Is an Annual Credit Card Fee Worth It?

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If you're in the market for a credit card, you may have a number of offers to consider, some of which come with annual fees and some of which don't. At first glance, the idea of paying an annual credit card fee might seem silly. Yet credit card companies that impose fees also tend to offer enough benefits to more than compensate you. For example, earning rewards points might be easier with an annual fee card, and you might also enjoy some valuable perks, from car rental discounts to airport lounge access.

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So how much of an annual fee might you pay? According to 2015 data from NerdWallet, the average annual fee is $58, and that's based on a survey of over 2,200 cards. That said, credit card fees can climb as high as several hundred dollars, so you'll need to consider whether it's worthwhile to pay that much.

Why you might consider paying an annual fee

I know what you're thinking: Why should I pay for the privilege of having a credit card when I can get one for free? And that certainly makes sense. But before you dismiss the idea of paying an annual fee, consider the benefits of doing so.

For one thing, credit cards with no annual fee often come with stingier rewards programs than those that do charge fees. For example, a no-fee card might offer 1% cash back on purchases across the board, whereas a card that charges a fee might offer 1.5% or 2% cash back. Or the card with no fee might cap your cash back for the year to a certain amount -- say, $300 -- whereas your annual fee card might offer unlimited cash-back potential.

Additionally, credit cards with no annual fee frequently offer lower sign-up bonuses than those that charge fees. For example, you might find that a no-fee card gives you a $100 bonus for charging $1,000 within your first three months of opening that card. But an annual fee card might offer a $300 bonus for doing the same.

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Another point to consider is the added amenities that come with annual fee cards. If you have a travel card that charges a fee, for example, it might give you perks such as free checked luggage on flights. It might also offer purchase travel insurance that goes above and beyond what a typical no-fee card gives you.

Is an annual fee card right for you?

To determine whether it pays to fork over an annual fee for a credit card, you'll need to first consider your likelihood of using its benefits. If you have a card that offers a generous amount of cash back on gasoline, but you drive infrequently, then it probably doesn't make sense to get it. On the other hand, if your card offers a generous points program on hotel stays, and you're a frequent traveler, you're more likely to collect the rewards you're paying for.

Once you determine whether you'll actually benefit from the annual fee card you're looking at, your next move should be to run a breakeven analysis and see whether that fee makes sense financially.

Here's an example.

Say you're looking at two cards. One has no fees and offers 1% cash back on all purchases. The second card charges a $120 annual fee but offers 3% back on groceries. If you typically spend at least $6,000 a year on groceries, that additional cash back will cover your $120 fee. Therefore if you tend to spend less than that at supermarkets, the card won't make sense. But if your grocery bills typically top the $6,000 mark, then you'll come out ahead by paying a fee and getting more cash back.

At the end of the day, the decision to open a credit card with an annual fee boils down to the benefits you'll ultimately reap. If that fee will more than pay for itself, go for it. If not, there are plenty of excellent credit cards out there that don't charge annual fees, so if the idea of paying one doesn't sit well with you, there's no reason to do so.

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