Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Credit Card Rebates and My Rules

To date, I have made $1229.20 in credit card rebates this year, off my Amex Cash Rebate Card and my Chase Amazon.com Visa.

The Amex Cash Rebate Card pays once a year, on your anniversary date. They give 1.5% cash back on gas, grocery stores, and drug stores; .5% on everything else for the first $6,000 you spend on anything. Then you get 5% on gas, grocery stores, and drug stores, with 1.5% on everything else. I'd say that 25% of my regular spending comes in those three categories. Last year, I put everything on my Amex, and ended up getting 2% back for the year. But when I say everything, I mean literally everything - If I bought a pack of gum, it went on my Amex.

I cheated a little this year. Mr. Goat and I have been spending more money at Amazon in the last year, and so I have been planning to get this card for a while. Cardholders get three points for purchases at Amazon, 2 points for purchases at gas stations, drug stores, and restaurants, and one point everywhere else. Since you can trade 5000 points for $50, each point works out to 1% cash back.

For the first three months, though, new cardholders get double points. Mr. Goat and I had been planning a vacation to New York for a while, so I timed my acquisition of the card with the start of our vacation, where I knew we would be spending tons of money, especially on restaurants. After three months, we had 35,000 points, which I have just turned into $350. Since there is a limit of 60,000 points per year, I will go back to my Amex for the rest of the year.

Of course, next year, I will make less on the Amex because I put everything for three months on Chase Amazon.com Visa. But I still anticipate that I will make more than one thousand dollars from credit cards, as I have this year and did last year.

In addition to these cards, I have a Discover card and a Citi Card that I have yet to redeem rewards from. The Citi card is rather dubious, but I confidently anticipate another $25-50 from Discover by the end of the year.

My rules for credit card rebates are as follows:
(1) Cash is king. I am not interested in airline miles or hotel rewards. I want only cash or cash equivalents (e.g. gift cards from places that I actually shop).

(2) I don't pay annual fees. No matter how good the perks are promised to be, I'd rather have the $80+ myself. Also, I never have to worry about whether I am getting enough cash back on any particular card to justify the annual fee.

(3) Pay off all balances, every month. Reward cards without annual fees have super high APRs. That's how they plan to make their money. I thwart them at every opportunity, knowing that I am always one slip-up away from them making money off me.

Therefore, I don't recommend doing this unless:

(a) You are anal about your budget. I keep a total of how much I have left in every budget category at all times. I refer to these totals often, and if I don't have it, I don't spend it. This won't work for people who always spend a bit more on their cards than they can afford to pay off this month.

(b) You always pay your bills on time. If you are late, even one month, you will lose a significant proportion of your anticipated cash rebate to fees, interest, and penalties. I have four credit cards that I use to get the best rebates that I can. that means keeping track of four due dates. It's easy for me, because my mind is wired that way. People who have trouble remembering what year it is, let alone what month and date should probably stick to a single card with auto pay; it will be cheaper.

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