The question of cash vs credit is very easy to answer when it comes to most items. I cannot tell you how many times I have been behind someone in line at a store like Best Buy and watched someone pull $2,000 out of their pocket to pay for a television. I just stand there thinking about the points they let slip away as well as the extra protection offered by credit cards (with warranty and price protection). I understand that, for some people, it is better for them to use cash and lose out on points than to use a credit card that they cannot control themselves with – and that is not what I am talking about with this.
The Question of Cash vs Credit
But, there is one category where the question of cash vs credit is becoming more prevalent. That category is gas stations. When I got back to the US, I could not believe how many gas stations had begun to adopt the price gap between paying with cash or credit. That was non-existent in my part of NY in 2013 but now many of the gas stations are using this price structure. I know that many large travel stations already do this, but I had not seen so many smaller stations grabbing on until now.
To be honest, I am surprised they have waited this long. Gas stations really do not have a high profit margin on fuel. In fact, I have heard from owners that they would rather you come into their station and buy a cup of coffee than buy several gallons of fuel. In addition to the low profit margin, they are also having to pay the processing fees on cards. To hike the price for credit card users (or drop the price for cash users) is a good way for the owners to cover themselves a little bit. That does mean I am happy with it, though! 🙂
Looking At The Numbers
I have seen several stations with the price difference ranging from 5 cents to 10 cents per gallon. The majority of the stations I saw did have a 10 cent per gallon gap. At the average gas price in my area of NY, the price is $3.83 per gallon. To pay 10 cents more per gallon to use your credit card means that you are paying 2.6% more for your points. If you are using a Chase Ink Bold/Plus or American Express Premier Rewards Gold card, you are earning 2 points per dollar. Even if you put your point valuation into the equation, you are still paying a bit for those points instead of paying with cash.
A lot of it comes down to how badly you need the points or the credit card spend. It can also matter if you have cash on you when you stop at the station! I often do not have enough cash on my person to cover a large gas purchase (I use cards for everything), so I have to default to credit card. The alternative is to drive to another station that does not use a price gap, but then I am wasting time and gas money to save a bit.
There are cards like the PenFed Platinum Visa which allows you to earn up to 5% cash back on gas purchases, in which case you may well prefer to use your card even when there is a price gap.
Some other options involve purchasing gift cards. You can buy gift cards at office supply stores for many gas stations. If you do that with a Chase Ink card, you will earn 5 points per dollar on those purchases plus you can pay the cash price! That may depend on which station you are buying gift cards for. Shell gift cards are widely available but Shell prices are higher than other stations in many areas. An alternative is Chevron which does have competitive prices in many markets. So, not only are you earning 5 points per dollar but you are also paying the cheaper price.
If your preferred gas station does not have gift cards at office supply stores, you can still purchase those gift cards at the gas stations themselves. This will still give you the cheaper gas prices plus the possibility of earning the bonus points (depending on how the gas station codes the in-store purchases).
So, what are gas prices like in your area? Do you see a lot of price gaps? What are some of your tips for gas savings and points?