My New Obsession, Credit Card Rewards

Hawaiian BeachFor almost two years, one of my obsessions was paying off consumer and student loan debt. While that goal seemed practically impossible back then, once we got rolling, it was like an avalanche after a three foot snow storm. Nothing was getting in the way of paying off those debts. While I never tracked anything while we were racking up the bills, I was obsessed with tracking the payoff balance and finding new ways to come up with more money to get out of debt. Now that the last of our student loans were paid off in April, I have nothing left to track. You’d think I would channel that energy into something like studying a new language or leaning how to use code on this blog, but nope, I’ve found a new obsession: credit card reward points and bonus offers.

This isn’t a totally new area for me. My business has always had at least one credit card for some of our lab vendors who require one. By default, I earned points every year, which I usually traded for cash back or gift cards. I’ve tended not to apply for new credit cards in the past. For our personal finances, we were usually looking for balance transfer offers so we could keep recycling our debt. You can’t earn points when  you are trying to get huge balances paid off. While paying off debt, we barely used personal credit cards for almost two years.  

Now that the credit card debt is gone forever, it’s a new ball game. After reading about some other bloggers who are using credit cards to get free or really cheap trips, I thought I would try my hand. Holy crap, it really works. I’ve gotten more than enough points for our upcoming summer trip to the Pacific Northwest. My next stop is Hawaii in 2014. How did I go from up to eyeballs in debt to getting free trips?

Applying for Multiple Cards

After studying ways to raise your credit score and taking out lots of loans in my life, I know that it hurts your chances of getting credit if you apply too much. We refinanced our house and purchased a rental property last year.  We know we will not be getting any more loans for a while, if ever. After reading so much about the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, I decided to try and get one. With that card, you get 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points if you spend $3000 in the first three months. I put one month of contact lens inventory at work on the card, and made $400 in cash back or $500 in travel. Since the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year, and this was a purchase my office would have made anyway, it cost me nothing.  OK, that’s pretty sweet.

I decided to apply for a Chase Ink Bold for the office to replace the old card we’d been using for years. Ink Bold has been awesome, and I got 50,000 points after putting $5000 of normal business expenses on the card. Since then I have accumulated over 180,000 Untimate Reward points from Chase cards, including both signing bonuses, bonus points for certain categories of spending, and in regular purchases.

Along the way, I applied for and received instant approval for a Hilton Honors American Express card, which gave me a bonus of 40,000 points for spending $750 in the first three months. We generally try to stay at Homewood or Embassy Suites when traveling with our daughter. They are consistent, have free breakfast, full kitchens, and a nice pool. You get huge bonus points when using their card to stay on their properties.

From those three cards, we pretty much have our summer trip covered. I was almost disappointed that my quest for free travel was coming to an end. Then it hit me that this doesn’t have to be a one trick pony. Why can’t I continue to earn rewards?

What Happens with Multiple Credit Card Applications?

We decided that 2014 would be a great year to go to Hawaii. My husband and I went about 10 years ago, financed by credit cards. This time the credit cards will be paying for us. I was a bit hesitant to apply for more cards. It was only a few months ago that I got two Chase cards and one American Express. Would the credit companies think I was planning an escape to Mexico?

Jim and I both decided to apply for Bank of America Hawaiian Airlines cards. You have to spend $1000 in the first four months to get 35,000 bonus points. I also applied for a Hawaiian Airlines business card for the same bonus. Bank of America sends out a letter when you apply for credit, lising your current credit score. I was a bit nervous to see if we’d taken a hit, but my score was 777, and Jim’s was 824!  Apparently, applying for credit doesn’t hurt your score very much. I figure we need to rack up 180,000 miles to get three tickets.  You can book for less in certain seasons, but this should cover us regardless. These three cards will net us 105,000 bonus miles plus 3000 for purchases. We can also apply for Bank of Hawaii cards with the same bonus for another 70,000 + 2000 miles. Each personal card has a fee of $79 per year, and the business card fee is $59. Each ticket has a $5 booking fee, so for $390, we will have three air fares to Hawaii! If we end up having too many points, Hawaiin airlines lets us transfer to United, which flies out of our area.

After this, we will either apply for the Starwood Preferred American Express or the Chase Hyatt.    Both have resorts in Hawaii, so when we decide where we want to stay, I will start working on accommodations.

If you read frequent flyer blogs, you’ll find lots of people who apply for 10 or more cards at once. Some will get denied, and then approved after calling a reconsideration line. It’s always important to look for the best credit card offer for your needs. Sometimes you have to shift credit from one card to another or close a card from the same bank, but it seems that generally, if you have good credit, you can get approved. 

Stick to the Rules

I don’t think credit card churning is for anyone who is not good with finances or who doesn’t track spending. Brian had a good post about spending more with credit cards that you do with cash, and I agree that if you are getting all these cards and spending money just to meet a bonus requirement, it’s not worth it at all. Likewise, if you don’t pay the balance in full every month, the interest will negate any rewards you get.  Also, if you are planning on applying for a mortgage or other loan within two years, I would not open new credit accounts . Even with an 800 credit score, banks don’t like to see that many new credit inquiries.

How Long Will I Churn?

I will never be someone who opens a dozen credit cards every three months to try and get a million miles. If I have to spend money to earn a reward that I wasn’t already planning on spending, it isn’t worth it to me. I also won’t buy prepaid gift cards from one store to try and load a Bluebird account to pay my bills that don’t accept credit cards. To me, that would be a counter productive use of my time and money.

I can see us opening a few cards every 6 months or so if there is a great sign up bonus.  After the Hawaii trip, we’d like to go to Europe in about two years, so that might be my next challenge. As long as we have to pay bills and buy groceries and gas anyway, why not earn money by paying with a credit card? I know I was irresponsible for years, so am I worried that I might fall back into old habits? Not at all. To me credit card debt is like eating something that made you really sick. I can’t stand to think about it. I know I will never carry another balance on a credit card.

Am I nuts with my new obsession? What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten with a credit card bonus?

I was not compensated in any way for this post and have not included links for the cards I’ve used. If you are interested in signing up for one of the above credit cards, you can contact me if you can’t find a link. 

Image: Freedigitalphotos.net/Noffsinger

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Written By
Sydney White is a Texas-born stay at home mom who enjoys spending time with her family, bargain hunting and, of course, writing. She is currently the editor-in-chief of Snipon.com.

45 Comments

  1. I am beyond obsessed now with credit card rewards and travel hacking! It’s the greatest thing going, and as long as the credit card companies are going to give me thousands upon thousands of dollars of free travel each year just for using their cards I’m going to take advantage of it!

    Like you, I’ve been studying up on this, and I’ve committed to opening at least four new cards each year. We can reach the minimum spend requirements every 3 months so I think that’s a reasonable goal.

    We just planned a free trip to disney for the four of us (5 year old and 1.5 year old daughters) using Southwest rewards points and Starwood points to stay at the Swan hotel on site.

    We’re also planning a trip to Hawaii! I figure with 3 cards I can easily get 7 nights free at a top-tier Hyatt. 60k bonus + normal spend from Chase gets us to the 66k points for 3 nights plus my wife and I will each get a Hyatt Visa for 4 more free nights!

    If you ever want to compare notes, shoot me an email

    Brad

    1. Thanks, I might just do that. We are planning for Hawaii next summer, and I’m not sure where the best place to stay with points is yet.

  2. In the past year, I’ve signed up for 2 cards. One gave me $500 cashback for spending $2,000 in 3 months. The other gave me over $820 in flights (I used half the credit and sold the other half for cash), so I think those are totally worth it for the temporary credit hit.

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