Credit Cards: Should You Ever Pay An Annual Fee?

By Amy Fontinelle | July 14, 2011 AAA
Credit Cards: Should You Ever Pay An Annual Fee?

It usually doesn't make sense to pay an annual fee for a credit card. Plenty of cards don't charge one, and consumers often don't get anything in exchange for the added cost. Occasionally, however, a card offers benefits that offset or outweigh the fee. Here are four circumstances in which the expense might be worth it. (These cards offer convenience and security, but are they worth it? See Prepaid "Credit" Cards: Convenience At A Cost.)
TUTORIAL: What To Know About Credit Cards

1. The card offers a signup bonus that outweighs the annual fee.
Many credit cards offer substantial incentives to get you to open an account. Common rewards include enough frequent flyer miles to earn a free plane ticket, a generous statement credit that makes some of your purchases free or points that can be redeemed for gift cards.

Obviously, if the annual fee is $100 and the signup bonus is worth $100, there's little reason to apply. But if the annual fee is $125 and the incentive is $665 worth of airfare, you might want to take a second look. The Citi Thank You Premier Card is currently offering this opportunity. Cardholders who spend $2,000 within three months of opening the account will earn 50,000 ThankYou Points that can be redeemed through the ThankYouTravelCenter for $665 worth of airfare. After the $125 annual fee, the net benefit is $530. (Follow these steps if you've been ripped off or spot an error on your bill. Check out How To Dispute A Credit Card Charge.)

2. You can earn enough cash back on your regular purchases to far exceed the annual fee.
It's pretty easy to find a credit card that offers 1% cash back on all purchases, or that offers a higher cash back percentage in categories that change from month to month. What's not so easy to find is a credit card that offers a high percentage of cash back, month in and month out, on necessary purchases. To get a deal like this, you'll have to pay an annual fee, but depending on your household's spending habits, you could come out far ahead.

The American Express Blue Cash Preferred card offers 6% cash back at supermarkets and 3% back at gas stations, as well as 3% back at department stores and 1% back on everything else in exchange for a $75 annual fee. If your family spends $500 a month on groceries (or $6,000 a year), 6% cash back would give you $360 a year, for a net benefit of $285. If you spend a lot on gas, the card becomes an even better deal.

3. The card offers ongoing travel perks that are worth more than the annual fee.
If your travel patterns align with the incentives offered by a particular credit card, your rewards can be substantial. For example, if you frequently stay in Sheraton hotels for at least three nights at a time, you could be earning numerous free hotel stays with the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card. This card has an annual fee of $65, but the fee is waived the first year. The major perks are a signup bonus worth a free night's hotel stay, and a third night free every time you book two consecutive nights at a participating Sheraton hotel. The card also awards points on Starwood hotel stays that can be redeemed for future travel.

4. The only card you can get approved for has an annual fee.
If you have poor credit, are trying to rebuild your credit score and the only card you can get approved for has an annual fee, the fee could be money well spent. A better credit score can mean the difference between getting approved for a loan or not. It can also mean substantial savings on your loan because people with higher credit scores generally qualify for lower interest rates. The key is to only pay the annual fee while you're working toward a higher score. Once you've arrived, switch to a different card that doesn't carry a fee.

Words of Caution
Remember - if you don't pay your balance in full and on time every single month, the benefits you see from any credit card will be overshadowed by the late fees and interest you'll pay. Don't expect to benefit from these deals unless you're extremely responsible with credit. Also keep in mind that if you must spend more than you otherwise would have to get these deals, they aren't really deals. Before you sign up for any credit card with an annual fee, calculate whether it really offers a net benefit in your specific situation. (Find out the consequences before deciding to end your credit agreement. Refer to Should You Close Your Credit Card?)

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