Working hard to maximize your cash heading in to the summer? While you’re scrutinizing the use of every hard-earned dollar, play it smart with plastic and save money with these 7 credit card tricks.

1. Get that bonus!

Sign-up bonuses are perhaps the fastest way to earn miles, rewards points, or whatever incentive attracted you to that particular piece of plastic. You may be surprised to learn that a large number of new cardholders never complete the steps necessary to earn their bonuses. Take the time to claim what was promised to you, including filling out registrations or surveys.

2. Think before you pay to play.

Many rewards programs require an annual fee. If you are depending on credit cards to earn airline miles or rewards other than cash back, take the time to determine how likely you are to actually use the rewards, and when. If you fly once every five years, for instance, that $100 annual fee means you’re already paying for your ticket out of pocket. Same goes for restaurants, hotels, and other points-based rewards—if you have to adapt or change your habits in order to maximize the rewards and justify the annual fee, you are less likely to actually use them. Shop around for a card with no annual fee or cash rewards instead.

3. Take the company up on that offer.

Credit card vendors often offer perks like gift cards, or short terms promotions like “5% cash back on all gas purchases in the month of October.” The trick here is that you usually have to claim them, and much like those mail-in rebates that rarely make it to the mailbox, many people don’t. Figure out how your bank advertises their offers, and monitor accordingly. A bank may, for instance, share promotions in a banner on the credit card account home screen once you log in. That’s it, no other way. So if you don’t log in regularly, you’ll miss it!

4. Maximize your statement cycle.

US banks are required to allow you 21 days to pay off your bill after the cycle closes. This means that if you make a major purchase toward the end of a given cycle, you’re also buying yourself extra time to pay off your bill. If money is tight and you need what is essentially an interest-free loan to make a purchase, timing the buy well can mean a few extra weeks to pay it off.

5. Protect your identity.  

If you use your card to shop online, a bit of security mindfulness can go a long way toward protecting yourself. Take the time to change passwords and login information on sites you shop frequently, and avoid making them all the same. Avoid writing down passwords; if you must, keep the cheat sheet securely locked away at home, not on your desk or phone. Speaking of phones, refrain from having automatic login information to financial or shopping sites stored on yours—if it’s lost, a hacker can easily crack your phone password, if you have one, and have access to your accounts in no time. If you offer credit card information over the phone, do so in a private location, away from strangers.

6. Demand a chargeback if appropriate.

 A “chargeback” is simply a refund of your money by the credit card company in the event that unauthorized charges are made on your card. Make sure your card offers this sort of protection and that you can get a hold of your company at any time to freeze your account if necessary. Do not hesitate to file a chargeback request if you have to—the merchant may not like it, but it’s your money you’re protecting.

7. Most importantly—pay off your card.  

Nothing puts a damper on a month’s worth of good deals and smart shopping like late fees or interest charges. Treat your card like cash. Only buy what you can afford, when you can afford it, and pay it off on time, every time.

Want another tip?

Here is a simple one: get a credit card. Charge cards are the easiest way to build good credit history, which is going to be very important if and when you ever apply for a home loan, business loan, or similar. You don’t have to use it a lot, but use it often and pay it off regularly. Taking this article to heart, and want a reader’s sign-up bonus, too? Alright, you’ve got it—know your credit score! Soft inquiries, which mean you are checking on your own credit score, do not adversely impact your score; too many hard inquiries, made by merchants when you open up additional cards, can.

If you’re eager to maximize your rewards, check out these 7 Myths About Credit Card Rewards.

Featured photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/6355848263/ via Photopin

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