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How to tweak your sign-up bonus strategy in a time of uncertainty

You can still earn lucrative welcome bonuses if your household spending has dropped in the COVID-19 era

Summary

The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for new cardholders to do the required spending needed to get a sign-up bonus. The good news is there are steps you can take to get a lucrative welcome bonus anyway.

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As you stay at home and dream of future travel, you may wonder how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the big sign-up bonus you were counting on to fund your next trip.

“Cardholders care a great deal about earning sign-up bonuses – even now,” says Benét Wilson, credit cards editor for The Points Guy.

But the coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for new cardholders to do the required spending needed to get a bonus, she adds. In fact, a sharp drop in U.S. spending on restaurants, retail and travel has pushed overall household spending down by 50%.

The good news is there are steps you can take to get that sign-up bonus anyway. We talked with travel experts to get advice on how to earn a sign-up bonus after an unexpected change in spending patterns, all while avoiding overspending, keeping your balance under control and making payments on time.

Here are seven tips for adjusting your sign-up bonus strategy during the coronavirus pandemic.

See related: 4 credit cards offering a $500 sign-up bonus

1. Size up your situation

First crunch the numbers to see exactly how your spending has changed. Your spending on concerts and travel may have shrunk to zero, but chances are your grocery spending has gone up significantly.

Take a look at your planned spending compared with your current spending and tally up the dollar amount of any shortfall. Now figure out if you can meet your spending requirement by purchasing other items in a financially savvy way.

2. Be realistic about your finances

Has your financial situation changed drastically? For example, maybe you lost your job or took a big pay cut. As much as you may want the sign-up bonus you were targeting, it’s important to get clear about your finances so you don’t rack up credit card debt.

Paying high interest could cancel out the value of your bonus and put you in a financial bind. In the midst of uncertainty around COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to manage your credit cards wisely. Many card issuers are offering assistance to cardholders during the pandemic.

“But you must call and ask for it,” Wilson says.

3. Ask for an extension

Need more time to meet minimum spend? Your card issuer may extend your time frame from the usual three months to up to six months.

For example, anyone who got (or gets) approved for an American Express card between Dec. 1, 2019, and May 31, 2020 will have six months to meet the spending requirement to get their welcome offer. Chase and Bank of America have both announced similar offers.

“Other card issuers are handling this on a case-by-case basis, so it’s worth picking up the phone if you’re in danger of not spending enough to earn a sign-up bonus,” Wilson says.

See related: Airline, hotel loyalty programs extending perks for members through coronavirus

4. Find creative ways to spend

As long as your financial situation is stable and you can pay your credit card bill in full, you can find different ways to spend that make sense for your current situation. For example:

Shop for someone else

Do you have a parent or other loved one who can’t or shouldn’t leave the house to do essential errands because they’re in a higher-risk category for COVID-19? You can order grocery delivery for them to make their life easier, then get reimbursed before your bill is due. It may be a win-win: they don’t have to figure out Instacart, and you get to put some extra spending on your card.

Support your local restaurants

Restaurants are closed, but many still offer takeout with curbside pickup. Remember that you can add to your stash of points by spending on items that earn extra points.

For example, Chase is offering 5X points with Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and 5% cash back with Chase Freedom* for DoorDash and Tock food delivery services through May 31, 2020. The offer is valid on up to $500 total purchases.

Don’t feel comfortable getting carryout? One popular way to support your favorite local restaurant is to buy a gift card now to use later. But be sure to consider whether that coffee shop, juice bar or restaurant will still be in business when you want to use the card, says Jamie Larounis, a travel industry analyst for Upgraded Points.

“It’s really a judgment call on your end,” he says.

Stock up wisely

It’s not a good idea to run out and buy 20 jumbo packs of toilet paper in a panic. But it is smart to keep at least two weeks’ worth of food in your “pandemic pantry” along with essentials such as batteries, light bulbs and medication.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends preparing for a pandemic by buying a supply of cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes and vitamins. If you’re missing essential items and can comfortably afford to buy them, go ahead and pull out your card.

Do your holiday shopping early

Do you have any birthday or holiday gifts you could buy early? Now that you have extra time on your hands, it might be the perfect time to do your shopping in advance – online, of course.

Make use of your stimulus check

In March, the U.S. government passed a $2 trillion stimulus package that includes direct payments of $1,200 each to many taxpayers. It’s important to plan ahead for how to spend your stimulus check.

One possibility: pay for a purchase with your credit card, and then use your check to pay the bill. This allows you to leverage the money to earn a sign-up bonus plus additional rewards per dollar spent on your card.

5. Consider paying a fee as a last resort

If you still can’t meet minimum spend, it may make sense to use your credit card for a big necessary expense even if you have to pay a processing fee.

For example, you could pay your rent or mortgage or your income tax bill with your card. If your landlord doesn’t take cards, you can use a service such as Plastiq to pay rent with a credit card. Plastiq also can be used to pay the mortgage and other bills.

“I would stress this is only a good idea if you have the cash available to pay your rent, mortgage or taxes,” says John Perri, a travel blogger at John the Wanderer.

The conventional wisdom says fees cancel out any points you earn, but paying a big expense with your card is probably worth it if it allows you to earn the sign-up bonus.

6. Apply for new cards strategically

Does your current sign-up bonus strategy involve applying for more cards down the road? If an American Express card fits in with your plan, it may make sense to apply for an Amex card before the end of May and take advantage of its welcome bonus extension.

And given the trouble many airlines are experiencing due to the pandemic, you may want to avoid co-branded airline cards in favor of cards that offer flexible points that can be transferred into various loyalty programs, Larounis recommends.

Finally, “only open up a credit card and put spend on the account if you can actually pay the bill,” Perri says.

See related: Does applying for a credit card hurt your credit score?

7. Revisit your travel goals

Do you have a multi-card strategy with the goal of a big international trip in mind? It may be worth revisiting your original goal – and travel dates – to see if you want to or need to make any changes.

You may decide that you’d prefer a domestic trip rather than a big international journey. Or you may realize you have more time now to meet your goal.

In that case, you may want to wait to apply for new cards until the travel industry gets back in gear and card issuers start offering juicy bonuses to lure cardholders who tightened their spending and stayed home during the pandemic, Larounis says.

Bottom line

Just worried about meeting the spending requirement on that card you opened right before the pandemic hit? It’s still very possible to earn that bonus.

“You just have to be more strategic about it,” Wilson says.

*All information about Chase Freedom has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer. Chase Freedom is no longer available through CreditCards.com.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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