Our love affair with loyalty cards costs us a fortune

Loyalty cards
Loyalty cards

Our love affair with loyalty cards has weathered the financial crisis, and emerged stronger than ever. Over 30 million people in the UK have signed up to more than three different schemes, and when we're asked why we choose one chain over another, loyalty cards were the third most popular answer. However, given our love for the cards, we're getting alarmingly little out of them.

See also: The £4.5 billion we're literally throwing away

See also: Are supermarket loyalty cards worth the bother?

A study by Ubamarket found that we have £6 billion in unused points sitting in our accounts, and 25% of us have no idea how many points we have accumulated. To make matters worse, despite the fact that 46% of us say we choose stores based partly on the loyalty scheme, 12.8 million people say that when they go shopping, they regularly forget to take their cards with them. Meanwhile, 30% of us have lost track of exactly how many schemes we are a member of.

We blame the current system, based on little plastic cards that clutter up our wallets. The study found that we much prefer online loyalty schemes and apps, where you automatically earn points when you shop.

However, until the bricks and mortar schemes develop the same sort of approach, it's worth taking seven steps to make the most of a loyalty scheme.

1. Let your shopping drive the loyalty scheme - and not the other way around
Rather than letting the scheme dictate your shopping habits, the cheapest approach is to shop around for where the items are least expensive, and use a loyalty scheme whenever you shop at the relevant store.

So, for example, if you can get an item for £3 in Aldi and £4 in Tesco, it doesn't matter that you would also get 4 points if you shopped in Tesco - because even if you spent them incredibly wisely you'd only get 16p value from them. It means you'd be better off saving £1 in Aldi.

2. Always claim the points
If you are shopping at a store with a loyalty scheme, then you are helping to pay for it, so make sure you always claim the points. If you're one of the millions who leave the card at home by mistake - you're getting all of the expense for none of the benefit.

3. Work out clever ways to collect
Each of the schemes work differently, but it's worth visiting the site and checking all the ways you can collect points. So, for example, you can make money by connecting your Tesco Clubcard account to your eBay account, or using your Nectar card when you order from Just Eat.

4. Check for bonus offers
Nectar, for example, offers deals for limited times, and in some cases you need to go online and load the deal up before it is applied to your card. At the moment it's offering triple points on your next BP fuel purchase, ten times the usual points at Expedia and 6,000 bonus points when you buy life insurance. So check and see whether you can earn extra points without having to buy anything more.

5. Learn the best ways to spend the points
Some schemes will only let you spend points in store. Others will let you collect them and swap them for various vouchers, while others let you spend them with 'partners'. Depending on how you spend them, your points can be worth up to four times more, so consider all your options before you spend.