Last updated on July 17th, 2020
Making the Most of Your Credit Card’s Bonus Categories
Experienced shoppers know that using a credit card that offers a rewards program when making purchases can add up to massive savings since each purchase can earn points and miles. Often, credit card issuers offer special bonuses that target a certain spending category. For example, with the American Express Gold Card you can earn 4x points per $1 spent in the dining category – meaning any purchase at a U.S. grocery store or at a restaurant worldwide can earn quadruple points. With proper research and planning, shrewd credit card users can maximize their rewards; however, it can be a bit confusing to figure out the exact qualifications that land a purchase in (or out of) a spending category. The answer lies with what are called merchant category codes. Let’s explore the world of MCCs and spending categories:
What is a Spending Category?
A spending category, often known as a bonus category, denotes the classification of a purchase into a grouping based on the type of purchase. Types of purchase include dining, travel, shopping, gasoline, and more; remember that these categories can be broken down even more – travel, for example, includes purchase of airfare, hotel and even car rentals, while shopping can include retail purchases, many online purchases, and the purchase of gift cards.
What is a Merchant Category Code?
A merchant category code (also known as an MCC) is a four-digit number used to classify a business by the type of goods or services it provides. An MCC is a denomination that all merchants need in order to operate, whether they provide goods or a service, if they accept credit cards in exchange for their products. This code can denote anything from “Eating Places” to “Drug Stores and Pharmacies,” “Fast Food Restaurants” to “Sporting Goods Stores.” The MCC is assigned to a business by the credit card processing networks when the business in question begins to accept credit cards as a form of payment, and is often used by card issuers to classify the types of purchases cardholders make. Why do card issuers use MCCs?
- To track purchases in order to categorize them for rewards programs.
- To help consumers track their spending; using categories like this can be a huge help when budgeting, since you can quickly identify where you spend the most.
- To aid in fraud prevention; since card issuers can use MCCs to track your spending, they can use them to flag an account when a purchase is made in a spending category that is unusual for the cardholder.
- Another interesting use for merchant category codes applies to business credit cards. MMCs can be used to prevent certain types of purchases; a business that issues corporate cards can opt to restrict employees from using their card for certain types of purchases with company money. By arranging with the card issuer to reject any purchase made in a category applicable to a certain MCC, businesses can ensure that frivolous purchases are not permitted with company cards.
Is There a Difference Between an MCC and a Spending Category?
Merchant category codes categorize the specific type of product (or service) that a retailer sells; spending categories are a broader grouping that credit card issuers use to identify and describe what types of purchases will qualify for a rewards program. A spending category can include multiple merchant category codes, while an MCC will only apply to one type of product or service and is unique. Remember, a merchant category code is used to identify a merchant’s primary line of business. One code can be used to identify a grocery store, while another code can be used for gas stations, or clothing stores. A spending category acts as a sort of umbrella category that applies to the actual purchase made by the cardholder, rather than the specific good or service provided by the merchant who accepts the payment. The spending category of “shopping,” for example, could include several types of retail purchases with unique MCCs; often, “sports equipment” and “womens’ clothing” are both accepted under the umbrella spending category of “shopping” but each of these would generate its own special merchant category code.
How Do I Find Out What the MCC for a Business Is?
The easiest way to find out what type of merchant purchases qualify for the rewards program you’ve signed up for is by calling your card issuer directly. Granted, calling customer service can be time-consuming and frustrating, but it’s likely that your best resource will be the company that processes the payments using the merchant category code. If calling your card issuer doesn’t pan out, don’t worry – there are other ways to find out the MCC for a merchant you’d like to make purchases with. Some card issuers, like Visa, publicly list their suppliers along with the MCC associated with each vendor. Visa even has a website dedicated to this; you can visit it at your convenience and search it quickly to find the information you need. If you’re looking to make a large purchase and would like to earn rewards from it but are not sure if it will fall under the correct merchant category code for your rewards program, try making a small purchase with your card first. This allows you to then use your credit card statement as a resource: each time you make a purchase at an establishment, you can then check your statement to see if the purchase did indeed generate points, miles, or other rewards based on the MCC for the merchant. If you see that your statement reflects rewards from the purchase, you can easily verify that all purchases from that particular seller will generate rewards. Worst comes to worst, you can always ask the business if they know what MCC they qualify under. While the cashier or stock boy may not know, it’s a good bet that the owner of a small business will know their merchant category code. If not, additional research may be necessary. Additionally, the IRS also publishes a list of MCC codes, which can be found here. It is not updated often, so bear in mind that it may not be comprehensive, or completely accurate.
Why Do Some Purchases Count Towards Rewards, While Others Do Not Qualify?
Merchant category codes can be tricky, so it’s important to remember two things:
- Each card network assigns its own MCCs; therefore, Visa may characterize a merchant differently than Mastercard®.
- If a merchant has more than one line of business, the MCC that is assigned to them may not reflect every type of good or service they sell.
Travel rewards are a great example of this. Anyone who has uses a rewards credit card while traveling may notice that the majority of their travel-related expenses count towards their rewards program, if travel is a spending category: Airfare, hotel, car rental, cab fare, etc – these all generate points with most rewards programs. However, airport parking – which is often essential when taking a trip – may not apply, since it is usually classified as a government service. Another solid example is gas station purchases, since gas rewards cards are designed specifically for folks who spend at the pump. Many gas stations have mini-marts and grocery stores, or fast food restaurants attached to them. Since the primary business of a gas station is to sell gas, the MCC assigned to a gas station is most often one that directly relates to gasoline purchases; this MCC means that spending money at a gas station can earn rewards in the gas spending category for most rewards program. That said, what happens if you make a grocery purchase from the mini-mart, and buy a gallon of milk when you pump gas? Alternatively, if you decide to buy a hamburger and fries while you fill your tank, does the purchase qualify as a gas purchase or does it count as a fast food purchase? The answer can vary depending on the card issuer, since they are responsible for applying an MCC to the purchase. In my personal experience, I’ve noticed that saving certain grocery purchases for when I go to the gas station (my favorite gas station has milk, eggs, and cheese in addition to low gas prices and the typical snacks you can find at your local pump) can actually earn more points for my rewards card, since every purchase made at the gas station is covered by the gas spending category – even if I purchase what is technically considered to be a grocery.
Are There Merchant Category Codes That Count Towards My Monthly Bills?
Typically, credit card issuers are very specific about what spending categories count towards earning rewards from spending. However, savvy credit card holders can use their cards to earn rewards from their spending in surprising ways. It’s actually possible to pay bills with a credit card, with some limitations. We all pay bills; mortgages, electricity, car payments, cell phone service, cable television – regular payments are a part of daily life in the modern era. Most utility providers (including a range of services from cable and Internet, to music or video streaming services, to water, heat and electricity) accept credit cards as a form of payment. If a utilities company accepts payment via credit card, it will have a merchant category code assigned to it, so it stands to reason that if your local electricity provider accepts payment from your Visa credit card, odds are you can earn rewards from using that card to pay – as long as your card stipulates points earning within a spending category that applies to that utility. Typically, the easiest way to earn rewards by using a credit card to pay bills is to focus on spending with companies like Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, and other streaming services. Some credit cards, most often business credit cards, will directly advertise that points can be earned by using the card to pay utilities bills; others are not as specific. For example, the Fifth Third Business Rewards Card advertises directly on their site that business owners can:
“Earn 2 Real Life Rewards® points for each $1 spent at restaurants, at office supply stores, and on utilities.”
On the other hand, a card like the PNC points® Visa® Business Credit Card is a powerful tool for business owners who are looking to maximize their rewards earning; you’ll earn points in a hurry no matter what you purchase, since each dollar spent using this card earns 5x points with no limitations by spending category. The Ocean Bank Business Rewards Preferred Credit Card actually advertises 1 point per $1 spent on every purchase, with the ability to earn unlimited points; if you’re a business owner and want to charge your internet and phone utilities to your card, you could easily earn points each month using this easy tip. Another option, the Randolph-Brooks Business Select Mastercard, offers 2% cash back on all purchases – and a savvy business owner who takes advantage of this offer can easily earn beaucoup bucks just for paying their monthly business bills.
Business Purchases – MCC or Spending Category?
A business purchase is a spending category that can cover a variety of merchant category codes. Which MCC applies to the business purchase spending category will depend on how the card issuer has assigned their merchant category code to the business you are making a purchase from, so make sure to do your research before attempting to earn rewards points from any purchase.
What if I’m Not a Business Owner – Can I Use My Credit Card to Earn Rewards from Utilities Too?
If you’re not a business owner, your best bet will be to use a cash back card for utilities purchases. Although cash back cards don’t earn rewards that can be redeemed directly for airline tickets or hotel stays, getting money back for spending is basically money for nothing, as the saying goes. Most often applied as a statement credit, cash back rewards can offset your spending each month and save you money consistently – and some cards do not limit rewards to spending categories. For example, the M&T Visa Signature Credit Card offers unlimited 1.5% cash back for every dollar spent on all purchases, meaning if you decide to use your credit card to pay your electricity bill, you’d find that you earn a decent chunk of change by the end of the year just for paying your bill. Although the Bethpage Mastercard® Be You Rewards Credit Card offers 3x points for every $1 spent in one category of your choice, cardholders will earn a hefty 2x points on all other spending, so with proper planning you can earn a plethora of points by paying your bills with this card. In some cases, purchasing a cell phone with your card can count towards a rewards spending category; many American Express and Mastercard® cards offer cell phone protection, when you pay your bill using your card – so not only will you earn rewards by paying your bill, your phone will then be eligible for insurance against theft and damage. Although the world of merchant category codes may seem daunting at first, a little bit of patience and research can go a long way towards maximizing your rewards earning. Game-plan your purchases, and once you determine your favorite spending categories (or at the very least, the categories you’ll spend most in), you’ll be ready to use our pro-tip for merchant category codes to “hack” your way to the top and maximize your points and miles every month.