How crazy do you drive yourself in order to maximize the return on every last dollar you spend?

I’m not supposed to say this, but I haven’t really felt like blogging the past few days, given that the President of the United States is now Donald Trump. Looking through my Facebook feed, which is mostly stuffed with pictures of people marching in protest of one of the biggest pieces of shit in the world now being the President, the posts from The Points Guy about which credit cards offer the best hotel perks seem pretty inconsequential. I mean, sure it’s great that TPG just flew Korean Air in first class, but my hometown library was just defaced with pro-Trump Nazi graffiti, so… not quite six of one.

That said, I also don’t want to give up on my interests just because we’re living in interesting times, as the proverb goes. I know this stuff is froth on the much deeper issues that are affecting people in this country (some more than others), but it also helps me stay sane and avoid falling into a black hole of despair. I also don’t want to stop caring about stupid, inconsequential shit just because some fleshy orange mass is the ruler of the free world. Stupid shit may be all I have left in a few years. And plus, we may need those points to escape the country should Trump spread its metaphorical cheeks and invite Putin in to stay a while.

With that disclaimer in mind, I wanted to write a post about credit card prioritization. This was spurred by a reader who emailed me asking for my thoughts about how to balance maximizing return on spend with the mental energy required to wring every last drop of return from each dollar spent. And this guy is a real professor, so the fact that he came to me for advice should speak to how much my opinion on this issue matters. The answer is different for each person, of course – some people love the game and will play it to a mind-numbing degree, while others just want to earn some rewards but not put that much thought into it. My brain kind of turns off when I read Frequent Miler posts about extreme stacking, and most forms of manufactured spending seem like too much energy to me. (The funny thing is that I was really heavily into reselling as a form of extra income 10 years ago, but I didn’t think to combine that with churning. Now that I have a steadier job and don’t need the additional scratch as much, I don’t really bother with reselling anymore.)

When I talk about credit card prioritization, I mean the process of figuring out which parts of your own spending have the most potential to move the needle on your rewards earning. Here’s an example: when I first got into this stuff, I printed up a little reminder card to keep in my wallet that had a list of situations and what credit card to use for each. One of the situations was shopping at Home Depot – because there was an Amex offer for 2x membership rewards points at Home Depot, I needed to make sure to use my Premier Rewards Gold card. However, I never went to Home Depot while the offer was active, so it was a waste of mental energy to think about it, and it was a waste of space in my wallet to carry that card around, when I didn’t plan to use it on anything else. This situation repeated itself somewhat in the fourth quarter of last year, when I made sure to keep my Freedom card with me at all times in case I needed to pop in to a CVS… even though I spent around $200 at CVS during the three months it was a 5x bonus category.

Of course, this differs for each person. If you’re a contractor, the Home Depot would have a major impact on your overall earning, so it would be a good idea to consider which card you use there. Same as if you’re a… uhh… really sick person who always needs medicine from CVS? I don’t know. The point is that there are diminishing returns when you try to capture the best return on every last dollar. I spend a lot on dining, so remembering to use my Sapphire Reserve in order to earn 3x points is worth doing. Same with trying to remember to use the Amex Platinum on airfare. However, if I’m at a random store that doesn’t take my preferred Amex for unbonused spend, I’ll use the Sapphire Reserve and earn one point per dollar – even though I have a Freedom Unlimited at home. I know I’m missing out on 1/2 of a point per dollar on that purchase, but I’m also not making myself crazy carrying 10 cards around with me.

churnmeme

I look at it as an 80/20 split. I want to focus on how to best maximize 80% of my spending and leave the last 20% to chance. That might mean I end up with 5000 fewer points at the end of the year than I otherwise would, but that’s probably not going to make the difference between being able to take a vacation and having to stay home. For an example, here’s my everyday card strategy. This represents the extent to which I’m willing to think about this stuff on a day-to-day basis.

Mandatory:

  • Groceries: Amex Everyday Preferred. (Since I eat lunch at a grocery store deli every day, I can get to 30 transactions per month without having to think about it.)
  • Restaurants and Travel: Chase Sapphire Reserve.
  • Unbonused spend: Amex Blue for Business.

If I can remember:

  • Chase Freedom for gas.
  • Amex Platium for airfare.
  • Making sure to use the card with the Amex offer added to it.
  • Ink+ at office supply stores.
  • The right co-brand hotel card at a hotel.

I’m curious how other people handle this. Do you carry all your cards with you to make sure you never miss a fraction of a point, or do you let it go most of the time? Does my everyday strategy seem overly complicated, or did you lose respect for me since I’m willing to use the wrong card sometimes in order to preserve my sanity (and my marriage)?

3 thoughts on “How crazy do you drive yourself in order to maximize the return on every last dollar you spend?”

  1. Similar strategy to mine – carry max three cards, go for the low hanging fruit and don’t worry about the 20% misc.
    Random question since you mentioned having the Amex Blue for business. Can you confirm that in the first year you are earning 2MR on all spend? I’ve seen a few posts recently that indicate that may just be on “qualified” spend which is a small subset of “all” spend. If confirmed, I doubt I’d go ahead and get the card. Curious what your experience has been.

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  2. I think there’s definitely a balance to follow! Personally, I toss the AmEx Plat up on the “mandatory” level, but other than that, I’m with you!

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  3. In my wallet I only carry three cards: CSR for dining/travel, SPG for unbonused spend, and Amex Blue for my biz expenses. Via ApplePay, I digitally carry Amex Everyday Preferred for groceries, Freedom for quarterly categories, and Amex Biz Gold for bonus categories. But when all else fails, I happily fall back on CSR and go for 80/20.

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