Charged Up! podcast: The lowdown on credit card rewards

Episode 71 with CreditCards.com rewards expert Tony Mecia

Charged Up! with Jenny Hoff

 



Managing credit card rewards can be time-consuming and confusing. Hear from CreditCards.com columnist Tony Mecia on the best cards to get, what to expect from your rewards, how to get more mileage out of your miles and when you can close a card you no longer use.

So, let's get Charged Up! about getting the lowdown on credit card rewards!

Transcript: 

Jenny Hoff: Tony, thank you so much for joining us today. It's great to get to talk to you on the phone.

Tony Mecia:  Great to be with you, Jenny.

Hoff:  So you write two columns per week for us on different credit card reward strategies, tell us a little bit about how you got into the space in your own background?

Mecia:  Sure. My background is in business journalism, I was with the Charlotte Observer here in North Carolina, I live in North Carolina, so with the Charlotte Observer for about 12 years or so, covered a variety of different topics including the airline industry. I'm sort of familiar with the economics of how the airline industry works. And then, in about 2009, like a lot of people in the newspaper industry, I made the decision to leave. I went out on my own, started freelancing, got linked up with CreditCards.com, and given my background in business, a little bit of knowledge of the airlines, and I was just starting to dabble in credit card rewards, those things sort of all came together. And, as I started writing some articles for CreditCards.com, those sort of progressed into a rewards column.

Hoff:  And like most of us at CreditCards.com did you become ever more obsessed with the credit card rewards game once you were deep dive into the subject?

Mecia:  Yeah, I don't know if I'd say obsessed, but I became a lot more interested. I mean, I think it can be very much like a hobby. I mean, it can take up a lot of time investigating and looking into a lot of these different programs. And so, it's certainly a hobby of mine and something I sort of enjoy doing, and there's a lot of information out there. On the internet people are doing very advanced sorts of things. But what I like doing with CreditCards.com is just being able to sort of distill some of that information and explain it to a large audience, I mean, sometimes these blogs, these travel credit card blogs that are out there they get very specific very quickly and very advanced. I think for a lot of people it gets sort of hard to understand. So, what I like doing is just sort of explaining some of the basics, some strategies, and then pointing people toward more advanced information if that's what they want.

Hoff:  Yeah, absolutely, and that's what I'm hoping to do, today, because I read interestingly not long ago that about 30 percent of people never even use the rewards that they accumulate on their cards, it sometimes it's just too difficult to figure it out, or sometimes they don't have time or they forget, or sometimes there's just so many blackout dates that it feels overwhelming and forget about it, it looks like these points are useless for me. And so, we want to end that trend and hopefully give people the tools that they need to use their rewards but it doesn't need to overwhelm and take over their lives. And so what kind of reward schemes do you find from your research and having reported on this for many years are the most difficult to navigate?

Mecia:  Yeah, I mean, there certainly are a bunch that are very tricky, and sometimes these rewards programs are easy to figure out, sometimes they're hard to figure out. I think it really all starts, and this is going to sound may be a little touchy-feely, but it sort of all starts with you and it all starts with each person individually. And I think you need to understand yourself and understand a few things about yourself in order to get the most out of any rewards programs. I mean, I think you need to understand your spending, you need to understand where your money goes each month, you need to understand what kind of rewards you like, is it travel, is it experiences, merchandise, is it cash?

And you need to understand how these different programs work. If you get 10,000 points in one program, how do you use those points? Can you use those points? What kind of restrictions are there on those points? So, you really need to sort of look at yourself and sort of see, "OK, this is what's important to me." And you also need to know what kind of person you are, are you somebody who likes to dive into a lot of these details and try to master things and try to take advantage of a lot of these trickier programs? Or are you maybe not so detail-oriented, a person who would just like to get some fairly stable, good rewards but not spend a lot of time.

So it really kind of starts with the individual person, because I get asked all the time, "Tony, what's the best rewards card out there? What's the best rewards card for groceries? Or what's the best rewards card for this or that?" And it's really difficult to say because everybody is different. And so really starting with that understanding of yourself, your priorities, your spending habits, the kind of person you are. That can help inform what kind of rewards program might be best for you.

As far as the ones that are the most difficult I think these airline programs can be very tricky, maybe not for if you're just doing a straight up domestic round-trip's flight as your reward, maybe not those so much, but once you start talking about converting points in one program to a different airline and booking it on a third airline it can get very tricky very quickly.

Hoff:  Yeah, absolutely. And I would say from personal experience, for me general rewards cards are great because you can transfer those points to a lot of things, but it could also be overwhelming though sometimes because you're trying to figure out, "OK, do my American Express membership points transfer on a one-to-one ratio to this airline? Or what's the ratio if I transfer them to use for a hotel or do I buy the gift cards and how much am I losing?" Suddenly you've wasted half a day and you're not really sure what you got out of it.

Mecia:  Right, and I can never keep it straight, OK, my Chase points, now which airlines are those transferred to again? American Express points, where do those go? I mean, these cards they love advertising that you can transfer them to 50 different airlines or a hundred different airlines, but really some of those is going to be really tricky to do.

Hoff:  Yeah, absolutely. And I want to talk quickly about travel cards, because I find Southwest super easy and, like you said, a quick round trip domestic flight, it should be easy. But for me personally I feel like I rack up rewards really quickly on there, if you book them enough ahead of time or it's a good route from your city you can easily get a round-trip flight for 7,000, 10,000 points which is you can earn pretty quickly versus 25,000, 40,000 points where it's going to take a lot of spending to get to a free ticket. On the other hand, I have Avios points from British Airlines and it's just they're impossible to use, and when you do finally find a flight that you can book with them, the fees that they tack on are so high that it's almost like if I would have just booked it a budget airline anyway.

So, are there some favorites of yours that you think are just so super easy to use and have overall saved you money without wasting a bunch of time trying to figure it out?

Mecia:  Well, sure, I mean, there are a number of different ones, and again this is sort of on that sliding scale between what's easy and what maybe gives you the most value but is also sort of difficult to use. And so, the ones that are kind of easier, I mean, I know we're talking about travel but cash back cards are very easy. We don't think of those travel cards but a lot of times you can get really good rates using cash back cards. Maybe if you don't have the self-discipline stick it in a separate account or something like that, that's super easy.

Then you have cards that are travel cards that act sort of like cash back cards but can be used for travel, things like a Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, the Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard. I mean, those points can be used for any travel expense - in hotels, in the airline. You can book with whoever as long as the code shows up as travel you can use that. And so that those types of cards can be a fairly easy way to go ahead and earn travel without having to actually master an airline program and figure out what dates are blacked out and are there all these extra fees.

Hoff:  Right, and so are they usually as generous with their rewards as the more complicated kind of airline cards?

Mecia:  No, but they're not bad. I mean, I would say those two cards they get you about 2 percent back on you pretty much every charge. I mean, there are cash back cards that are out there that give you a flat 2 percent back as well but don't have the restrictions of using them on travel. You sign up for them they have usually a pretty healthy signup bonus, so you get a bunch of points initially that you can use right away for pretty much any travel expenses that you have. So, I mean that can be a fairly easy, maybe introductory way to kind of get into travel rewards if that's something that you're interested in.

Hoff:  And what's nice about cash back is it's not something you have to think about, they just apply the cash back to your credit card statement and so you're saving money, about 2 percent, when you're making purchases. So, it's not something that you're going to really let go to waste because you don't have to put any effort into redeeming it.

Mecia:  Right, and I mean, the surveys show cash back is by far the most popular reward that people like. I think people like the ease of use of it, and you have a whole bunch of different cash back types of cards too. You have your flat cash back where you could get one and a half, 2 percent back. Then you have somewhere it's like you get 5 percent back on this and 2 percent back on that, 1 percent on everything else. So, I mean, there are really a number of options.

Hoff:  Right, and that's if you want to be doing the math and figure out, "OK, which card do I use now in order to buy my groceries?" That's another question I wanted to ask you, so there's kind of always this lingering question – do I go for having multiple cards and use one for 5 percent back on groceries and the other one which is giving me a good percentage back on travel, or do I just concentrate all my rewards under one card so I'm actually building those rewards much faster so I can get that free flight or get that cash back or get that hotel stay?

Mecia:  Yeah, I mean, that's sort of an ongoing debate, I mean, what do you do? I like the approach of having multiple cards, I like trying to maximize it as much as I can. I don't like the idea of charging something and just getting a lowly 1 percent back. Usually these bonus cards you get 3 percent on this, 2 percent on that, 1 percent on everything else. If I can avoid getting the 1 percent on everything else by using a cash back card that gets me 2 percent on everything then I think that's the way to go. Yes, if you just concentrate all your rewards onto a single card you might hit a certain award level more quickly, but for me I feel like I'm leaving points on the table if I'm not getting the most out of my cards when I charge.

Hoff:  So, you're saying that at least a 2 percent back then you feel better?

Mecia:  I feel better. I mean, but it depends on the person. If you have a goal of reaching 60,000 airline miles so you can get a round-trip ticket to Europe and you want to do that quickly then by all means just put it on that airline card and try and get to that 60,000 quicker. It's one of these things where there's no correct answer, it's sort of a question of what are you comfortable with? What are your goals?

Hoff:  Right, and you can have multiple cards in that case as long as the points transfer to that airline. For example, we booked a trip to Europe, we had a Delta card which gave us a sign-up bonus of 70,000 points, and we also had the American Express Platinum card which had a sign-up bonus of 100,000 points, and we just transferred those at a one-to-one ratio over to Delta, suddenly we had 170,000 points, and that pays for multiple round-trip tickets to Europe.

Speaking of that American Express Platinum card I'm very curious what you think when it comes to high-end cards. I know some people swear by them especially if they travel for business a lot, they have the Platinum or they have the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and they don't mind the $450 or $550 yearly fee, because they think that they're getting a lot of value out of it. What do you think when it comes to high-end cards? Because I'll relate a quick experience when I was using my American Express Platinum card at the airport in London; I was super excited about getting into a really nice lounge for free, and we went in and you could only have two people in there. And so, the baby is counted even though they were not going to eat anything, and so my husband had to leave and we had to transfer out, and suddenly it wasn't such a great experience. What do you for the average person, is a high-end card worth it?

Mecia:  Well, clearly it sounds like what you should have done is stuck your husband with the children and you got into the lounge.

Hoff:  No, I did. No, no, I did. My husband went out and I brought the kid in, but then we had to transfer. No, don't worry about that. I definitely  do that.

Mecia:  OK, I'm going to say some of these might be user error, it might not be the card. But seriously, these high-end cards I think they can represent a good value, and the high annual fees I think can scare a lot of people off. You say, "Jeez, $450 a year for a card, $550 a year for a card. That's a lot more than I want to spend for a card." But when you start looking at the rewards that are on these cards especially for the first year I think they really do have some value.

I mean, typically got Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with $300 travel credit every year, so it's a $450 a year card, so that right there sort of knocks it down, so your effective cost is $150. It also comes with Global Entry, which helps you speed through customs, gets you TSA PreCheck, helps you get through security faster at the airport. That's $100 value. It also comes with, I don't know offhand what the current offer is on Chase Sapphire Reserve but it's at least 40, 50,000 Chase ultimate reward points. I mean, those have some value.

So, I think certainly once you start adding these up you can see how the value you get out of these high end cards approaches if not surpasses the high annual fee, especially for the first year. Because once you get those points, I mean, those are worth a lot. Now in subsequent years you're going to have to take a look at that and see whether that makes some sense because you're not getting a sign-up bonus anymore. I mean, there are still advantages to it, the lounge access, a lot of people like that as you mentioned, business travelers, good for business traveler.

They can be good for families, some of the cards that have priority pass that you have unlimited guests that come in. Priority Pass, a lot of people don't know, I mean, they have lounges all over the place, all over the world. Some in the United States they started doing things with restaurants and even by the hour hotels in airports. I mean, they have all sorts of different applications.

And if you can bring your family in there, I mean that represents the savings as well. I have a lounge access card with American Airlines because I live in Charlotte, it's an American hub. You bring your wife and three children in there as I did a couple of weeks ago, they're hungry, they get to the airport rather than going spending money on lunch for everybody to eat lunch at 10, $12 a head. You go in, you get some cheese and crackers, you get some soup. I mean, there is some savings there potentially. So, it's one of those things people have to evaluate.

Hoff:  Yeah, and I mean, the strategy we took in this case because I was so determined to get some value out of that very expensive credit card is I went in with one kid, we ate our meal and then I brought my husband. My husband came in with one kid and then he ate their meal. And we ate, and everybody was fed, and we didn't spend money at the airport on food. But I guess in those cases, definitely  check the fine print, make sure that it's going to be something if you have a big family that you'll be traveling with and that's what you're going to need to do when you're out, make sure that it's going to apply to you. Because as you said there are some cards that will probably be a little bit more flexible with that than others.

Now speaking of that first year being really worth it, what about in subsequent years people decide, "After that big sign-up bonus it's not really worth it to keep this expensive card," and a lot of people have fear about closing a card that it will affect their credit, and it does in a way, but how much does it really affect your credit that people should be worried about signing up for let's say a high-end card, using the bonus points within a year, and then closing it before the next annual fee kicks in?

Mecia:  Yeah, a lot of people get really anxious about the issue of their credit, and understandably so, we all want good credit, we want to guard our credit, we don't want our credit rating to drop especially if we're trying to get a loan for a house or finance a car or something like that. I will say a lot of these worries that people have I think are kind of overblown. Applying for a card, closing a card, it might be a slight dip temporarily in your credit rating just because of the way they calculate your credit rating with these algorithms and the different amounts of credit that you're utilizing, the number of open accounts you have, they're looking at all sorts of things.

But generally, if you manage credit wisely, if you're paying your bills on time in full over a longer period of time you're not going to have a problem with your credit. I know a lot of people and myself included I closed open cards fairly regularly, closed cards fairly regularly. It's very easy to still have excellent credit even if you do that. So, I think that a lot of those worries really are overblown, and I think that it's OK to go ahead if you’re done with a card. If you're not getting value out of a card rather than paying an annual fee it's OK to close that card not pay that annual fee.

Hoff:  And do you see a big dip in your credit when you do that or just a little ding?

Mecia:  I just see a little ding, just a little. It's a few points, very temporary, and then as you show that you're managing your credit wisely that credit goes back up. I mean, they're trying to make sure that you're not in some sort of financial distress, they have all sorts of things, they're looking at a bunch of different indicators and as soon as they realize that you're, no, you're actually the same person who's being responsible with your credit and your bills you're going to be fine.

Hoff:  All right, that's great to know. So what would you say when it comes to cards, because I know that on some cards, and you actually just wrote a column about this at CreditCards.com, but briefly for this podcast as far as getting multiple sign-up bonuses from the same card. And so you had somebody write in and said, "Hey, I've had a card. I got the bonus. I closed the card a couple of years ago. I need those same points for this hotel. I want to open the card again. Can I still get the bonus?" And you said different bank issuers have different rules, though they're not necessarily official, they're the unofficial rules that credit card users and strategists know. So could briefly go into some of the bigger issuers and what their rules are when it comes to dipping in twice to the same pool of bonus points?

Mecia:  Sure, I mean, it's going to vary by bank and there's always going to be exceptions, and again, these are unwritten rules for the most part, but rules that they tend to follow. And the most well-known of these are the so-called Chase 5/24 rule, which means it used to be a lot of these banks where you could apply for cards multiple times, you could apply for two cards at the same time, and it was the Wild West, it was no problem. What the banks realized two, three years ago at least was that they had a lot of people who were repeat users and it were sort of, I don't want to say abuses in the system, but they were certainly taking advantage of some of these generous offers.

So they're trying to put in some limits to make sure people don't game the system too much. So that the best well-known is the Chase 5/24 rule, which means if you're applying for a Chase card and you have five applications in for credit cards from any bank in the previous 24 months, Chase is not going to approve you for a card. So you have to be mindful of that. If you're going for a Chase card, you see a Chase card out there you like but you have received five cards in total from any bank in the last two years they are not likely to approve your request to do that.

Hoff:  So it's not just you can't get more than five Chase cards in 24 months, it's you can't get more than five new credit cards within 24 months if you want to get a new Chase card.

Mecia:  Correct. Even if you've never applied to Chase, if you have two Citi cards, three Bank of America cards in the last 24 months and you apply to Chase, Chase will say, "No, we're not going to approve you. We're going to wait." And you have to wait basically for the clock to run out where you are in with that, and then you can apply and be approved for a Chase card. It doesn't apply to all Chase cards but certainly there are some exceptions of cards you can receive, but in mostly co-branded cards. But with most Chase cards you're not going to be approved for that. So that's one, that's the best known rules.

American Express tends to be fairly restrictive. They do not want to give you a second sign-up bonus on the same card, so if you have applied, if you five years ago had an American Express Platinum card you can't pull it after a year because of the high annual fees we talked about, and then a few years later you go and you apply again for the American Express Platinum card. They won't give you the bonus for that card. So that's fairly restrictive.

There are other banks, Barclaycard, Bank of America, Citi, that are maybe a little bit easier to navigate where they will go ahead in many cases and let you get that card for a second time with the bonus, especially if you haven't had the card in the last couple of years.

Hoff:  OK, so there's a couple rules there especially if you have your eye on a prize like a really nice Chase card that you know is coming out with a good bonus or you want to get that one be careful about signing up for other credit cards before you get that one.

Mecia:  Right, you should also be mindful if you're looking to get in a couple of credit cards and you're kind of close to that threshold, maybe go ahead apply for the Chase one first and then apply for the other one. Because if you apply for the other one first that might knock you out of compliance.

Hoff:  OK, good to know. And so I wanted to also talk about the best way to efficiently use your points. So I saw a website called Juicy Miles where they say that they'll use your reward points to the most efficiently way possible to get you the absolute cheapest flight and minimize the amount of points that you have to use, and I'm sure there's some sort of a fee that goes along with it. Have you found there are some real tried-and-true strategies to getting the most value out of each point you earn?

Mecia:  Yeah, so I wrote an article on this topic a few years ago. I talked to some of these guys that are in the business of helping people navigate this tricky world of credit card rewards, especially as it relates to travel. The way they usually work is they charge you maybe $150, $200 and they'll go ahead and they'll take care of the booking. You tell them, "Here's what we're going to do. Here's where I'd like to go. Here are all the points I have." And they figure it out.

A lot of people can't figure this out on their own in many instances, but some of these have gotten so tricky that really there's this whole class of people who are just experts in figuring out how best to transfer miles and where points can transfer to. So if you don't want to deal with any of that and you have a more complicated itinerary that you're trying to achieve with miles, then maybe it can make some sense to try to look at one of these private providers of these services.

Hoff:  OK, are there any tricks that you've used that you think make your points more efficient? So I mean, I know off-peak travel is kind of one of those general ones where if you travel on a peak you can get a lot more bang for your buck, are there any other strategies that you've used to like get the most use out of your miles?

Mecia:  Yeah, I mean, again, it gets a little trickier. There are ways to do it. I mean, if you look at the awards charts of some of the different airlines a lot of times people think, "Well, gosh, I don't want to transfer my points to a foreign airline. Why would I ever do that? I'm just going to fly domestically on American or United or Delta or Southwest." Well, there are ways, if you look at some of these awards charts there are ways to actually save on miles if you look, and I know we talked about British Airways and it can be difficult the miles, but if you looked at the same flight on American and it had availability at the lowest level, say 12,500 miles each way, and then you looked at the exact same flight on British Airways a lot of times you'll see that you use fewer miles flying that same flight on British Airways. And typically if there's space available at the lowest level on American then there will also be space on British Airways but for fewer miles.

So a lot of times it can make sense to try and compare these and make sure you're not using too many miles just because you're more familiar with the program. I mean, my daughter is doing a program over in Spain this summer for a few weeks; she needed to get over there on a particular date. I was able to find a flight for her on Delta, booked through Flying Blue which is the frequent flyer program of KLM and Air France. And each way normally with airlines here in the U.S. it's typically 30,000 each way at the lowest level, but on Flying Blue it was only 25,000 to fly on Delta each way.

So that again you're saving 5,000 miles. And it gets tricky once you start transferring these. I transferred them from, I forget, it was Chase or American Express, but you can see where if you do that enough you will start saving miles in those cases. But again, it's fairly tricky, it's not for everybody. Sometimes you have to call and make those bookings. That’s not always available online, even though it's 2018 you would think that everything would be available online, sometimes you have to call. So it can get very tricky very quickly.

Hoff:  Yes, absolutely. And in fact I just said dealing with Delta the other day and bringing an infant on a flight and you actually have to pay to bring an infant if it's international, and you can't use points for that. So I have to call to make the booking so we get the points and they don't. And then there's a lot going on, and I remember reading your article about you finding that trip for your daughter and getting it all sorted so like you said partner airlines can sometimes save you some of those points if you're willing to put in a little time for that.

What about hotel cards? It can look very attractive, the 80,000 Hilton sign-on bonus and then you find out that that pays for one, maybe two nights at a Hilton Hotel. And then to accumulate another 40,000 points for another free night takes quite a lot of spending. Do you recommend hotel cards, and when would you recommend them?

Mecia:  Sure. Yeah, I mean, as you mentioned all points are not created equal. You might say, "Oh, gosh, Marriott had 80,000 Marriott points, wow." Well, 80,000 Marriott points is not the same as 80,000 Chase points or 80,000 United points or something like that, because Marriott for hotel redemptions costs a lot of points for one hotel night. So it's going to depend on the person.

Certainly I know some business travelers in town that swear behind those hotel cards, they like some of the perks, they get upgraded to the club level room with the free breakfast, the before dinner drinks or something like that. I mean, they get the late checkout. I mean, there are certain perks that come with it. I personally find that it's a little bit difficult to get enough points to actually redeem especially at some of the nicer properties.

But they are fairly easy. I mean, they do have availability typically, hotels do. It's not as much of a problem I think finding availability in hotels as it is for airlines, it's just a question of do you have enough points to do it. And especially at some of the lower-end properties, I mean, you can get some starting maybe around 5,000 hotel points if you're staying at a budget hotel. That can be a good deal. And you can find it all on the website and you can search, but it just takes a lot, it takes a lot of points typically for a hotel card.

Now there are some hotel cards that come with a free night every year. I believe the Hyatt card gives you a free night. Marriott.

Hoff:  But you pay an annual fee.

Mecia:  I mean, there's a number of this or that. You do still pay an annual fee. But yes, if you're a frequent traveler and you're dedicated to a certain hotel brand then it can make some sense.

Hoff:  What are some cards that you think really keep giving back in a real way after you used that sign-up bonus? And I use the Southwest card before as an example just because I always find that I have enough points to book a round-trip flight if I need it. And so I haven't paid for an actual flight on Southwest in a couple of years now. Are there other cards that you feel like you rack up points pretty quickly that you can then utilize?

Mecia:  Well, yeah. I mean, certainly the Southwest card you mentioned is pretty easy to use. I mean, there's a consulting company that does a study every year that looks at the availability of airline seats, award airline seats, Southwest is always at the top, typically 99 or a hundred percent of the flights that they're looking at there is availability at a low level compared to between 50 and 70 percent from Delta, United and American. I mean, that's certainly easy.

As far as other ones that are that are easy to use, I mean, people should just sort of go with what they're comfortable with. I do like some of these sorts of general-purpose travel cards. I think those we mentioned earlier that you can use for pretty much any travel expense, super easy to use, you don't have to understand a whole lot about rewards. I mean, they can make a lot of sense.

I do like the Chase Ultimate Rewards suite of cards. I mean, they have a number of them - Chase Freedom, Sapphire, Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve. I mean, there's a number of them. I do like those cards because they are fairly flexible, you can use those points in a number of ways, same goes with American Express and Citi, they have their own programs. They are versatile, so if you can't transfer them to an airline you can go on their portals, you can go ahead and book travel directly through Chase using points that's fairly simple and straightforward. So there's any number of cards that people might want to check out if they're interested in some of that simplicity while still getting a good value.

Hoff:  And do you have any strategies for quickly meeting the minimum spend? Let's say you have to spend $3,000 in three months or $5,000 in three months in order to get a really big sign up bonus, but you really don't have those kinds of expenses and you don't want to be spending extra money or you kind of defeat the whole purpose of those bonus points.

I just used mine let's say to buy up Amazon, uploaded an Amazon gift card to my account, I just knew that I buy everything off Amazon and so I thought, "OK, I'll definitely be using this. I'm just kind of prepaying." Are there other ways that you found to quickly meet a minimum spend?

Mecia:  Yeah, I mean, you really hit on it. You don't want to go off and spend a bunch of money that you weren't going to spend already, because it doesn't make any sense to buy a bunch of things you don't need in order to get a relatively small amount of rewards. But there are a few strategies, you mentioned the gift cards, I do the same thing, Amazon gift cards. I have a card it gives me extra points at Office Depot, Staples, buy some Amazon cards, blow them up because I know we're always ordering things from Amazon.

You can look at utilities, your utility bills, prepaying utility bills, paying ahead on your utility bills. You know you're going to spend money on electricity and gas and water, a lot of times you can just get a credit on those. If you're trying to meet a minimum spend, I mean that can be a good way.

Holiday shopping, it's never too early for holiday shopping. I mean, maybe if you can plan ahead a little bit and think if you can manage the cash flow, make sure you have enough money to be able to pay off the card every month. But just think ahead - what are some things that you can pay that maybe if you would ordinarily wait until the last minute to pay what can you pay a little bit ahead of time? Move up some of those expenses to kind of shift those expenses up closer to the time frame that you're in now as opposed to waiting. I mean, those are all good strategies.

Hoff:  Yeah, definitely great strategies. Also, we're running out of time but I have a couple more quick questions. One is I always like to ask what are three things that somebody could do right now if they wanted to start getting in on the business of cashing in on those rewards?

Mecia:  Sure. I guess three things I would say - start researching, start reading, there's a lot on the internet. We've got a lot at CreditCards.com, there are a number of tools you can use that can guide you toward the cards based on your spending, based on your interest, so I would definitely check those out first.

And then I guess No. 2  would be if you want sort of start easily, maybe look at an airline card, just say to yourself assuming you're interested in some sort of travel maybe check out an airline car, "What's an airline that flies a lot out of your city or close to you?" Maybe look at that card, those can be fairly popular. And then maybe also look at a cash back card, like we mentioned make sure you're getting more than just that 1 percent off your spending.

Also think about where you spend your money, this is an added fourth bonus point here, think about where you spend your money. A lot of people if they shop a lot at Target,  they'll get a Target card, 5 percent off. If they shop a lot of Costco, if they have a small business where they're buying a lot of things from Costco, a Costco card can make sense. If there are any particular merchants where you're spending a bunch of money take a look at their cards they might be worth it too.

Hoff:  Absolutely, and finally our show is Charged Up, what gets you charged up about mastering the art of rewards?

Mecia:  Two things - I love traveling, I love going new places and seeing new things, and so using credit card rewards to be able to do that is a huge bonus. I think if you can get the airline expenses and some of the hotel paid for, I mean, it doesn't have to be a super expensive, elegant vacation, but you can go places you ordinarily wouldn't get to go. That's No. 1, traveling. Two is just helping people realize what they want to do with their rewards and helping people achieve their rewards. I've talked to a lot of friends around town, I write the column for CreditCards.com, all these people are asking questions. I love seeing success stories of people who have been able to use their rewards and make their life better.

Hoff:  Fantastic. And you give a lot of great advice. I highly encourage people to check out both of your columns - cashing in which is a Q&A column, you can send your questions to us and Tony will answer them to you, and then Reaping Your Rewards, which is a strategy column that you write. So thank you so much, Tony, for giving us your time, today. I really appreciate it.

Mecia:  Great. Thanks for having me, Jenny. 

See related: How to redeem your card's cash back reward, Are foreign airline credit cards worth it? 


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Updated: 10-21-2018