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Rebate cards are good only for a select few

How can you find a credit card that pays you back for gas, food or other routine purchases?

There are reference books with information on cards, including fees, rates and rebate programs. But because card terms change so fast, you might do better with an up-to-date online service. Try Click "rebate" in the site's card-searching engine.

But first, assess what you need and whether any deal really is as good as it appears.

A $20 rebate for every $2,000 charged was fairly typical. Card rewards generally are worth about 1 percent of the amount charged. That's a good deal only under certain conditions:

YOU PAY ON TIME. If you're paying a 15 percent, 18 percent or 21 percent annual interest payment on your card, you'd pay far more to use the card than you'd earn in rewards. So don't let the thirst for cash back, airline miles or other rewards lure you into charging more than you can afford to pay within the grace period each month.

Late payment fees, which come on top of the interest charges, make cards more uneconomical. And remember that cards with rebates generally have higher interest rates than cards without. After all, the card issuer has to make up the cost of the rebate somehow.

BEWARE SUPER REBATES. Some cards offer more reward points if you rack up interest charges. I saw one, for instance, that paid three points for every $1 the card user paid for financing, compared with one point for every $1 paid for ordinary charges. Again, this seductive offer is a lousy deal. The financing charges are far bigger than the rewards.

ASSESS ANNUAL FEES. Many rebate cards charge annual fees. With the rebate worth 1 percent of the charged amount, you need to make $100 in charges to receive $1 worth of reward. A typical rebate card might charge an annual fee of $70. In that case, you'd have to make $7,000 in charges each year to get enough reward points to make up for the fee.

In other words, you have to charge more than $7,000 a year to make anything on the rewards. Charge less, and you're losing money. A no-fee card without rewards is a better option.

Obviously, reward programs pay off best for big chargers, such as people who use cards for business expenses.

THE REWARD'S USEFULNESS. Be sure you'll be able to use the reward. Many people, for instance, sign up for cards that pay frequent-flier miles, only to find they can't get seats on the flights they want. Airlines set aside only a small portion of their seats for frequent-flier programs. Even if you are lucky enough to get one for the destination you want, you may have to plan your trip months in advance. The hassle may not be worth it, especially because a lot of airline tickets are inexpensive anyway.

THINK CASH. It would be disappointing to spend years racking up points toward a car purchase only to conclude that you'd rather have a car from another manufacturer. You don't have that problem with a card that rewards users with cash.

Watch the deadlines. Keep on top of the card's rules for using reward points. You might find, for instance, that there's no deadline for using points _ unless you stop using the card.

As you may have gathered, I'm not that hot on rebate cards. You can win, as long as you choose a card that fits your needs, you know the rules and pay off your balances every month before you trigger a finance charge.

If your main reason for having a credit card is to borrow money, you're better off looking for a card with a low interest rate.

Of course, if you need to borrow, a personal loan or home equity loan is probably less expensive than a credit card. A card's main function is to save you from having to carry wads of cash.

_ Jeff Brown is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.