Edited by: Chris Dong
& Keri Stooksbury
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We get a lot of value from our credit cards here at Upgraded Points, so you might wonder how credit card companies can turn a profit even while piling on rewards and benefits. The truth is, credit card companies make money even when cardholders come out ahead.
Credit card companies generate billions in revenue from cardholders in the form of interest and fees: annual fees, interest charges, and late fees, to name a few. But that’s not the only way credit card issuers make money. Credit card companies also make money from merchants with transaction fees, so you still generate revenue for credit card issuers with every purchase you make, even if you use your credit card for free.
Although credit card companies make money from cardholders in one way or another, understanding how credit card issuers turn a profit can help you strategize how to keep more money in your pocket instead of the credit card company’s.
Credit card companies such as American Express, Chase, and Discover make money from both cardholders and merchants. From cardholders, credit card companies make money from interest and credit card fees. Transaction fees from merchants are another source of income for credit card companies.
Let’s look at some of the ways credit card companies make money from cardholders:
But it’s not just you the credit card company generates revenue from. Issuers earn money from merchants with transaction fees, including:
While you might not see these merchant transaction fees come out directly on your credit card statement, you’re still paying for them. Businesses usually consider credit card transaction fees a cost of doing business, so you’ll pay for these fees indirectly when you purchase goods and services. You may pay for these fees directly if the merchant imposes an upcharge fee for credit card transactions.
While credit card companies generate billions in revenue from cardholders like you, it’s possible to limit how much of your money goes to credit card company revenue. You can minimize or eliminate your credit card costs by:
Hot Tip: Want to pay less in credit card interest charges? See our guide to negotiating your credit card’s APR.
Let’s break down a couple of the main ways credit card companies make money on each transaction: fees and interest.
The first way credit card companies make money on your purchase is with merchant transaction fees, which are usually around 1% to 3% of the total purchase. On a $1,000 purchase with a 3% transaction fee, that’s $30.
While $30 might not sound like much, it certainly adds up as U.S. purchase volume is around $4.5 trillion annually. If every credit card purchase had a transaction fee of 3%, that would be $135 million in transaction fees annually.
You might use your credit card for free with a no-annual-fee card that you pay off each month, dodging major fees and interest rates. If so, the revenue generally stops at transaction fees. But what happens if you carry a balance?
Let’s say you make that same $1,000 purchase on a credit card with a 20% interest rate. If you pay just $35 per month — about a minimum payment — it will take 39 months to pay it off and you’ll pay $343 in total interest.
From that single $1,000 transaction, the credit card company may have made nearly $375 in revenue between you and the merchant. That’s not counting any annual fees, and assuming you avoided late payment, balance transfer, foreign transaction, or cash advance fees along the way.
Hot Tip: It’s always preferable to avoid carrying a credit card balance so you don’t have to pay interest charges.
Credit card companies earn billions of dollars annually. Each year, credit card companies collectively generate $120 billion just in credit card interest and fees, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Do the math, and that’s about $1,000 annually in credit card interest and fees from each American household.
Let’s look at 2022 annual revenue from some of the largest credit card companies:
The total revenue of each credit card issuer includes more products than just credit cards, as they all offer additional products such as loans and investments. But these numbers can give you an idea of the scale of revenue each of these companies is operating with.
Credit card companies profit from the interest you pay on your credit card. In 2020, credit card issuers raked in $76 billion in interest fees.
It’s not hard to see how credit card companies can generate billions just on interest charges — the average U.S. household with credit card debt revolves over $8,000. If you were to work on paying down that debt at $250 per month, it would take 46 months to pay off and you’d pay $3,290 in interest charges along the way — more than a third of the principal balance.
While credit card interest and fees are where the money really is for credit card issuers, credit card companies still earn revenue from transaction fees, annual fees, and other fees even if you pay your bill in full each month. That’s how issuers are able to make billions in revenue even on cash-back, rewards, and 0% interest credit cards.
Annual fees help generate revenue from accounts that generally don’t pay interest or other fees. While many cardholders chasing points and miles wouldn’t dream of paying interest charges or late fees, annual fees are more acceptable when cards come with premium benefits and rewards.
You might come out ahead on annual fees if you make the most of what your card offers, but not everyone does, and that translates to credit card revenue. And some subprime credit cards come with annual fees but don’t offer much or anything in the way of rewards or benefits in return.
If you prefer, you can avoid paying anything to use credit cards — and credit card issuers are completely fine with that. You can get a credit card with no annual fee, pay your bill on time and in full every month, and don’t make any cash advances, balance transfers, or foreign transactions.
If you can do that, you could use a credit card entirely free, and might even earn rewards along the way. You might think the credit card company doesn’t like customers that never pay fees or interest, but the truth is they’re still profiting from every transaction you make by charging merchant transaction fees.
Credit card companies earn billions in revenue each year by charging interest and fees to cardholders along with transaction fees charged to merchants.
As a cardholder, you can minimize the costs of using a credit card by avoiding interest charges and being strategic about which fees you pay, such as paying annual fees only when you can get excellent value from the card that outweighs the cost of the fee.
The 3 main ways credit card companies make money are on interest, cardholder fees, and transaction fees. Cardholders pay interest charges when carrying a balance, and cardholder fees include annual, late, foreign transaction, cash advance, and balance transfer fees. Merchants pay transaction fees, including interchange and assessment fees.
Credit card companies make the most money from interest income, which raked in $76 billion in revenue for credit card companies in 2020. A close second is interchange fees — also known as transaction fees — which made up $51 billion in revenue in 2020.¹
It’s completely fine for credit card companies if you pay your credit card balance in full each month. You may pay an annual fee and other fees even if you don’t pay any interest charges. Plus, the credit card issuer makes money on merchant transaction fees whether you pay interest or not. At the same time, credit card companies can always count on other cardholders to carry an interest-generating balance even if you don’t. And for credit card companies, it’s always preferable that you pay your bills rather than avoid paying them and potentially defaulting.
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