Credit card rewards can be a great thing if you use them properly – but if you’ve ever found yourself wondering how you still only have 357 AIR MILES

…or why you haven’t earned more cash back, you’re probably not optimizing your rewards.

So here’s a list of 10 credit card Genius rules to live by.

It’s a list of things you have to do to get the most out of any reward program you’re a part of, and sticking to it will have you on a free flight or watching a free movie in no time.

1. Pick a rewards program you actually want to use.

There are so many reward programs out there, ranging from travel points to pure cash back…

There’s really no reason any credit card user needs to be stuck earning rewards they don’t want.

If you don’t go to the movies often, a Scene Visa isn’t for you!

If you’re flexible on travel dates and flight itineraries, Aeroplan might be a great program for you!

But if you find that you’re not excited to use your rewards, and they’re piling up with no plan for how you want to redeem them?

Get yourself a new rewards program. Or a cash back card.

2. Know the terms of redeeming your rewards.

Even if you’re dealing with cash back, the terms of each rewards card might vary a little bit – or a lot.

  • When do your rewards hit your account?
  • When can you redeem them?
  • Are there any conditions you need to meet monthly, annually or during an introductory period?
  • Is there anything tricky you need to watch out for when you go to redeem them?

For example, many cash back cards only allow you to redeem once a year as a statement credit to your card. Some cards even require you to call in at a specific time to get your statement credit.

These are all questions you need to be able to answer about your rewards program before you go to redeem them for a flight or a new vacuum (Hint: redeeming rewards for merchandise is typically a terrible value).

3. Don’t let rewards expire.

As we all saw with AIR MILES and Aeroplan over the past few years, often, rewards can expire.

If you’re part of a rewards program that relies on points, you need to stay in the know about how long those points are valid for, and when they lose their value.

Maybe it’s never, but you need to be sure it’s never before you leave them in your account for ten years, only to come back and find out they’ve vanished in a puff of smoke.

The most common restriction of rewards programs is that they will all expire if you don’t keep your account active. That usually means earning or redeeming at least 1 point within a 12 month period.

Other programs have hard expiry dates where each point has a set shelf life and will expire after a set period of time no matter how active your account is. Keep an eye out for both.

4. Use your rewards on the highest-value option available.

Some programs, especially ones that reward you with points, will give you multiple different options of how to redeem your rewards, and on what.

Before you dive in and choose a reward, you need to understand that a point redeemed on a gift card may not be the same as a point redeemed on a flight.

Different types of rewards within the same program can “cost” you more points when you compare the sticker price of both items.

Make sure that you’re optimizing your rewards by using them on the highest value redemption options whenever possible.

Here at creditcardGenius we always show you the highest possible reward value that you can realistically expect to achieve without having to bend over completely backwards. We adjust that value depending on if you have a preference for cash, flexible points, or true (less flexible) travel/rewards points or miles.

5. Never carry a balance on your rewards card.

Any credit card that offers reward points or cash back isn’t also going to offer you a low interest rate on any balance that you carry.

Since that puts most interest rates at or around 20%, if not higher, carrying a balance on a rewards card even for a few months can entirely wipe out the value of your rewards.

It’s not a free flight if you paid the credit card company the equivalent amount in interest charges, after all.

6. Shop around for new cards routinely.

If there’s one thing that’s true in the rewards card world, it’s that programs and cards themselves can change any time.

From Tangerine lowering the cash back percentage on their popular cash back card, to Air Canada pulling out of Aeroplan, things change often and you need to be both informed about the changes, and ready to react.

The easiest way to do that is to make an annual habit of shopping around for credit cards based on your current spending and your current preferred rewards.

That way, you’ll always be checking to make sure you really do have the right card in your wallet – not just the card you’re used to using.

Related: Monthly Best Credit Card Offers, Signup Bonuses and Hot Deals

7. Churn if needed.

Sometimes, a card can make perfect sense, and come with an amazing rewards bonus…until the annual fee hits.

If you can hit the required spending amount in the introductory period, and if the card’s rewards fit your life and your spending, don’t be afraid to love it and leave it before your first year is up – also known as churning a card.

As long as you keep your oldest credit card around to maintain your credit history, and you always make your payments on time, the most that will happen to your credit score is a small, temporary dip when you get the new card.

How small? Most of the time, a hard pull only lowers your score about 10 points.

8. Always pay your balances on time.

Speaking of your credit score, if you’re a multiple-rewards-card user, you always need to make sure every card in your wallet gets paid on time.

Your payment history is a whopping 35% of your credit score, and since you’ve got multiple cards on the go, you need to remember multiple payments every month.

Miss a few, and your score could feel the impact for a while – so get yourself a system, and stick with it.

The simplest way to go is to set a calendar reminder to log into all your accounts twice a month, review transactions, and pay your balance in full. If you equally space those two dates apart – you’re guaranteed to never be late.

9. Carefully consider any annual fees.

If you don’t spend enough to pay for the annual fee and then some in equivalent rewards, you need to take a long, hard look at the value you’re getting out of your credit card.

For example, if you pay $100 for a card that earns you $200 worth of rewards every year, but you could earn $125 using the free version of a different card, you’re better off not paying the annual fee.

You’ll need to understand how much you spend, and keep an eye on how many rewards you earn, to evaluate this every year. Things change, and you might realize your annual fee doesn’t make sense any more.

Related: When A Travel Rewards Card Is Worth It – And When It Isn’t

10. Pay by credit card by default.

If you can pay for something with a credit card, then YES pay for that thing with a credit card to earn those points!

Instead of using debit or cash, try to route as many of your purchases and bills through your credit card as possible. That way, you’re earning points on the spending you’d be doing anyways.

To really maximize your rewards, make a point of asking every time you buy something if you can pay with your credit card – especially when it’s not obvious.

Down payment on a car? “Can I pay by credit card?”

Deposit on a venue for your wedding? “Can I pay by credit card?”

Direct bill to insurance at the dentist? “Can I pay by credit card and submit my claim manually?”

You get the idea.

Make all of your purchases, big or small, on your rewards card whenever you can.