Credit Card Churning: How It Works

By Janet Siroto · December 26, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Credit Card Churning: How It Works

Credit card churning describes when you open and then close a credit card to snag sign-up rewards. Given how much competition there is for your business as a card holder, there are many enticing offers out there of cash, points, miles, and more. Some people may be tempted to try to grab those freebies and bonuses, but this practice comes with pros and cons.

Read on to learn about credit card churning and whether it’s something you should ever try.

What is Credit Card Churning?

Credit card churning occurs when you open and close credit cards for the sole purpose of earning a sign-up bonus. The trick is to do it over and over again, with several credit cards. The end goal is to earn as many rewards as you can. In other words, maximizing your eligibility for points and prizes.

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Types of Sign-up Bonuses

Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch or a free reward. Being rewarded usually costs you. In order to earn the credit card rewards, you are typically required to spend a certain amount of money on that credit card, and it has to be done within the first few months (in most cases, three months).

The way you’re lured into a sign-up bonus is by earning a large amount of rewards by spending only a small amount. This usually happens only with a new credit card as a “welcome” offer. If you are careful about what and where you spend, you may be able to save money and get rewarded in the meantime. However, as you’ll learn below, this practice can also have its downsides.

Can You Win at Credit Card Churning?

If you want to try to get rewarded via credit card churning, there are some important best practices to be aware of.

Pay Off Your Balance in Full Each Billing Period

This is a good tip even if you’re not gunning for reward points. If you don’t pay off your balance at the end of the month, the rewards you earn will wind up being a net loss as interest rates take their toll. There is no bigger credit card churning buzzkill than taking months or even years to pay off the debt you accumulate racking up charges to earn a sign-up bonus.

While on this subject, remember that paying off your credit card balance in full every month will keep away the interest charges that accrue when you don’t make a full monthly payoff.

Look at it this way: When it comes to credit card churning, it’s you against the credit card companies. You want to reap their rewards but not open yourself up to suffocating debt and high-interest charges.

Credit card churning can work if the consumer hits the rewards thresholds, but practice responsible spending. If you’re someone who doesn’t manage credit card debt well or tends to overspend just to cash in on the rewards, it might be better to steer clear of credit card churning.

Make Your Credit Card Payment on Time

Don’t be even a day late. Late fees can be a budget buster, and they can damage the credit rating you’ve worked so hard to keep strong. If other credit providers see a pattern of late payments, and they may not be so fast to offer you their credit card, which means no rewards, or give you their best rates.

An excellent way to avoid late payments is to schedule automatic payments through your debit card, or checking or savings accounts. This way, you just set it and forget it!

Have a Plan for Your Rewards

Enjoying the rewards you earn may mean so much more to you when you have a short-term goal for how to use them. Perhaps the points are for airline miles or a vacation destination. Maybe you can use them toward a new wardrobe or the latest electronics. Keeping your eyes on the prize will prevent you from squandering your reward points on something forgettable or regrettable. Stay strong.

Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

Fight the temptation to get greedy. New credit cards with amazing reward offers are a dime a dozen. They’re like buses: another one will come along soon.

Think about where you may be in a few short months if you take on too many credit cards and too much debt. That won’t be worth any amount of reward points. Only use the number of cards that you can tolerate without sinking yourself.

Focus on Credit Card Fees

Credit card companies tend to be selective about what they promote to you. The reward offer may come with annual fees, transfer fees, and other charges. If your card requires an annual fee, ask yourself if acquiring it is worth the reward points.

Shop Around

Be extremely selective in choosing your rewards-based credit cards. The competition among credit card companies for your business is intensely competitive. Take your time and wait for the best offer.

Be Wary of No-Interest Credit Cards

It certainly sounds tempting to get a credit card that charges zero interest, and as long as you plan to pay off your balance in full every month, you’re already ahead.

However, this type of offer for a balance transfer credit card can bite you on the back end with extremely high-interest rates when the period expires or a “transfer charge” when transferring your high-interest credit cards.

Charges like that could equal the same amount of money you would be paying in the interest you thought you were passing by. Be sure you’re aware of the pros and cons of no-interest cards.

Read the Fine Print

Always read the fine print. That amazing offer may have some exclusions and exceptions and other unpleasant surprises. The credit card company may be looking for a certain kind of cardholder, too; after all, they’re in business to make money. You may not be the customer the credit card company is looking for; you may have too many credit cards, to begin with, or have a credit rating that may not be acceptable.

Find out which of the reward rules are subject to change, and if there are any expiration dates or winning rewards. If you are not great at reading the fine print, find somebody who is, or call the credit card customer service line and get your answers.

Protect of Your Credit Score

A credit score is an overview of your credit history and payback behavior. Making timely monthly payments and not defaulting on any of your credit cards or loans, and you’ll be on the right path. It also helps to keep your debt utilization ratio (how much your balance is versus your credit limit) low; no more than 30% at most.

Always consider your credit score before you consider credit card churning. Recognize that if you apply for new credit cards, a hard credit inquiry will be conducted. This will temporarily lower your credit score a bit.

Be Organized

When it comes to credit card churning, always stay organized and aware. Know exactly what the offer is, and what you need to do to get it. Know the deadline for spending the money that will make you eligible for the rewards.

Keep up on your progress toward your rewards goal; how much more do you have to spend and how much more time do you have before the offer expires? Again, avoid the pitfall of impulse spending just to get your reward.

When to Avoid Credit Card Churning

Think of credit card churning possibly as a privilege you have to earn rather than a right that doesn’t require prior deliberation. If you fall into any of these following categories, think twice before opening another credit card.

The biggest takeaway here is if you have credit card debt, it doesn’t make sense to continue to rack up debt in the name of credit card churning. Instead, it’s best to make a plan to get out of credit card debt ASAP.

If Your Credit is Bad

Credit card rewards are meant for customers with good-to-excellent credit, not for customers with late payments or delinquent accounts. Think of this as an opportunity to work up your credit score. Once you do, you may be eligible for some offers.

If You’re About to Take on More Debt

Are you about to sign a mortgage or are on the verge of a car or school loan? Applying for extra credit cards for the sake of their rewards will more than likely affect your credit score, as noted above. Each hard credit inquiry will lower your score temporarily. The constant nature of credit card churning can possibly stand in the way of your loan request or result in you being offered a higher interest rate than you would be with a higher score.

If you’re thinking about credit card churning, wait until after you secure that all-important loan or at least wait until your loan is approved, your payments are underway, and your monthly budget adjusts to the debt increases.

If You Don’t Use a Credit Card That Often

Not over-using a credit card shows reserve, discipline, and smarts. However, your lack of credit card usage may not make sense for a credit card churn. In some cases, credit cards will only grant you rewards if you spend a certain amount of money, which means increasing your spending (and your debt). You might feel “obligated” to use plastic more than you would otherwise.

If You’re Already Earning Rewards on Your Credit Cards

Some credit cards offer travel points and other rewards, without you having to get into a spending contest.

If you are pretty disciplined about your monthly spending and careful about avoiding too much debt, you’ll probably already steadily earn points and rewards on the credit cards you have. Call customer service and ask what you are eligible for.

If This is Your First Credit Card

Usually, getting your first credit card is a chance to prove that you are responsible with credit. You can use that first card to spend wisely and prudently and pay your balance in full each month. This can build your credit score and keep your finances on the straight and narrow.

If you get involved with credit card churning right off the bat, it could lead to trouble that you don’t need when you’re first establishing credit. Fixing credit once it is broken takes a long time and can stand in the way of the things you may want and need to buy. Wait until you’re further along in the credit game, and when you’re earning money to handle a bit more debt.

If You Tend to Overspend

Know yourself. If you’re the type who tends to overdo it when using plastic and can’t resist BOGO sales and the like, proceed with caution. Getting a large number of credit cards can leave you open to running up a tab on many of them and accruing too much debt. In other words, if you are in the habit of overspending, think twice.

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Too Much Credit Card Debt?

Credit card churning can be more harmful than it appears on the surface. It can lead to confusion, missteps, and more unmanageable debt. If you do find yourself with considerable credit card debt, you might look into a balance transfer credit card, debt counseling, or repaying the debt with a lower-interest personal loan.

Think twice before turning to high-interest credit cards. Consider a SoFi personal loan instead. SoFi offers competitive fixed rates and same-day funding. Checking your rate takes just a minute.

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