The 4 Best and 3 Worst Customer Loyalty Cards

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The other day I was at checkout in the grocery store. After swiping my card, I waited for my receipt. Then the cashier said — loudly — “Your card got declined!”

Horrified, I muttered, “I don’t understand why. I can swipe it again.” Then I realized, I hadn’t swiped my debit card. It was my membership card for the car wash.

This embarrassing moment occurred because I have 12 different member rewards cards. So when I got home, I decided to clean out my wallet and keep only the loyalty cards that offer the best rewards.

Here are four cards with the best rewards:

1. Walgreens

The Walgreens Balance Rewards program works on points. You get points for buying different weekly deals online or in-store, or filling a prescription. Accumulated points earn gift certificates:

  • 5,000 points = $5.
  • 10,000 points = $10.
  • 18,000 points = $20.
  • 30,000 points = $35.
  • 40,000 points = $50.

On the surface, this isn’t much different from other loyalty programs, but Balance Rewards has a few things that keep me using this card:

  • Online updates. You can log in to your account and check your point balance.
  • High earners. Many weekly items earn 1,000 or more points, so they’re easy to rack up.
  • Rewards for health. With the Steps program, you earn 20 points for every mile you walk and 20 points for every time you weigh in. So far I’ve earned an extra 2,000 points this way.

2. CVS

The ExtraBucks Rewards at CVS completely overwhelmed me when I first signed up, but now it’s one of my most-used loyalty cards. Here’s how the program works:

  • Earn 2 percent cash back (in the form of ExtraBucks Rewards) on most purchases. Alcohol, tobacco and a few other products don’t qualify.
  • Earn more ExtraBucks Rewards on specially marked purchases. You can see all the high earners in the weekly ad.
  • Redeem your ExtraBucks Rewards automatically four times a year.

If you shop at CVS frequently, those rewards rack up pretty quickly, but what really got me was their coupon kiosk. It’s typically located up front, and all you have to do is swipe your card and the kiosk prints out in-store coupons.

3. Petco

Petco’s Pals Rewards has simple rules. You earn $5 back for every $100 you spend and they send you some pretty great coupons in the mail throughout the year. But I love this card for one reason: stacking.

Petco lets you stack coupons with sales and earn cash back with your rewards card. For example, it’s cheaper to buy dog food in bulk, so I wait until my brand goes on sale, buy the biggest bag, use a coupon, and check out with my rewards card. Without much effort, I’ve saved three times.

4. Grocery stores with gas savings

Many grocery chains are regional, so my experience with them is limited. However, I can recommend that you look for a grocery store that has dual rewards. For example, many grocery stores have partnered with Shell. When you shop in the grocery store with your rewards card, you earn discounts on Shell gasoline.

My local Winn-Dixie gives a 5-cent-a-gallon discount for every $50 you spend, plus it runs weekly deals that offer another 5 or 10 cents off for purchasing a specific item. I recently got a per-gallon discount of $1.50 by using my rewards card at a participating Shell. It’s worth the effort.

You can see a full list of grocery stores that partner with Shell on Shell’s Choose a Grocer site.

Here are the three cards with the worst rewards:

1. Sephora

Sephora’s Beauty Insider program seems like a good deal at first: For every $1 you spend in-store or online, you accumulate 1 point, so I signed up. Then I got home and looked up what rewards I could get.

For 100 you can get one free deluxe sample. So if you spend $100 at Sephora, they’ll mail you a sample-sized beauty product from a select list. While it wouldn’t be hard for some people to spend $100 at Sephora, other retailers like Drugstore.com, Ulta, and Bath & Body Works give out free samples with nearly every purchase.

You’ll have to earn 500 points (and spend $500) to earn a free full-sized product. And in case that wasn’t already a bad enough deal, you have to choose from Sephora’s limited-edition selection, meaning you might not get something you want.

2. Chico’s

Chico’s two-tiered reward system requires spending a hefty amount of money before you earn any actual rewards.

Your first membership is the Preliminary Passport, which gets you the ability to view new collections via email. Discounts don’t come until you spend $500, and then their site specifies you may receive 5 percent off purchases, private sales, double-discount days and invitations to parties. So basically, after you’ve spent $500, if you wanted to spend another $500, you might save $25.

3. Papa John’s Pizza

Sign up for Papa Rewards and you can get a free pizza. And why wouldn’t you love free pizza? How about if it costs more than $100?

According to Papa John’s website, you earn 1 point for every $5 you spend at papajohns.com. Earn 25 points and you’ll get a free large pizza with up to three toppings.

This is a horrible deal. First, while delivery charges and tax are included in your earnings, tips aren’t. Second, only purchases you make online count. Order over the phone or in-store and you’ll earn nothing. Oh, yeah, and you’ll have to spend $125 to earn one free pizza.

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