This post is from GRS staff writer April Dykman.

A couple of weeks ago, J.D. highlighted research that showed that rewards cards cost the poor (in higher prices overall) and benefit the rich (who are more likely to use the cards). But what if retailers offered you a discount if you paid in cash?

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It might not be so far-fetched. In Will Financial Reform Kill the Rewards Card?, Brett Arends writes that a provision in the financial reform act allows for such a discount.

If competition works its magic, that discount should end up worth as much, or more, as the points you get from a card. We may end up saying goodbye to the rewards card, and go back to old-fashioned money.

The new cash is, er, cash…According to both the Public Interest Research Group and the National Retail Federation, when you pay for a purchase by credit card, it costs the retailer about 2% in transaction fees. So, logically, that’s about how much they can afford to discount if you pay cash instead.

Arends points out that the value of your rewards can be difficult to determine, especially with points for purchasing items or airline miles.

…experts explained that the average card user is doing really well if they get back about 1½ cents on the dollar. That’s why cash-back cards paying 2% seemed like the best deal for most people.

But why wait to get 2% back if you can never part with it in the first place?

Getting More for Your Money
Paying with cash could yield even bigger discounts, since the new law allows retailers to offer other benefits, like vouchers and gifts, in lieu of cash back.

Stores, naturally, sell products at a profit. So they may be able to offer you $2.50 worth of goods, say, as a bonus for settling your $100 bill in cash. You effectively get rewards worth 2.5%. But it may only cost them 1.8%. (At a high-margin retailer like Tiffany, the deal could be even better. Tiffany’s gross markup was about 75% last year. So the company could give you, in theory, gift vouchers worth $35 in return for settling a $1,000 bill in cash.)

Coming Soon to a Store Near You?
It’ll probably take time before cash discounts are offered by retailers and restaurants, but there’s interest. Before, it was difficult to implement such an offer since the law was unclear and credit card companies employed lawyers to make it harder.

But does this mean rewards might be a thing of the past if the rewards lose their allure?

Store Discounts Could Cost You
Arends is decisively anti-credit card, and that’s not a viewpoint I share for those who use them responsibly. Personally, I haven’t paid interest on a credit card purchase in years, nor have I paid late fees. I have, however, racked up some serious rewards.

For me, it’s worthwhile. But I had to ask myself, given the opportunity to get an instant discount, would I take it? Maybe. But only if I actually got cash back. With vouchers and discounts, it’s easy to feel like you’re getting a good deal, when really you’re just spending more money. In Learning to Discount All Those Juicy Discount Offers, Karen Blumenthal reports that stores that offer discounts through loyalty programs count on people not redeeming their rewards:

…we are likely to spend more to qualify for a coupon or earn cash back—and then forget to spend it. All loyalty programs count on a certain percentage of consumers not redeeming,’ Prof. Nunes notes. In addition, he says, ‘once you get closer and closer to a reward, you want it more and more’ and may spend more to get it.

Second, vouchers are a bigger win for the merchant, or else the programs wouldn’t exist. Take the example of Tiffany’s that Arends gives to show how higher markups can mean bigger rewards. How many things can you buy in Tiffany’s with a $35 voucher? Not much. The cheapest thing I could find on their website was a sterling silver ring for $100. You’re still shelling out $65 to use your voucher. If you were going to buy the item anyway, it might be a good deal. If the discount found you looking for something else to purchase, you aren’t coming out ahead.

So readers, what do you think? If you use a rewards card, would you trade in the rewards for an instant discount? Would you trade them in for vouchers or gifts?

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