This is the final part of A Math Nerd’s Quest to Become A Points & Miles Millionaire.
- An Accounting Exercise
- Manufactured Spending
- Status & Perks
- Why Stop at Miles and Points?
The points & miles hobby is at the cross roads of travel loyalty programs and credit card rewards. Some travel hacking purists only believe in airline and hotel currencies. As for me, this game is about saving money in whichever way possible. Maximizing the value of a purchase sometimes involves receiving rewards in different shapes and forms. Cashback and statement credits, anyone? If you don’t look at your options holistically, you may be missing out!
This final installment of the Math Nerd’s Quest is not exactly about points or miles. Unlike the previous article, it’s not even related to travel. However, it has an important place in my heart because it leverages the same concepts and tools expert travelers use to build up their million-point balances.
The low-hanging fruit in this space are Amex Offers. They are promotional deals that American Express makes available to some or all cardholders, each in the form of an $x statement credit after you spend $y at a particular merchant. These offers require advance sign-up on the Amex website or via a linked social media account.
The great majority of Amex Offers are decent discounts if and only if you have existing plans to buy from the specific merchants. $150 credit for spending $1,000 at Mont Blanc? That’s not for me. $20 credit for spending $100 at Golfdom? I don’t even know what that is!
But gems do pop up once in a while, where almost anyone can find something useful at a significant discount. Better yet, Amex Offers are often scalable, i.e. you may be able to use the deal on every card, including authorized user accounts. Here is a list of my favorite memories:
- The Smart & Final Amex Offer earlier this year was ridiculous. Up to three $25 credits were available per registered card for purchases of $50 or more at this supermarket chain. Everyone can enjoy 50% off groceries, right? Better yet, these stores carry lots of gift cards…
These worked out to be roughly 46% off cash.
- Around the same time, the Sam’s Club Amex Offer was another big deal. It was less scalable at one statement credit per card, but $20 off a $20 spend represented a better percentage discount. The Sam’s Club website sold gift cards that could be used at Walmart, and membership was not required for making online purchases.
The 2x 4TB Western Digital Red drives in my NAS were largely funded by this offer.
- Let’s also not forget about the most popular Amex Offer in history… the Small Business Saturdays. In the past few years, the promise of statement credits prompted all sorts of Amex card holders to cram into their local stores between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It was a holiday I enjoyed more than Christmas last year (never had an Amex prior to that). These activities supported the small business growth, and encouraged more Amex acceptance, so it was a win-win. Unfortunately, Amex is no longer offering such lucrative financial incentives this year.
Because what you need right after Thanksgiving is a lot more food… we are on a fat blog, after all.
Amex Offers are so valuable, that when I add them into my Cash Back Equivalent (CBE) calculations, my overall CBE jumps up from 6.8% to 7.4%!
Never underestimate how quickly the small credits add up!
ONLINE SHOPPING PAYMENTS
Credit card issuers can’t wait for us to shop more online, but they also understand how some of us have concerns about cyber security. Virtual wallet solutions like Visa Checkout, CitiWallet, and Amex Checkout were rolled out, and some promotions followed. Try x and get $y in statement credit or instant rebate! Well, as they say, competition favors the consumers.
One example of this was CitiWallet’s partnership with NewEgg, that allowed you to save $20 off $50 on anything you cared to buy on that website. Another was the Amex Checkout promotion that promised $10 in statement credits the first time you use each card at any vendor that accepted it. Since I have *ahem* a few Amex cards, this scaled quite well. Sabon NYC was one of the merchants that I had never previously heard of, but became my entire family’s favorite store overnight:
Overpriced soap is affordable when somebody else pays for it.
On a similar note, Amazon began to partner with several “shop with points” programs this past summer, where you can use your credit card’s reward points (Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, Thankyou Points, etc) directly to pay for stuff. The conversion rate is poor, so I generally would not recommend it. However, the partnership threw in one promotion after another, offering instant rebates to anyone paying with points for the first time. Those willing to spare at least one point were eligible to save $10-15 off whatever they wanted to buy from Amazon. It was a sweet deal available to people with specific reward credit cards, so it was an example where having a big portfolio of cards proved to be advantageous.
Along the same lines of virtual wallets, the mobile payment technology is relatively new and hungry for attention. Apple Pay has been getting all the buzz, and I love its current promotion with Discover (note: may or may not allow gift cards, which will determine how incredible this deal is). However, I had an even better time with the promotions that SoftCard (originally named ISIS, before the rise of the terror group; subsequently purchased and shut down by Google) ran last year. Each of them were of modest value, but how the company endlessly deployed incentives to promote its product was quite exciting for the users. A few that came to mind:
- $1 statement credit for a purchase of $1 or more using a linked Amex Serve account, up to 50 times per month… I didn’t spend a lot of energy on this other than grabbing a Snapple every now and then, but it could have easily turned into six months of free McD dollar-menu lunches!
- A free Jamba Juice drink each day during a few weeks in the summer. I loaded up on a lot of fiber and vitamins.
- Use a credit card via the app five times to receive a $10 Amazon gift card, up to 5 credit cards and 3 incentives each. There was no minimum spending requirement, so I walked around looking for the cheapest items at Walgreens:
I viewed this as buying Amazon money at 50% off, while getting gums for free.
You are probably thinking that this post might as well be titled “A Journal of Looting Free Stuff.”
The thing is, this journey has taught me ways to maximize credit cards and other financial products, and I now constantly think about how to get more value out of every transaction. While my primary focus is still to travel on the cheap, sometimes getting cash simply makes more sense than relentlessly adding to the pile of travel currencies. The answer is not always straightforward – for example, it can be a very close call between 5x Chase UR points and 10% Discover cash back, for my Q4 Amazon purchases. However, the key is to know all my options so I never miss out on a great deal.
Thanks for following my Math Nerd’s Quest series! I will write about something else next time!