Credit card churning is the somewhat controversial practice of repeatedly applying for new accounts just to earn their sign-up bonuses. For many years, some extreme award travel enthusiasts have practiced churning as a way of amassing points and miles from credit cards that they have no intention of using or keeping.
How Credit Card Churning Works
Imagine you visit a supermarket that's giving out free samples of a food that you enjoy. Most people would happily take one, and some might even ask if they could have a second taste. Very few would try to make a meal out of the offer every day, which would be frowned on by the store's management.
But credit card churners do something similar with banks that offer sign-up bonuses to new credit card applicants. Many credit cards offer valuable points, miles or cash back to new account holders. Typically, the terms require you to complete a minimum spending requirement within a certain period of time.
Many of the most common current offers promise something like 50,000 points after new cardholders use their card to spend $3,000 in purchases within three months of account opening. After that, there's no requirement that you use the card ever again, or even keep your account open. And sometimes, there are few limits preventing you from doing this over and over again.
The Drawbacks of Credit Card Churning
As you might have guessed, there are several downsides to churning credit cards. First, you will have to complete each card's minimum spending requirement, which is often several thousand dollars. If this spending causes you to make unnecessary purchases, or incur debt, then the rewards you receive probably won't be worth the additional costs you've paid. And if you have trouble managing your new accounts and make late payments, that can hurt your credit scores.
It can also hurt your credit scores when you open multiple new credit card accounts in a short period of time. When you apply for multiple new loans in a short span, the credit scoring models view this behavior as a sign of financial distress, and your credit scores can drop by a significant amount. Your credit scores can also suffer when you frequently open and close lines of credit, reducing the average age of your accounts.
Next, you risk damaging your relationship with major credit card issuers that don't approve of this behavior, just like the manager of a grocery store who doesn't like it when you make a meal out of its free samples without buying anything else.
For example, American Express recently added language to its credit card applications that include the right to freeze its welcome bonuses and close your account if it determines you are abusing or misusing their offers. In response to credit card churners, other major card issuers now have written or undisclosed restrictions on the number of times you can qualify for a sign-up bonus. Some have even closed the accounts and banned customers who are frequent credit card churners.
Finally, you have to consider the ethics of continuously applying for offers, when you have no other interest in it. By canceling a card shortly after receiving the sign-up bonus, some would argue that you're taking advantage of a loophole while violating the spirit of the offer.
A Better Alternative to Credit Card Churning
Credit card sign-up bonuses can be extremely valuable, and thankfully there's a middle ground between churning and forgoing these offers altogether. Responsible credit card users who avoid overspending and debt can safely sign up for just the most attractive credit card offers when they appear. Credit card issuers regularly introduce limited time offers with generous sign-up bonuses in order to acquire a surge of new customers. You may also receive higher, targeted offers in the mail, in your email inbox or online when you log in to your existing card accounts.
Some credit card issuers are rewarding loyalty more, as well. Barclays, for example, recently launched a new travel rewards card that does not offer a sign-up bonus. Instead, cardholders can earn 15,000 extra bonus points after they spend $15,000 in one year. If they spend another $10,000, they get another 10,000 bonus points.
Savvy credit card users can wait for the best of these offers and apply for the cards that have the rewards, features, and benefits that they might actually need in the long term. And after meeting the requirements for the sign-up bonus, it makes sense to continue using the card for at least one year. Once the annual fee is due for the second year, you can decide whether or not the card meets your needs going forward. If it doesn't, you can close the account to forego paying the annual fee.
Some issuers may also let you downgrade to a no-fee version of the card. See if this option is available first before closing the account. By trying the card for at least a year, you can be confident you've met both the letter and the spirit of these offers while minimizing the impact on your credit scores.
By understanding the risks of credit card churning, and considering more responsible alternatives, you can still earn valuable rewards while protecting your good credit and your relationships with the banks.