To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, credit cards aren't bad, they're just used that way. Used right they're the best, safest and most rewarding way to spend. Used wrong they're a nightmare of debt and despair. So we hope to steer you to the right way.
Today though I want to take it a step further. Credit card firms will typically spend £75-£150 acquiring new customers (eg, on marketing, direct mail or freebies).
So my aim's to show you tricks to take their reward schemes, neutralise the danger and pocket that cash. All you've got to do is play your cards right.
1. Free £30 M&S voucher for spending a penny. We've flushed out a great deal. Accepted new M&S Bank card holders (eligibility calc / apply*) who apply via these specific links by 20 Jun and spend even just 1p on it by 31 July, get sent a £30 M&S voucher. If needed, this card is also 19mth 0% on spending deal - used right there's no cheaper way to borrow.
- Extra £5 of points. The first time you use the card (on most things) at M&S you get 500 M&S points, worth £5. So buy a Tesco banana and you're £30 up, but buy an M&S banana and it's £35. Then you can pay it off and forget it or keep using it for 1pt per £1 spend in M&S and per £5 spent elsewhere (just pay off in full each month to stay safe).
- Is the 0% deal worth it? It's decent, but beware new borrowing, ensure it's planned and budgeted for. Yet if you need it, 0% is as cheap as it gets, though longer 0%s are possible, eg, the longest is Sainsbury's card (eligibility calc / apply*) at 27mths 0%. Use our free 0% eligibility calc to see which top card you've best odds of getting.
If you do use a card for 0% on spending, ensure you never miss the min monthly repayment and clear it before the 0% ends or they jump to 18.9% representative APR. FULL help in 0% Spending Cards.
2. Got a credit card and always repay in full? Make it PAY YOU. When you use a card, the retailer has to pay the card firm a transaction fee. With a cashback card you effectively get this in your pocket. As new regulations have cut these fees recently, cashback's been cut too, yet Amex cards are mostly exempted, so still pay a good whack.
The fee-free Amex Everyday (eligibility calc / apply*) pays 5% cashback (max £100) for 3mths, then tiered up to 1.25% after. The money is paid on the anniversary of getting the card (you need to spend £3,000+ to get any cashback). Anna tweeted: "@MartinSLewis Glad I read about Amex cashback: I'll get over £200 paid".
If you're a bigger spender the Amex Plat (eligibility calc / apply*) gives 5% cashback (max £125) for the first 3mths then a flat 1.25% cashback, though has an annual £25 fee. Amex isn't accepted everywhere, so the top alternative is Asda Mastercard (apply*) at 0.5% cashback (1% in Asda).
Yet only do this if you'll set up a direct debit to repay IN FULL each month. If not they're 22.9%/28.2%/18.9% rep APR interest, which kills the cashback gain. Full options in Top Cashback Credit Cards.
3. A free £100 shopping voucher or TWO BA returns. Accepted new applicants for the Amex Gold Charge Card (eligibility calc / apply*) get 20,000 reward points if you spend £2,000 in the first 3 months. This isn't a call to spend more, it's best for those whose normal spending is c. £700+/mth.
- What are the points worth? The 20,000 bonus is enough for a £100 voucher for Amazon, M&S and more, or two BA economy returns to Paris / Amsterdam or one economy return to Rome / Athens etc. But factor in taxes and charges of at least £35 per return. You continue to earn 1pt per £1 spend on the card after too.
- Warning. After a year there's a £140 fee. The £140 annual fee is waived in year one, so diarise to cancel before then if you want to avoid it.
- It's a charge card, not a credit card. That means you MUST repay IN FULL every month, there's no option. If you don't you face a £12 penalty and a mark on your credit file. Best do it via direct debit.
4. Near perfect exchange rates in every country. This is a different way to sell a credit card: rather than a giveaway, they give you a free service instead. Here it's near-perfect exchange rates, but used right it costs you nowt. So pocket one and use it every time you're abroad.
Most plastic adds a 3%-ish exchange fee when you spend abroad, but a few specialist overseas credit cards market themselves as 'no fee', so you get the same near-perfect rate the bank gets, on the day you spend (spending on them is cheaper than ATM withdrawals). Only do this if you repay IN FULL each month, or the cards below charge 18.9% and 12.9% rep APR respectively.
Our long-term winner is Halifax Clarity (eligibility calc / apply*) as it's a Mastercard - the underlying rate tends to beat Amex & Visa - and has low ATM withdrawal costs. (Plus if you're a Halifax Reward current account holder who pays in £1,000+, you can get a free £5 any month you spend £300 on the card.)
New-ish card Creation Everyday's (apply*) ATM rates are a smidgeon cheaper but we've little feedback (let us know).
Charlene tweeted: "I'm a traveller and didn't realise how much Natwest was charging me. Just got accepted for a Halifax Clarity card. Thanks."
5. (Re)build your credit score AND get a £20 Amazon vch or 0.5% cashback. If you've a patchy credit file or limited history you'll struggle to get the cards above. However, Aqua has cards even some with past CCJs and defaults can get. And use them each month (repaid IN FULL) without busting your limit and it can (re)build your credit score.
The Aqua Advance (eligibility calc / apply*) will give you a £20 Amazon voucher after two months, as long as you use the card, pay on time and don't bust your credit limit.
Or the Aqua Reward (eligibility calc / apply*) gives 0.5% cashback on all purchases. Both have a hideous 34.9% rep APR, so again please ensure you repay in full.
If you use our eligibility calcs, we can now tell you for both of these cards if you're 'pre-approved', meaning you've a 100% chance of getting that exact deal as long as you pass ID and fraud checks. More in Credit Rebuild Cards.
Frequently-asked card freebie questions...
Q. Will getting these cards hurt my creditworthiness? A. Every application marks your credit file. One isn't a big deal but lots in a short time make it look like you're credit desperate, even if you're only blagging freebies. So we suggest using our eligibility calc(s) first, so you can see whether you're likely to be accepted and don't waste applications.
Of course if you've no use for your credit then grabbing freebies is fine. But if you're due to make an important application (eg, a mortgage or loan), prioritise that and leave these to later. More in my 36 Tips To Boost Your Credit Score guide. If you've burning credit-boosting questions, MSE Guy & Helen are doing a Facebook Q&A at 1-1.30pm on Thu.
Q. Are these the only deals around? A. No, they're just my top picks. There's also an Amex Nectar card where you can earn £100 of points for a £2,000 spend, or a Flybe flight card. Our full list's in Credit Card Freebies, plus see Loyalty Points Boosting for tricks on how to max your rewards.
Q. Can I use cashback sites to get more? A. Often some of these cards will pay extra if you're a member of cashback sites (though the cashback isn't certain); for more on that see Top Cashback Sites.
Q. I'm already in credit card debt. Should I be doing this? A. No. I suggest you prioritise ensuring the debt is cheap. See the Top Balance Transfers guide for what to do.
Q. I've been burnt by credit cards before, should I do this? A. Follow the recipe above and you should win. Yet credit cards are tempting and if you don't trust yourself to manage them right and not spend, spend, spend - don't risk it.
This article first appeared in the weekly email on 1 June 2016. Its contents were fact-checked and updated on 6 June 2016.