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How To Maximize Credit Card Rewards
My wife and her friend just stayed at a nice hotel in Manhattan (breakfast included). Regular price: $259 plus tax. But I booked it for free using my IHG card points. No extra fees, no taxes, just points.
You can earn big signup bonuses, cash back, free flights, free hotel rooms, free car rentals, and other rewards from credit cards. In fact, every year I net thousands of dollars in value from my credit cards, and more than half of that is cash.
If you want to get to that level you’ll probably need to start applying for a few new cards. I have 20 to 30 at any given time, and perhaps half of what I make is from signup bonuses.
But whether you want to play this game/hobby big time or just maximize the rewards on the cards you already have, there are tricks and strategies that will help. Here they are…
1. Pay Income Taxes With a Credit Card
You can pay your income taxes with a credit card using IRS-approved payment processors. For example, I just made a $1,500 quarterly estimated tax payment using a credit card, for a fee of 1.87%, or $28.05 That card earns 1% cash back, so my net cost will be $13.05 after I get the $15 credited to my account.
Why pay the fee? Because I needed to charge $3,000 on the card within 90 days to get a $200 signup bonus. Regular expenditures covered the rest, and $13.05 was a reasonable expense to finish the spending requirement and earn the $200 bonus.
That example demonstrates the first of two types of strategies found here:
- Strategies you use to earn bonuses.
- Strategies you use to earn regular rewards.
Incurring expenses to earn big bonuses makes sense, but not so much for regular rewards, like points or cash back (although in this case a 2% cash back card would have generated a net profit of $2.51 after getting $30.56 cash-back on the total charge of $1,528.05 and paying the $28.05 fee).
So with that distinction in mind, we continue…
2. Pay Utility Bills Using a Credit Card
Some utility payments can be made by credit card with no additional charge. I used to pay our water bill online that way.
Anytime there is no extra charge pay by credit card to earn those points or rewards. If there’s a “convenience fee” for paying by credit card, you still can use this as a way to meet a spending requirement for a credit card signup bonus.
3. Use a Card for Cable and Internet
Again, if it costs nothing to pay by credit card, do so. If there’s a convenience fee you still might come out ahead if you use the right card. For example, the Chase Ink card gives you 5% cash back on cable and internet services. On a $200 bill you would get $10 back, so paying a $2 or $3 fee makes sense,
That brings us to an important general strategy…
4. Use the Right Card
Your credit cards may each have different types of reward programs. Some, like that Chase Ink mentioned above, pay 5% back on cable, internet, and office supplies, while others might pay bonus cash back on restaurants or drugstores.
You should know which of your cards are best for which purchases (I label them), carry several, and use the right one each time you pay. For example, you might use the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express for groceries, to earn 3% cash back, and the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card when filling up your gas tank (it pays 3% back on gas).
5. Redeem Points the Right Way
Many credit card rewards programs offer more than one way to redeem you points, so it’s important to choose the right redemption option.
For example, I earned $208 cash back on a SunTrust credit card, and could have redeemed it as a statement credit. But by redeeming into my SunTrust checking account I earned 10% more, or $20.80 extra.
Another example is travel cards, which typically offer higher values when redeeming for travel expenses versus cash back. If you’re not sure about your plans, you might want to wait. You can always redeem for cash back if you don’t end up traveling.
Rewards programs that offer gift cards rarely charge points consistently according to face value. For example, a $25 gift card for Walmart might cost 3,500 points, while a $25 card for Home Depot is just 2,500 points. If you can use it, redeem for the latter, of course.
6. Charge Mortgage Payments
You can charge mortgage payments to a credit card using Tio. The fee will cost more than the value of any normal rewards, but this is a way meet minimum spending requirements for signup bonuses. Just be sure to pay the credit card balance in full every month, to avoid paying interest on top of the fees.
7. Charge Car Payments
Tio also lets you charge car payments to a credit card. Again, the fee makes this a strategy suitable only for meeting spending requirements for bonuses.
8. Use a Credit Card to Send Money to Other Countries
Some money services let you use credit cards to send money overseas to family or friends.
For example, Xoom charges $8.99 to send $300 to Mexico using a credit card. The lowest fee, using a bank account transfer, is $4.99, so you’ll pay $4.00 extra.
That might make sense if you use a 2% cash back card (you would get $6 back), but mostly this is just a way to rack up charges to earn a big signup bonus.
Warning: Some credit card issuers might charge a cash-advance fee for this transaction. If you’re not sure, call and have your cash advance limit set to $0 so the charge will be rejected if it’s run as a cash advance.
My wife and I were staying at a Hyatt in Miami (for free, using points, of course) and we found trash around the hot tub. We complained and as part of the apology the desk clerk added 6,000 points to my account.
If you have any bad experience with the credit card rewards or service you get, complain. You might get compensated with extra points or other rewards.
10. Charge Car Purchases
I’ve bought two used cars now using my Hyatt card. Why pay cash? Using the card gets me a enough points for a free hotel night. Of course, I pay the balance in full every month so there are no interest charges.
Not all car dealers accept credit cards, and some will only let you charge part of the purchase price (most dealers where live now limit it to $3,000). I haven’t heard of any dealers charging an extra fee for using a credit card, so why not rack up those points, miles, or cash back?
11. Stock Up
There are times when you need to get those charges on that credit card right now. For example, you might have a trip coming and have almost enough points for a free flight or hotel room.
Or perhaps, to earn a $300 bonus, you have to charge $3,000 on the card within 90 days, and you’re at day 85 with only $2,900 in charges.
Whatever the reason for needing those charges now, one solution is to move up purchases you would eventually make anyhow. For example, buy a lot of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and canned food. If you find some good sales you might also save money doing this.
12. Transfer Unused Points
Some rewards programs let you transfer points to partners.
For example, if you have some Marriott Rewards points, but not enough for a free hotel night, you can transfer them to your United MileagePlus account (and even get a 20% bonus), and then use them toward a flight. Citi ThankYou points can be transferred to a dozen partners.
If you have any points you don’t think you’ll use, check the program rules to see if there are options for transferring them.
13. Round Up Point Balances
Sometimes you have points that have been sitting there unused and which can’t be transferred. In that case it makes sense to use the card just enough to get to a minimum level where you can use the points.
For example, I burned through the 6% cash back grocery limit on my American Express Blue Cash Preferred card to earn a bonus, and was going to cancel the card to avoid the next $95 annual fee. But I still had $15.50 in cash back in my account, and I needed a minimum of $25 to redeem it.
So I charged another $950 on the card to earn $9.50 in cash back (at 1%, since I had already maxed out the 6% grocery rewards). Then I redeemed $25 and cancelled the card.
If you have a rewards balance that’s short of a redemption minimum, and it’s on a card you don’t use, charge just enough to earn and redeem the reward. Then put it away or cancel it.
14. Buy Discounted Gift Cards Online
Buying discounted gift cards online is a great way to rack up points or cash back and save money. Just be sure you get gift cards for places you normally spend money.
For example, let’s say you regularly hit Chili’s for happy hour (why go any other time?), and you need to put $100 or $200 on one of your cards. Just buy Chili’s gift cards on Raise. You’ll rack up those credit card rewards and save 15% on our meals and drinks (that’s the current discount for Chili’s gift cards).
Walmart cards are perhaps the best for this strategy. The discount is often less than 3%, but you can always use these cards, even if just to buy other gift cards at Walmart (and yes, I’ve done this too).
15. Buy Gift Cards Locally
When gift cards go on sale at local stores it’s a great opportunity to earn rewards with those credit cards. For example, I’ve bought $25 Domino’s gift cards for $20 at Dollar General.
Even better, if you have any of the various Kroger store loyalty cards and you use their fuel points program, watch the promotions page for their frequent offers of quadrupled fuel points for buying various retail gift cards, which are sometimes also on sale. You can save on gas and save on those gift cards, while you earn credit card rewards.
16. Max Out Category Bonuses
Many credit cards have bonus categories that pay a higher cash back rate, but they change and have limits. For example, the Discover card 5% categories change every quarter and are limited to $1,500 in purchases. (You do have to remember to click the button online to register.)
Suppose the quarter ends and you’ve only spent $500 on qualifying purchases. You could have earned another $50 on the $1,000 you still had left before you hit the limit. Of course you aren’t going to buy things you don’t need, so how can you max out the rewards you earn?
First, be sure to use that card for all qualifying purchases. If you pay a $50 restaurant tab with a regular card when you have “restaurants” as a 5% bonus category on another card, you just missed out on $2.50 cash back.
Second,some bonus categories work for “buying ahead.” For example, if “pharmacies” are included in that quarter’s categories, and you normally buy toiletries on sale at Walgreens, stock up to use up more of your limit.
Finally, the next strategy gets its own entry, because it’s a powerful one…
17. Buy Gift Cards to Max Out a Category Bonus
Suppose you have a Chase Freedom card and one of the 5% cash back categories for the quarter is “department stores.” You’re near the end of the quarter and you have $800 left of your qualifying purchase limit. What can you do?
Go to that big gift card rack in Sears and buy cards for all the places you normally shop.
I once bought $300 in Shell gift cards at a Lowe’s store to use up my 5% “home improvement” category limit on a Discover card. Shell gas stations were already the cheapest where I lived, and I effectively got a 10% discount (it’s 5% back normally, but at that time Discover doubled the cash back for the first year).
18. Use Amex Offers
Amex Offers are special deals available to those who have American Express credit cards. You can find them at the bottom of the page when you login to your account online, or you can connect your account to their designated Facebook and Twitter pages.
You have to click on the offers to load them to your card, and then you just use the card. For example, my offers recently included a $15 statement credit for spending $15 on Amazon.com, so I basically got $15 of free stuff.
The offers are in addition to the regular points or cash back you get (so I was actually paid 15 cents to go get my free $15 worth of free stuff).
19. Pay Your Bills Ahead of Time
This strategy is meant for when you need to put things on the card right now, whether to get a signup bonus or hit a point threshold needed to redeem a reward. It works if any of the places you regularly pay allow you to overpay.
For example, I used to pay extra on my water bill as a way to charge more on cards for which I was getting a signup bonus. My water department account just showed a credit balance and took future amounts owed from that.
20. Pay Rent
There are services online that let you pay your rent using a credit card. They just send a check or direct deposit to the landlord. RentShare.com even allows multiple partial payments if you need to split rent with roommates.
Most of these services charge a fee of at least 2.75%, making this strategy too expensive for earning normal rewards. But it’s a great way to meet signup-bonus spending requirements.
21. Pay Property Taxes
You can use a credit card to pay property taxes on OfficialPayments.com. It works for many, but not all jurisdictions.
The fee is about 2.5% on the few places I checked, but you can see what it is before you pay in any case. This is another way to quickly meet signup-bonus spending requirements.
22. Pay Homeowners Insurance
I just paid our homeowners insurance premium for the year with a credit card. Why bother with a check when I can get 2% back?
Most home insurance companies allow you to pay using a credit card, and without an extra fee.
23. Pay Car Insurance
Auto insurers also typically allow payments by credit card. If there is no fee you can charge your car insurance to earn regular rewards. If your insurance company has a credit card convenience fee this can still be a valid way to meet signup-bonus spending requirements.
24. Pay Other Bills
Every other bill that can be paid by credit card should be paid that way, unless there is an extra fee for doing so.
If there is a convenience fee you have to do the math to determine when it makes sense to pay it, but remember that a 2% fee only costs you 0.5% if you have a card that gives you 1.5% cash back, so the net cost of a $400 payment would be just $2, which would be reasonable if that payment helped you earn a big signup bonus.
25. Charge Sunday Offerings
Many churches accept offerings by credit card. You can tithe by card online or in some cases swipe your card right there in the pew.
If you’re concerned that the church will pay a processing fee, just do this when you need to meet a signup-bonus minimum spending requirement, and give 3% more than you normally would. That way the church is further ahead and you get your bonus.
26. Charge Charitable Contributions
Most charities accept credit card donations, You’ll get points or cash back, but since the charity will pay processing fees you might want to give a little extra and use this as yet another way to meet a signup-bonus spending requirement.
27. Buy Marijuana
A recent survey found that about a third of marijuana dispensaries in Colorado take credit cards. If pot is legal in your state chances are good that some vendors will take credit cards. You might need the weed for medical reasons, but why not also get a good cash back high?
28. Get Educated
Plastiq and a few other online processors let you pay college tuition with your credit cards. With fees of 2.5% or higher, this is another strategy with limited applications (like when you need to rack up charges before a deadline).
29. Pay Student Loans
According to a Reddit guide to paying student loans with credit cards loan servicers stopped allowing payments to be charged to a card this year. There are other ways to effectively pay using a credit card, but they are more complicated.
You also have to do the math to see if it makes sense. Once again this may only work for cases where you need some large charges on the card because a spending requirement deadline is coming.
30. Pay Child Support
You can make child support payments by credit card (in many states) using GovPayNet.com. There is a fee, of course, so this is another strategy with limited value.
31. Buy Amazon Gift Cards
If you regularly order stuff on Amazon.com, you can buy Amazon gift cards to rack up points or cash back, especially if Amazon is a 5% bonus category on the card you use. These gift cards never expire and you can get either the digital ones to add to your account or the physical ones (no shipping fee).
Watch for promotions that make this strategy work even for ordinary credit card rewards. For example, Amazon recently offered an extra $15 credit when you bought a $50 gift card. These promotions are often targeted to specific customers, but I’ve taken advantage of them more than once.
32. Make a Loan
You can make micro-loans on Kiva.org using a credit card. On ZeroToTravel.com Jason Moore suggests this as a way to meet minimum spending requirements, and he says the default rate on the loans is only around 1%, but you might want to be cautious when using this strategy.
33. Use Credit Card Shopping Portals
Some credit card issuers offer online shopping through their websites, and give you extra cash back or points when you shop that way.
For example, Chase says you can, “Earn 1% – 15% extra cash back with Shop through Chase.”
At the moment, Discover Deals is offering an extra 5% back for shopping at Walmart.com through their portal, and 10% back for shopping at Macy’s.
If you plan to shop at a particular store online, login to your credit card accounts that offer shopping portals to see if you might get a better deal going through them.
34. Buy Debit Cards
Sometime it makes sense to use credit cards to buy debit gift cards, and then use those where credit cards are not accepted.
For example, Aldi was the cheapest grocery store where I lived a couple years ago, but they didn’t accept credit cards at that time. So I used my credit cards to buy debit gift cards, and then I paid for my groceries with those.
You have to do the math to make this work. For example, I typically bought $200 debit gift cards at Staples using a credit card that paid me 5% cash back at office supply stores. The fee was $6.95 and I got $10.00 back, so this (barely) worked.
It was an even better deal when the debit gift cards went on sale for $10 off (a regular event, thankfully), which brings us to our next strategy…
35. Buy and Liquidate Debit Gift Cards
When debit gift cards are on sale, and especially when you can buy them at places where you get 5% cash back, you can rack up points or cash back without really spending anything.
For example, I recently bought some $200 Visa gift cards at an office supply store for $20 off. The fee was $6.95, so the net cost was $186.95 each, which put me ahead already. I also got $9.35 cash back on each (5%). I used them to buy money orders for $199.30, paying a fee of $0.70 each. I then deposited those into my bank account.
My net profit after expenses: $21.70 per card. This is explained in more detail in my post on manufactured spending.
36. Buy PayPal Cards
PayPal My Cash cards provide a way to quickly meet a credit card bonus spending requirement if you have a PayPal account. They’re sold at CVS and other retailers for a fee of $3.95 and can be loaded with up to $500, which you can then transfer to your account online.
Although a 2% cash back card would net you about $6 after the $10 you get back on a $500 load, don’t do this to make money. There are reports that PayPal could close your account if you do this to often, and there is a limit of $4,000 per month in any case.
37. Pay for Group Meals
If you’re out with friends and you get a common bill that has to be split, pay for it with a card that earns extra rewards at restaurants. Then collect your friends’ shares in cash.
38. Buy Something for a Friend
If you have a friend who pays for things in cash, tag along the next time he’s making a large purchase. Take his cash and pay for his purchase with your credit card. If the card has purchase protection he gets a nice benefit.
As an example, if he’s buying a $800 refrigerator at a department store and that’s a 5% category for your card, you’ll get $40 back.
39. Add Someone to a Card
Sometimes you get a bonus for adding a user to your credit card. For example, I just got an extra $50 for adding my wife to one of my cards.
Also, if that additional user is someone you share expenses with, you might as well have him or her using the card and racking up points for you.
40. Watch for Point Promotions
I received an extra 1,000 points on my Frontier Airlines MasterCard for adding two recurring bill payments to it (which I then quickly removed).
Credit card issuers frequently offer extra points for trying out some service or sometimes just for using the card by a certain date. Take advantage of these opportunities when they’re not too much trouble
41. Get a New Card
I’ve mentioned credit card signup bonuses many times now, and they’re the best way to really rack up the rewards. Every offer is a little different, so let’s look at an example…
At the moment (offers change constantly) the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card gives you 50,000 points if you put $4,000 on the card in the first three months. There is no fee the first year, but it’s $95 annually after that.
In this case, make your “spend deadline” for the $4,000 ten days early so charges post in time. With the bonus points and those earned from the $4,000 you spend you would have at least 54,000 points (more if you used it for bonus categories) That’s good for $540 toward travel expenses or $675 when you book through Chase.
You would do the latter, and all within a year so you can cancel the card before you owe the annual fee.
42. Get a Discover Card
Unlike any other card I know of, the Discover it® Card offers 5% cash back categories and matches all of your cash back after your first year. So you really get up to 10% back on bonus category purchases.
That means the first year you can collect $600 cash back just from those bonus category purchases ($1,500 per quarter x 4 x 10%). And in the first year the least you’ll get on any purchase is 2% cash back (the usual 1% and then it will be matched).
I’m not sure how long they’ll keep doing this with people like me milking it for all it’s worth.
43. Open a Bank Account
Some banks offer a bonus when you redeem cash back from their credit cards into an account at their bank. For example, I recently got an Ally credit card and earned a bonus as well as cash back. I got an extra 10% for redeeming it into my Ally Bank account.
It might make sense to open an account when you have such a bank credit card. Ideally you want to get all of the following:
- A bonus for opening the bank account
- A bonus for getting the credit card
- Regular rewards for using the card
- A bonus for redeeming reward cash into the bank account
44. Fund a Bank Account With a Credit Card
I make thousands of dollars from bank account bonuses, and I usually open the accounts online. When you open them online many banks let you fund them using credit cards.
This is a great way to meet a credit card spending requirement. For example I just recently used a card for a $900 opening deposit, meeting most of the $1,000 minimum spend required for the credit card bonus.
You can find a list of banks that allow this on DoctorOfCredit.com.
I’ve read that some credit card issuers will run these deposits as cash advances, but it has never happened to me.
45. Register With iDine
If you register your credit cards with iDine you earn additional rewards for eating at certain restaurants. I’m not sure that I would want to look for qualifying restaurants (there are probably better ways to choose a restaurant), but if you’re registered you might be eating at one of the qualifying restaurants without even knowing it.
46. Give a Card to the Handyman
If you have a handyman doing a lot of work for you, and you trust him, give him your credit card to use for buying parts and supplies. You get the points that way, instead of having to reimburse him with cash.
47. Pay for the Bus
If you use public transportation and the system has a way to do it, use a credit card.
For example, here in Tucson, Arizona the bus system encourages riders to get a loadable bus card. I load the card online with a credit card. I get a “$25 for $20 deal” when doing this, and I get my points, cash back, or miles.
48. Pay Medical Account Expenses
If you have a flexible spending account for medical expenses, it might allow you to either use a debit card or apply for reimbursement manually. If you have the option, put everything on your rewards credit cards and then file for reimbursement manually.
49. Give American Express Gift Cards
You’re throwing away an opportunity to earn credit card rewards if you ever give cash gifts to your children or other people. Instead, use a high-reward credit card to buy them American Express gift cards, which can be used almost everywhere.
Take advantage of the coupon codes available online to reduce or eliminate fees or shipping costs. For example, a 2% cash back card gets you $10 back on a $200 purchase, so the fee and/or shipping has to cost less than that.
50. Check Your Account for Special Offers
Credit card issuers often offer extra points to convince you to try various products or services. For example, I’ve received points for subscribing to a free online newsletter, using a card to pay a few bills, and other actions that imposed no extra cost.
To find these opportunities login to your account online and look for a link to “special offers,” or something similar. Also be sure you have the correct email address in your profile, because offers are often emailed to card holders.
51. Do Surveys
If you have certain hotel or airline cards you can earn points or miles doing surveys through eMiles. It’s available for these (and other) programs: Alaska Airlines, Hilton Hotels, Frontier Airlines, IHG Hotels, and United Airlines.
It’s a waste of time in my opinion, but maybe it’s worth it if you’re sitting for an hour in a waiting room or at an airport gate.
Some credit cards have their own survey programs you can use to earn rewards.For example, I can take surveys any time to earn Wyndham points. Another waste of time (I figure I get about $1 per hour in value doing their surveys).
52. Use a Card and Get Reimbursed
If you travel for work try to get your employer to reimburse you for expenses instead of providing you with a company credit card. That way you can use your own cards to earn rewards.
53. Move Money
With Venmo you can use your smartphone to pay friends or family using a credit card. You could, for example, use a card to give your wife $300, and then have her move it to your bank account, which is (naturally) connected to her Venmo account.
The 3% fee makes this impractical as a way to earn regular rewards, but it’s another way to complete a minimum spending requirement for a bonus.
Some card issuers have been known to run these as a cash advance. The easiest way to avoid this is to call and have your cash advance limit set at $0, so no charges can be run as a cash advance.
54. Churn Those Credit Cards
Getting a signup bonus is nice, but even better is getting it again and again. This is called credit card churning. You just collect your bonus, redeem all of your rewards, cancel the card, and then, after a certain amount of time, apply for the card again — when they’re offering a good signup bonus, of course.
This isn’t possible with all credit cards, and you have to wait two years to reapply for some. You can find a list of churnable credit cards and the rules for each on DoctorofCredit.com.
55. Ask for a Retention Offer
When you cancel a credit card you’re usually asked for a reason, and sometimes you’re offered something extra to keep the card. This is a “retention offer..” It may be extra points, elimination of the annual fee (I’ve gotten that many times), or some other reward.
If you’re going to cancel a card anyhow, you might as well see what you can get. But before you make that call, read up on how to negotiate a retention offer.
If you know any other ways to get more credit card points and rewards, tell us about them… and keep on frugaling!