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Exchange card offers rewards, off-base purchasing power

May. 5, 2008 - 10:52AM   |   Last Updated: May. 5, 2008 - 10:52AM  |  
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If you need another reason to do your shopping on a military installation, this might be it:

A rewards credit card debuts May 1 that gives you two points for every dollar you spend on the installations at commissaries, exchanges, gas stations and other retail outlets.

The Military Star Rewards MasterCard also can be used for purchases outside installations, unlike the military exchanges' regular Military Star card. Qualifying purchases made outside the installation will earn one point per $1 spent.

The card is a collaboration between the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which manages the military exchange credit card program, and Chase Card Services.

Unlike the regular Military Star card, it can be used at the commissary or anywhere else at any installation, regardless of service branch. And unlike virtually all other rewards credit cards, it earns double points at the commissary, the exchange and any other retail outlet on those installations.

But before you apply for this card, or any rewards card, assess your credit needs and do some research. Carrying a balance from month to month defeats the purpose of having a rewards card; the best financial benefit comes from paying off your card every month.

If you don't, then your primary consideration should be getting the lowest interest rate possible. Start your research on the best credit card to fit your needs with your own military bank or credit union. Then do some comparisons on Web sites such as http://www.bankrate.com.

"We're excited to bring this to life," said Kallie Jenkins, communications specialist for the AAFES financial and accounting division. "It's something customers have been asking for."

The regular Military Star card will remain available; officials have found in testing that service members in paygrades E-1 to E-4 generally don't qualify for the rewards card.

"We've designed this so you can start with the Military Star card, then build your credit," Jenkins said.

In recent testing at 10 locations, the card proved popular. "All the other locations are hounding AAFES" for the card, Jenkins said.

Regardless of where the customer uses the card, Chase pays a tiny percentage of each transaction to the military exchanges.

Other features of the card:

å At press time, three tiers of interest rates were available, all variable — 10.2 percent, 12.2 percent and 15.2 percent. Those with the best credit scores get the lowest rate, unlike the regular Military Star card, which offers the same rate to everyone — currently 10.2 percent.

å A variety of options are offered for rewards: cash, in the form of a mailed check; exchange gift cards; gift cards and certificates for hotels, restaurants, cruise lines and car rentals; airline tickets; and "mortgage bucks" — credits on payments for those who have mortgages through Chase.

You should evaluate rewards options based on your needs. For example, redeeming 3,500 points could get you a $25 check, but you could get a $20 military exchange gift card for 2,000 points. So, if you plan to spend the money at the exchange anyway, you get more for your points by redeeming them for an exchange gift card. Then again, you could put that check into a savings account and earn interest on it.

å No more than 60,000 points can be earned in a year, and points expire after five years.

AAFES officials note that their sister service exchanges will not market the new card until they change their cash register technology to properly read the cards. Sales associates are being trained to manually enter a code so customers get their two points per dollar.

"Customers and associates need to be vigilant until [the points process is] automated," said Jan Adrian, chief of the exchange credit program. Check your billing statements to make sure you get the right amount of points.

You can find more information at http://www.aafes.com">http://www.aafes.com, under "exchange credit central." Applications are being accepted online and in exchange stores.

Case lot sales

Chances are that your local commissary will have a case lot sale this month, offering deals that are better than usual, inside as well as outside. Many of the items are in bulk, so do an inventory of what you already have before leaving home, and make sure you've got the storage space for what you buy.

Dates vary from store to store. At http://www.commissaries.com">http://www.commissaries.com, click on "case lot sale" to find your local commissary's sale dates. Ë

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