log in to your account at Discover.com.

Here's how much you could earn if you max out your rewards in each category:

We suggest you spend your first year with the Discover it Cashback Match and then reviewing your spending habits. Did you get the most out of the rotating categories, or would it make sense to upgrade to the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express with its consistent 6% back on groceries? Maybe you realize that your biggest expenses come from travel, and you'll be better off with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

Our Other Favorite First Credit Card: Chase Freedom. There are still a few merchants who don't take Discover, so we also want to highlight the Chase Freedom card. It's almost identical to the Discover it Cashback Match: There's no annual fee; you get 5% off rotating categories for up to $1,500 in purchases every quarter; and you get 1% cash back on all other purchases. Recent 5% categories include department stores, wholesale clubs like Costco or Sam's Club, drug stores, and restaurants; check out the Chase Freedom cash back calendar to learn more.

With Chase Freedom, you don't get your cash back matched at the end of the year, but you do get a $150 cash back bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months of account opening. This is another reason why Chase Freedom is a great starter card; even if you forget to activate your 5% cash back categories, you'll probably still put $500 on the card in the first three months and earn that $150 cash back bonus without even trying. Learn more about which is right for you in our review of the best first credit cards.

Best for Balance Transfers

Chase Slate One of the only cards that offers both a 0% intro APR for 15 months, plus fee-free balance transfers in the first 60 days.

If you're carrying credit card debt, it's time to transfer that balance to a card that'll let you pay it off without paying interest. With Chase Slate, you get fee-free balance transfers for the first 60 days of account opening, plus a 15-month 0% intro APR. That's special: Pretty much all other cards charge a 3% or 5% balance transfer fee, which means that you'll pay $30 to $50 in fees for every $1,000 you transfer. (After the 60-day intro period, Chase Slate charges a 5% balance transfer fee.)

With a 15-month 0% intro APR on both purchases and balance transfers, you can knock out a significant chunk of your debt without paying any interest - and you won't pay an annual fee to use this card either. Plus, you'll get monthly access to your FICO score as well as tools to help you understand, as Chase Slate puts it, "the five main attributes that drive your credit health."

Our Other Favorite Balance Transfer Credit Cards: Citi Diamond Preferred Card and Discover it - 21 Month Balance Transfer Offer. If you need more than a year to pay off your balance, the Citi Diamond Preferred Credit Card gives you a 21-month 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers, and the Discover it - 21 Month Balance Transfer Offer gives you an 21-month 0% intro APR on balance transfers, a 6-month 0% intro APR on purchases, and all of the cash back rewards offered by the Discover it Cashback Match.

Both cards also come with 3% balance transfer fees, which means you'll pay $30 in fees for every $1,000 you transfer. So, before you choose these cards, consider whether the interest you'd owe if you didn't pay off your debt within the 0% intro APR period of the Chase Slate is more than the 3% fee.

There's one more good reason to consider these cards: If your outstanding credit card balance is on a Chase card, you won't be able to transfer it to the Chase Slate - but you can transfer it to Citi or Discover. Learn more in our review of the best balance transfer cards.

Best for Bad Credit

Discover it Secured Credit Card - No Annual Fee* One of the only secured card that still offers cash back rewards.

If you're looking to improve a bad credit score, you want a secured credit card - there's a good chance that's the only kind of credit card you'll qualify for. These cards are "secured" because you put down a security deposit, and in return you get a credit card with a small line of credit. Use that line of credit to prove that you can use credit responsibly (always make on-time payments; don't max out your card; try to pay your balance off in full every month) and watch your credit score rise.

A lot of secured cards are packed with fees. The Discover it Secured Credit Card - No Annual Fee* is not, and that's why it's one of our favorites. With this card, you won't pay any fees aside from your initial security deposit, and you'll even earn cash back rewards: 2% cash back on restaurants and gas station purchases for up to $1,000 in combined purchases every quarter, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. Plus, Discover will match your cash back at the end of your first year as a cardmember.

Here's how much you could earn if you maxed out your rewards:

Your line of credit is equal to your security deposit, and you become eligible to get your deposit returned after proof of responsible credit use. Discover lets you track your FICO score for free, so use that tool to keep an eye on your credit score as you work your way out of bad credit.

Our Other Favorite Credit Card for Bad Credit: Capital One Secured MasterCard. Capital One's secured card doesn't get you cash back, but it does give you the opportunity to earn a credit limit that's higher than your initial security deposit. When you open your account, you get an initial credit line of $200 - but your security deposit can be as low as $49, depending on your creditworthiness. After five months of on-time payments, Capital One will increase your credit line without requiring an additional security deposit. Plus, you get access to Capital One's CreditWise app, which is designed to help you understand and improve your credit score. Learn more in our review of the best credit cards for bad credit.

Best for Fair Credit

Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card Unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, with a reasonable $39 annual fee.

If you have fair credit, you are this close to having good credit. The problem? You need credit to build credit, and many credit cards only accept applicants with good or excellent credit.

However, that doesn't mean you don't have options - including ones with rewards. One of our favorite fair credit credit cards is the Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card. This card gets you unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, and it carries a pretty reasonable $39 annual fee, as well as a 0% intro APR for nine months.

We know that doesn't sound like a lot, especially compared to the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express or the Discover it Cashback Match. However, the real purpose of the Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card is to help you improve your credit so you become eligible for one of those high-rewards cards. Use Capital One's free CreditWise app, which gives you unlimited access to your TransUnion VantageScore 3.0 credit score and helps you plan strategies to improve your rating. See how quickly you can take it from fair to good. Learn more in our review of the best credit cards for fair credit.

Best for Students

Discover it for Students No annual fee, 5% back on rotating categories, and Discover matches your cash back at the end of the first year.

The Discover it for Students offers identical benefits to the Discover it Cashback Match and makes an excellent starter credit card. Plus, Discover gives an extra $20 every time you complete the school year with a 3.0 GPA or above, for up to five years.

Here's how much you could earn if you max out the rewards categories: 5% cashback on rotating categories, 1% cashback on all other urchases, $20 for every year you get a 3.0 or above.

Before you sign up for this card, take a look at Discover's Cashback Calendar and see if you're likely to make a lot of purchases in those rotating 5% categories. (Some college students might buy from Amazon, but they might not buy from Sam's Club.) You'll also need to visit the Discover website to activate your 5% cash back categories every quarter; otherwise you'll only earn 1% back no matter what you buy. But once that step is out of the way, you should be able to earn significant rewards with a student-friendly card.

Our Other Favorite Student Credit Cards: Discover it chrome for Students and Journey Student Rewards from Capital One. If you looked at Discover's Cashback Calendar and decided you didn't like any of the 5% cash back categories, consider the Discover it chrome for Students or the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One instead. The Discover it chrome for Students gets you 2% cash back on gas stations and restaurants, for up to $1,000 in combined purchases per quarter, as well as 1% cash back on all other purchases - plus you get the $20 GPA bonus and you get your cash back doubled at the end of your first year as a card member. The Capital One Journey for Students gives you 1% cash back on all purchases, but bumps your cash back up to 1.25% every month you pay on time. Learn more in our review of the best credit cards for students.

We've read the fine print and done the analysis on some other categories of credit cards. We haven't finished updating them so they're consistent with our latest round of research, but you can see if any of the categories below are right for you.

How do you know if you'll qualify for one of these cards? Get to know your credit score and how to improve it.

If one of our top picks isn't under "best for bad credit" or "best for fair credit," assume the card requires good or excellent credit. Before you apply for any credit cards, look up your credit score and figure out where you fall. Here's how FICO breaks it down:

  • Exceptional: Above 800
  • Very Good: 740 - 799
  • Good: 670 - 739
  • Fair: 580 - 669
  • Poor: Below 580

The best way to get that credit score up is to make on-time payments, pay off your balances, and keep your credit utilization ratio low. Also, if you pay off a credit card, don't cancel it (unless the card comes with a bunch of fees you'd rather not pay). Keeping credit cards open, even if you aren't actually using them, improves your credit score because it proves that lenders have given you credit for an extended period of time.

The Bottom Line

Let's end with one more piece of advice from Saul-Sehy:

"Track your expenses first. You'll know where you spend money. Determine which credit card is best for you based on your lifestyle or spending habits."

Don't assume your spending habits will change to match the card, because they probably won't. (Getting a travel credit card won't suddenly transform you into a world traveler, for example.) Instead, look for the card that offers the best value on the purchases you already make - and, of course, make sure to use that card responsibly.