I’ve tried to optimize my rewards so that I can extract the most value out of the programs I use every day. Each card in my wallet serves a specific purpose, whether it’s to help save money on my grocery and gas spending, or to build up travel rewards to fund my next vacation.

Rewards cards and loyalty programs make it easy for you to spend money and earn points – but what the brochure says you can earn and what you actually redeem can be miles apart. Let’s look at three examples:

The Shoppers Optimum Program is one of the top loyalty programs in Canada but its tiered redemption structure can make it difficult to maximize the value.

Since Shoppers Optimum points are redeemed on a sliding scale, the more points you accumulate, the greater the value.

  • 8,000 points = $10 off next purchase (1.25% rebate)
  • 22,000 points = $30 off next purchase (1.36% rebate)
  • 38,000 points = $60 off next purchase (1.58% rebate)
  • 50,000 points = $85 off next purchase (1.70% rebate)
  • 95,000 points = $170 off next purchase (1.79% rebate)

Research into consumer behaviour suggests that it’s nearly impossible to turn down an instant reward, so once a Shoppers Optimum member reaches the 8,000 point threshold, chances are good that he or she will cash in right away. That turns a potentially lucrative rewards program into just an okay rewards program.

I’ve written before about the Capital One Aspire Travel World MasterCard and its tiered redemption structure. It takes careful planning to get full value from this program, especially when redeeming for less than 60,000 points – or $600 in equivalent travel.

Miles NeededFor Travel That Costs…
15,000Up to $150
35,000$150.01 – $350
60,000$350.01 – $600
100x cost$600+

That’s because the travel you purchase must total exactly $150, or $350, or $600+ in order to get the full 2% return with the Aspire Travel Card. It’s not difficult to do – just ask the merchant to split your charges in two so that one equals the required amount – but it’s something you must always keep in mind with this program.

One of my favourite rewards cards is the Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite – the top cash back card in Canada. It pays 4% cash back on your grocery and gas purchases. But hold on – how do you know which stores qualify for the higher cash back rebate?

Scotiabank published a chart listing popular retailers according to merchant code. Note that Wal-Mart does not qualify for the 4% cash back rebate.

A closer look at my statement last month revealed something odd with my gas purchases. A nearby Esso location qualified for 4% cash back when I paid at the pump with my Visa, but when a problem at the pump forced me to pay inside at the Mac’s Convenience Store the purchase showed up with just the standard 1% back.  Sneaky!

Final thoughts

It pays to examine the details of your rewards programs to make sure that you’re getting top value when it comes to earning and redeeming points.

Related: How I cashed in on credit card rewards this year

Pay careful attention to your statement and to how certain purchases get categorized. Resist the urge to claim an instant reward – particularly if there’s a more generous offer waiting down the road.

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