They’re fun, liberating, enriching, exhilerating, frustrating and distressing. They make every purchase an aspirational event, and every redemption an exercise in despondency. But we love ’em!
More than any other people in the world, Canadians love to earn, burn and churn their cash, points and miles. Play the game like the masters, and you’ll have the chance to fly free, stay free, and fatten your wallet in spades. Here’s a primer on how to exploit the banks’ insatiable appetite for growth and increase your earning power.
1. Loyalty Doesn’t Pay
When do you get the most value from your rewards credit card? When you get a new one, or threaten to. Not unlike insurance, wirelesss and cable, the best incentives are reserved for new customers, or those threating to leave.
Think about it, it may take you $25,000 worth of spend, and a couple of years, to earn 25,000 miles on your current credit card. Or, you can get a new credit card with a welcome bonus of 25,000 miles and all you’ll have to spend is $500 in 3 months to meet the minimum spend requirement.
2. Let Issuers Pay You To Try Their Credit Card
When you buy a new pair of jeans you get to try them on before you pay right? Buy an item unseen from a catalogue, it usually comes with a strong return policy correct? We’ve all had experiences with a credit card or rewards program we found underwhelming. So why do some issuers charge an annual fee BEFORE you’ve had a chance to take their service and rewards program for a test drive?
If you get a new credit card, start with one that waives the first year annual fee – plenty of the best credit cards have no fee in the first year. You’ll be able to give the card a trial run, and the onus will be on the issuer to dazzle you with their service and product, before you pay for it – a pretty reasonable expectation when you consider how we shop and pay for most other items.
3. Be Patient, Wait For The Hefty Welcome Bonus Incentive
The most amount of value you’ll ever get from your rewards credit card will be in the welcome bonus. Issuers often have promotional periods where they offer more welcome bonus points than their usual base incentive offer – sometimes double the value. Do a little research and stay patient to wait for the best deal available.
A credit card’s base welcome bonus offer may be 15,000 points, with a $120 annual fee. Wait for the right moment, and you could get the same card with a 30,000 point welcome bonus, and a first year annual fee waiver. The difference in value between the two offers may be as high as $300! That’s the time to pounce.
4. Game The Merchant Bonus Categories
One of the most valuable ways to take advantage of rewards credit cards is to spend in bonus categories where you get extra rewards. For example, you might get 5% cash back in gas, or 2 points per dollar spent at the grocery store, versus 1 point everywhere else.
So how do you get 5% cash back or 2 points per dollar spent almost anywhere? Gift cards. Simply use your credit card to buy a gift card to your favourite merchant at the grocery store or gas station.
As an example, use your Amex Simply Cash card to buy an Amazon, Apple, Canadian Tire or Wal Mart Gift card. You’ll get 5 % cash back because you made the purchase at the grocery store, and you can then use the gift card to make a purchase at a store your credit card would not have given bonus rewards to otherwise!
5. Easy Way To Meet The Minimum Spend Requirement
Ever want to take advantage of a huge limited time credit card welcome bonus offer, but you’re not sure what you’re going to spend your money on to meet the $1,000 minimum spend threshold? A nice work around is to spend the minimum on a gift card at a grocery store you frequent or at a place like Amazon where you can then use the funds available on the card throughout the year.
6. Stack Those Credit Cards
Figuratively, not literally. As we mentioned above, many credit cards offer bonus merchant categories. One effective way to maximize rewards is to get multiple cards that offer bonuses in different categories, and then to get another card that offers 2% value for ALL other spend.
As an example, you can use the no fee Amex Smart Cash card to get 5% cash back on gas, groceries and at restaurants (in the first 6 months), the TD First Class Infinite Card to earn 4.5% on travel spend through Expedia and then the MBNA Rewards World Elite MasterCard ($89 annual fee waived in the first year) to get 2% everywhere else.
Regardless, it’s a good thing to have at least two credit cards in your wallet at all times, just in case one gets lost, suspended, defrauded or isn’t accepted (Amex), you’ll have an alternative.
7. Double Dip
Some credit cards offer rewards programs through loyalty programs like Scene, Air Miles, Aeroplan, or More Rewards. While your credit card will give you an opportunity to earn rewards on all your credit card spend, you can get additional rewards by double dipping when you use the loyalty card at the point of sale as well.
For example, at Sobeys you can collect 1 mile per $20 spent on your no fee BMO Air Miles MasterCard, then another 1 mile per $20 spent from your AIR MILES collector card, doubling your rewards.
8. Use Reward Malls
If you’re going to make a purchase for a specific product, or at a specific merchant, it may pay to give your credit card or loyalty program’s site a last look. Many programs such as Aeroplan’s eStore, AIRMILESshops.ca, Air Canada’s Duty Free Mall, offer discounts or bonus miles at popular merchants such as Amazon.ca, Gap.ca, ebay, Sears, Dell, etc…
The deals coming through these online malls can double your points and offer exclusive discounts retailers don’t want made available to the general public, or just through their affiliate link. Regardless, just by going to the Gap.ca site through a link on AIRMILES, you could get additional savings for merchandise you would have bought anyways.
9. Take Advantage of Price Matching
Some credit card issuers have their own travel centres with transparent dollar pricing, meaning consumers book trips at a dollar value, as opposed to a point or grid system. However, consumers have always been leary that bank run travel centres charge higher prices than the general market. To remove any worries, some programs, like BMO World Elite MasterCard’s Travel Centre and TD First Class Visa’s Expedia For TD, will price match any trip you find cheaper than their advertised price.
10. Know The Rules of The Game
Credit card rewards hold all the promise in the world, so long as you play by the rules. Not unlike the casinos however, credit card issuers have laid a host of landmines in your path to stack the deck in their favour.
- Earning Caps: Watch out for big cash back promises, only to find out your getting 5% cashback up to $500 in spend, and 0% on everything else. Caps are a bummer.
- Spending Tiers: Again, watch out for advertised cash back rates of 1%, only to find out in the footnotes, it’s on all spend above $3,000 and everything below earns you .5% ( you know who we’re talking about)
- Changes: Watch out for rule changes. Credit card companies are changing the terms of their reward programs all the time. Make sure the rules changes still make the card worthwhile to you.
- Penalties: Understand how you can lose your points, like if your card goes into delinquency, or if you cancel your card
- Fees: Are you spending enough to justify your annual fee? Did you know you get charged $35 to book your flight over the phone?
- Expiry: Understand if your points expire after 5 years, in 12 months if you don’t earn or redeem a mile, or upon cancellation of your credit card.
11. Pay For Big Purchases With Your Credit Card
Before you make any big ticket purchase, whether it be home renovations, business, school, camp, taxes, tickets, insurance or rent, check to see if they accept credit cards. Many businesses and services that historically never accepted credit cards now do, it’s worth an ask.
12. Don’t Get A Rewards Credit Card If…
- You carry a balance: The interest you’ll be charged will wipe out any value you get from your rewards.
- You’re always late: Your interest rate may jump to an obnoxious level AND you’ll lose the privilege of your grace period – wiping out the value of your rewards.
- You consistently go over your credit limit: You’ll be charged an over limit fee of $29, making the points you earned from going over your limit worthless.