You serve your country, so we serve you—and we’re asking: What are the best credit card advantages for folk on Active Duty?
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Earn a bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months–value of $200 in travel. Earn 1.25x miles on every purchase.
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Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
This is an absolutely must have credit card because of the great signup bonus and quick earning power for every purchase.Terms Apply
The Platinum Card from American Express
If you are a traveler who loves the airport lounges, Marriott hotels, airfare credit, and more then you need to add this card to your repertoire.Terms Apply
There’s a variety of cards with benefits out there for members of our Armed Forces. Many offer nice bonus features, but some are clearly better than others. Understanding credit cards’ reward systems and policies can make it much easier to rack up points faster as you go. It can also save you money on both vacations and day-to-day expenses. That’s why we’re out to find the very cream of the crop and help you make the most of what they have to offer.
Establishing good habits early on can mean the difference between maximizing your perks and just running up a bunch of debt, so as always, we’re starting off by asking you: Please use credit cards responsibly, okay? If you’re not good at remembering stuff (or at least taking notes and setting alarms for yourself to remember), back away—and go elsewhere rather than reading on. We don’t want to help anybody self-destruct (financially or otherwise).
We also need to warn you that frequent deployments, steady paychecks and a lack of personal financial experience can put you in the sights of potential scammers. Thankfully there are rules and regulations in place now to stop many of the tricks that they used to pull, like selling people serving in our military a high-fee-investment product—with a sales charge of 50% within the first year. Scumbags can be creative, though so there are still numerous other ways that they might try to trick you into paying for more products and services than you should.
If you’re mature enough to know for certain that you’ll discipline yourself (and watch out for con artists), we’ve got some great insights for you. Life in the U.S. military is sometimes the make-the-impossible-happen business, which is something that makes us all proud. Unfortunately beating the unbeatable can also include just keeping afloat, household-expenses-wise sometimes. We can’t give you financial advice, but we do have tips that can make you a shrewder credit card user. That, in turn, can make you a better-budgeted warrior who’s more confident on the battlefield—because your act’s together back at home.
To explain how you get the legal/financial advantages you get, we’ve got to give you an important, 1-sentence history lesson.
Are you ready?
Okay—here goes: The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) was signed into existence in 2003.
Why is this federal law important? Well, the SCRA’s passage more or less paved the way for the benefits active duty personnel can get from credit card companies today. Its predecessor, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act of 1940 (SSCRA) was created to loosen the financial burdens of our heroes fighting World War II. Building on the consideration granted to service members in 1940, it expands the law, facilitating the granting of additional benefits that apply to car loans, mortgages, evictions, civil judicial proceedings, life insurance, and more.
In a nutshell, the SCRA benefits those serving on active duty by capping credit card loan interest rates at 6%, institutes interest rate protection for up to a year after the end of your service, and forgives any interest over 6%. The closest thing to a catch is that you have to request relief under the SCRA with credit card companies in order to get the mandated 6% APR. Once you’ve done that, the advertised rates won’t apply to you.
Although it was put in place to apply to accounts opened before someone enters Active Duty—as a way of saying “thank you” for your service—many credit card companies will apply the SCRA to ones opened after you’d joined, as well. This is a nice exception to the rule, but since lenders are only legally required to apply it to pre-established loans, it’s worth researching to see if a particular lender will do it. Asking nicely generally beats presumption, any day of the week.
This almost goes without saying, but: You must be on active duty in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines or Navy to qualify. Members of the National Guard serving greater than 30 active days are the only other people who can use it.
To get the most out of your credit card account while you’re on active duty, there are a few habits you’ll want to make. The first is keeping track of your rewards points. It can be shockingly easy to forget all about these—to the point of having no conscious awareness of them when they’ve accumulated… And then find out later that they’ve expired. Assuming you’re as human as we are here, you might want to set calendar software reminders (on your phone, laptop, or some digital device), write something on a real-life paper calendar, or both to nudge yourself about it periodically.
While they can’t always be converted into cash, these babies are almost as valuable, so you really don’t want to let them evaporate before you can spend them. They can be used for hotels, airline miles, merchandise and (sometimes) even money back. Many hotel chains and airlines have loyalty programs which give you points for every flight or stay. Add in the fact that some credit card companies periodically allow you to transfer travel rewards to their hotel and airline partners, and you may start to see where we’re going.
It’s completely up to you whether you redeem those points a little bit at a time or save up for larger travel expenses like plane tickets and hotel bookings. There’s no question, though: if you take advantage of them while they’re good, you can take a lot of the sting out of those summer trip expenses. You should also keep up-to-date in regard to your credit card terms. Changes do happen—and creditors do have to notify you of them—but they’re not required to make sure you’re paying attention. If you don’t, you’re not going to know when/how those changes affect what you get back.
If you haven’t already, the next time you have a little down time to sit around in, try to learn the highlights of your credit card’s reward structure. If you have at least a basic familiarity, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck when it’s time to pay for a trip (whether you’re on the road or in the planning phase). Some cards offer amazing perks that they don’t necessarily wave over their heads and shout to you about, like 3X points for each $1 you spend, 25% off car rental discounts and more.
Again—we don’t want to be your mom (since we can guess what it was like raising you), but—please discipline yourself in how you use any credit card: Never, ever overspend just to get extra rewards! A little patience costs a lot less than interest charges and penalties from not being able to pay off your monthly balance. A history of bad credit can lead to being denied a security clearance down the road, too. Especially if you have long-term ambitions that would require one, you should avoid missing payments like the plague. If you’re not sure-as-taxes that you’ll keep afloat, don’t sign up in the first place.
When you do travel, (have fun, but) keep a wary eye out for foreign transaction fees. Going overseas can be exciting, but the adventure wouldn’t look as fun in the rearview if you found out that you’d been needlessly gouging yourself every time you paid by card. Thankfully more than a few cards don’t charge fees when you swipe outside the U.S. You just want to make sure that you don’t leave for deployment or R&R with one that you don’t know the terms and conditions of well. Check those bad boys out now; before you go to avoid any unexpected charges.
Forgive us for stating the obvious, but you had better keep an eye on your account nowadays, too. We’ll spare you the depressing stories of identity theft, credit card fraud and so on (though they’re only a search engine away if you’re feeling masochistic). The bottom line is that—especially when you travel—it’s a good idea to periodically give things a onceover. We’re not advocating paranoia; just checking once a day or so. Just like when you misplace a card, most credit unions and banks can freeze your account(s) as a precaution and give you some time to hunt for it. Often you can unfreeze it (at the touch of a button) if you find it.
Before we go, we’d like to give you some examples. In no particular order, here are some of the kinds of perks that you can get, if you’re careful and stay disciplined.
Chase waives their yearly fee on credit cards for folk serving on active duty. This includes the $450 annual fee on their premium card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve. They’ve also been waiving their $75 authorized user fees—and all other account fees except late and non-sufficient fund charges. Where the rubber meets the road, we’re talking about getting all the benefits of the card for no annual fee.
PNC Bank lowers their monthly direct deposit thresholds, sparing you the monthly service charges normally applied to their checking products: A civilian who opened one of PNC’s “Virtual Wallets” would be expected to cough up two grand in total applicable direct deposits in order to get the $15 service charge knocked off. Active duty military members, meanwhile, only need to come up with half of that amount (about $1,000 a month).
Last but certainly not least, American Express waives their annual fees on credit cards for those who serve. It’s not automatic; you do have to request it—either online or by phone—in order to receive it, but it’s worth getting. Once they’ve established that you’re who you say you are, you’ll start receiving a statement credit for their annual fees. This boils down to your being able to obtain an American Express Platinum Card (if you qualify) without paying the $550 a year everybody else does for the privilege.
This is only a sampling; not a ranking. The category changes too, so keep in mind: it’s up to you make sure that a credit card company hasn’t recently begun beating a deal(s) listed above. Even if something’s caught your eye, shop around a little online first to make absolutely sure that you’re getting the best deal that you can find before you sign anything.