Credit cards can be a royal pain. They often charge double-digit interest rates. They sometimes levy fees if you're even a minute late with your payment. And they have terms and conditions that can change (frequently to your disadvantage) at any time.
But a debate brewing between Congress and the banking industry brings to mind one of credit cards' virtues: rewards.
The debate centers on a bill introduced this spring, proposing that fees merchants pay to Visa and MasterCard to process credit card transactions be capped.
Not surprisingly, the banking industry opposes the proposal. It argues that those fees help pay for rewards programs and other benefits that credit cards offer. Cut the fees, issuers say, and rewards will have to be scaled back.
While the card industry and the government duke it out, however, you might as well take advantage of those rewards, as long as they last.
Too many of us forget to use the rewards that issuers use to lure us to their product. Cash back on grocery purchases, points for shopping at specific merchants, miles that gain you a free plane ticket, all forgotten.
In fact, 41 percent of consumers with a rewards card rarely or never redeem their rewards, according to a 2006 survey by Harris Interactive and GMAC Mortgage. And many people don't know about or don't use other benefits that cards offer.
"Most people know about the free car-rental insurance" that you can obtain through a credit card, said Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com and author of the coming book, How You Can Profit from Credit Cards. "But there are a lot of other benefits that are way underutilized."
To make sure you are not passing up free benefits, here is a rundown on the ways your credit card can help you save.
If you forget to collect the rewards that you accumulate, many cards offer tools that automate redemption.
With some cards, rewards are distributed to you on a set schedule. American Express Blue Cash, for example, credits cash-back earnings to your account once every 12 months. Other cards may let you decide when you receive automatic payouts or will send you e-mails reminding you of your rewards count.
Check with your issuer to see which options are available to you.
In addition to traditional rewards, your credit card also may offer discounts at select retailers.
For example, Visa cardholders can save $15 on purchases of $125 or more at Kmart.com, or $5 on purchases of $50 or more at Target.com. For more details, go to www.usa.visa.com.
Discover cardholders, meanwhile, can earn 5 percent cash back when they shop select categories of retailers, including travel, gas and movies. Categories vary based on the season (learn more at www.discovercard.com).
You also may be eligible for 5 percent to 20 percent in savings if you shop certain retailers online through Discover's Web site.
*Coverage for purchases
Let's say you buy something with your credit card and you lose the item, or it's defective or stolen. Even if the manufacturer's warranty has expired or doesn't apply, you might qualify for a replacement or compensation through your credit card.
A few years ago, Arnold bought new lawn equipment. When the goods were stolen from his shed, he called his credit card issuer. Sure enough, because he had bought the equipment within 90 days, the issuer sent him a check to cover the loss.
Just make sure you read the fine print, because many exceptions exist.
Credit cards may provide other forms of insurance. If you put a ding in your rental car, for example, your card may cover the damages.
Some credit cards even offer price protection: With a World MasterCard, for example, if an item you purchase is advertised for a lower price within 60 days, the issuer may credit you the difference.
Again, there are exceptions and limitations. Be sure to read the fine print.
Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media Services.