How to stack rewards to save big on purchases
Some tools to help you become a champion rewards stacker
Specializes in family finances
Everyone likes to find a great bargain online, but the most successful savers are those who have learned how to leverage their credit cards’ rewards programs with the latest digital shopping tools and portals to score the biggest discounts.
Googling for the best price isn’t enough these days. The real deals go to savvy rewards stackers.
“Stacking rewards means combining multiple savings and/or cash back strategies on a single purchase to maximize savings and rewards,” says Stefanie O’Connell, a millennial personal finance expert and author of “The Broke and Beautiful Life.”
While the average shopper might get excited over a free shipping code, a rewards stacker goes deeper, piecing together a superior discount by combining credit card offers, utilizing shopping portals and keying in a promo code for good measure.
For example, if you are in the market for new luggage, you might typically start looking for items on Amazon.com. But before you hit “one-click,” if you’re an American Express cardholder, you might look for relevant Amex Offers, only to find you can get a $15 statement credit if you spend $200 at eBags.
At this point, the Amazon price is still slightly lower, but you’re not done. Next, you head over to the shopping portals you use and discover that Ebates is giving 15 percent cash back for eBags purchases. It’s settled! Using the Ebates link and your American Express card, you choose a luggage set with a total price of $254. As you check out, you do a final online search for discount codes and find one for free shipping. In the end, you are credited $15 on your Amex statement, and receive a check for $29.40 from Ebates.
The grand savings total of $44.40, or 17.5 percent, was made possible through “rewards stacking.”
It’s easy to get hooked, since as experts point out, minimal effort can yield a big return.
“I actually do this all the time,” says Justin Cupler, savings expert at The Penny Hoarder. One of his best deals was using a 2 percent rewards credit card to buy a discounted Walmart gift card from a gift card reseller. Then he shopped through a cash back portal to get an additional 7 percent back on his Walmart purchase.
If he bought a $100 gift card for $95 (5 percent off), and earned $1.90 cash back on his credit card (2 percent), it would bring the actual cost down to $93.10. Then, by earning 7 percent back on his $100 spend using the gift card, he recouped another $7. In total, his sleuthing afforded him $100 worth of merchandise for $86.10, a 14 percent discount.
It may seem like a lot of work to save a few bucks, but with practice, it’s easy to stack up the savings. Here’s a checklist and some tools to help you become a champion rewards stacker:
1. Start with the right credit card
“Check for special offers on your rewards card, as credit card companies don’t always advertise every special,” says Cupler. “A quick search could turn up a huge bonus.” Several rewards card issuers offer some kind of portal, such as Amex Offers, BankAmeriDeals or Chase Offers (for Marriott Rewards cardholders).
If there are no linked offers, think about which of your cards will offer the best rewards bonus for a particular purchase. “If you’re using a cash back credit card, you know you’re getting rewarded a specific amount any time you use your card to make a purchase,” says O’Connell.
With other types of rewards cards, you might earn a higher percentage for groceries, gas, dining, travel or department store spending, and those categories may or may not change. It’s up to you to check for and activate (if required) your rotating bonus categories.
“Rotating categories can get annoying, but there is often a pattern to it. Pay close attention to how they rotate and try to find that pattern,” suggests Cupler.
Finally, if your credit card has a shopping portal, see if it’s running any incentives to click through to the retailer from there. If so, you’ll want to compare the potential savings with other shopping portals first to see which has the best deal (see next step).
Cool tool: Wallet, a CreditCards.com app, lets you pick the right card for each purchase and maximize rewards when you shop.
2. Choose a shopping portal
Scouring a few shopping platforms before you complete your purchase usually pays off – sometimes with double-digit percentages. Some of the popular sites include Ebates.com, BeFrugal.com, ShopAtHome.com and TopCashBack.com.
Join a couple of them that work best with stores you shop at most, says Cupler. “To help streamline the process, I keep all my cash-back sites in bookmark form, so I can easily scan them before I shop,” he says.
If you’re new to a site, you will usually get an extra savings boost as well. “These sites often offer big bonuses to lure in users, and you can reap the rewards by testing them out,” says Cupler. For example, ShopAtHome.com is currently offering a $10 bonus just for signing up.
But here’s the key: “You need to check every time you make a purchase,” says Yansong Wang, creator of Cashback Monitor, noting that savings fluctuate all the time. “Especially during the holiday season, like on Black Friday, you can see cash back offers reach 15-20 percent.”
Cool tool: Cashback Monitor shows you all the real-time cash-back offers, as well as the amount of travel miles and credit card points you can earn from each retailer when using a rewards card for your purchase. So if you search for Macy’s, you’ll get a breakdown of what deal is being offered today, and can choose which card to use as well as which portal is best to go through.
3. See if you can combine discount and loyalty program codes
Once you’ve had some practice, you can save even more with special codes or by linking your retail loyalty programs to a purchase.
That’s how Walter Travers, aka the Credit Card Maestro, saved $170 on a hotel room.
“Hilton had a promotion with Amex Offers, where if you spent $200, you would get $40 in the form of a statement credit. That is a steal in and of itself, but I wanted to see if I could push the savings even further,” he says.
“I realized I had membership rewards points that I could transfer over to Hilton from AmEx. After I transferred over the points, I had about 15,000 Hilton points, which saved another $130.”
You can apply the same basic strategy for most types of online purchases, especially for merchandise, by searching for an online coupon or promo code. Either Google “store name + coupon code” the old-fashioned way, or do a search on a site or app, such as RetailMeNot.
Cool tool: Honey, a browser extension, will automatically search and apply coupon codes at checkout, as well as alert you to better prices while you’re shopping online.
One last tip
Rewards stacking takes a little extra effort, so to be sure your time isn’t wasted, ’ll want to pay your credit card balances in full every month.
“If you’re only making minimum payments and letting interest accrue, your interest costs will far outweigh whatever you earn in rewards,” says O’Connell.
When done right, stacking rewards is an easy way to save more and spend less. Even 1 percent back can net you a significant payout if you apply it to all of your purchases over the course of a year, says Cupler. And if you’re a stacker, you’ll earn far more than that!
As Wang says, “You have nothing to lose. Two minutes will give you a good return on your investment.”
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