SAN ANTONIO -- Americans racked up about $48 billion in reward points last year. But you could end up frustrated and sitting on a stockpile of unredeemed points when it comes time to claim them.
All Karen Stealey wanted was a free exercise bike to add to her home gym. The working mom saved up her credit card points for years.
"I love spinning," Karen said. "It's my favorite thing to do."
All Melissa Cenker wanted was a flight to Hawaii. She even paid for grad school and business expenses with plastic to save enough miles.
"We were stockpiling and watching them, watching them add up," Melissa said.
But when Karen and Melissa tried to cash in their points, they hit a dead end.
"I tried to buy the bike for about six months," said Karen, "And every single time I went on, it was out of stock."
The bike Karen wanted was finally discontinued.
When Melissa went to book her flight to Hawaii, it was no longer available.
"That was the only date that worked for us," explained Melissa
Karen and Melissa aren't the only frustrated consumers. A recent survey shows that each year, at least $16 billion in rewards points go unredeemed. That's about $205 wasted dollars per U.S. household.
"You get so exasperated that you're just going to give up," said consumer financial expert Juliette Fairley.
There are about 2.1 billion different rewards programs out there, and the average American household is signed up for more than 18. That's tough to keep track of.
"I think people just don't understand the programs, and they just don't think about it," said Kathy Doyle Thomas of the Retail & Advertising Marketing Association.
The top reasons people don't redeem rewards is they forget or don't have enough points. Although a slew of new apps and web sites have entered the picture to help you track, swap, sell, and even buy more, experts say be careful. Some sites charge you a fee to sell or trade points and most require you to enter your credit card info including passwords. That's something not everyone is comfortable with, despite assurances from the sites that their systems are "safe and secure."
Melissa and Karen are still deciding how to use their points. Experts recommend you use them and don't lose them.
"It's your money," added Fairley. "And it's your reward, and it's up to you keep track of it."
Any time you don't cash in, you are just helping the business' bottom line.
So, how can you be sure you get your reward? Experts say before you sign up for a program, know the rules about a company's program. Pick the one that has the lowest point requirement to get a reward. Then stick to that retailer or use that one credit card to reach your goal faster.