Note: We're not encouraging people to go out and sign up for credit cards, especially if you have debt or plan to carry a balance on a card. (The interest you pay will wipe out any rewards benefits.) But if you can control your spending and pay your bill on time and in full every month, Holly's money hack may work for you. Also keep in mind that your credit score takes a hit each time you open a card, and whatever balance you have on your credit card as of the statement closing date will be reported to the credit bureaus. If you pay the balance in full before the statement closing date, your balance will be reported as $0.
Almost two years ago, we began our journey out of debt. Like the average American family, we had car loans, student loans, and consumer debt. At one point, we were making minimum payments on several credit cards and a loan I took out to buy a Kirby vacuum. I'm serious.
However, getting pregnant with our second child made us realize that we needed to get our finances together quickly. Once we committed to new financial goals, we cut out nearly everything from our life that was “enjoyable.” We said goodbye to cable TV and dinners at restaurants. We quit shopping for fun and only went to the store to get groceries and absolute necessities. Our new budget was cut down to the bare bones…so much so that I hesitated to buy almost anything.
As the months flew by, we began making huge strides against the debt that we had burdened ourselves with. Once we became debt-free, we realized that we had become addicted to our new, frugal lifestyle. Having no consumer debt had freed up a lot of cash to save and invest, and we quickly got serious about building wealth. However, having a strict budget made it difficult to do anything spontaneous like see a movie or have a date night. I began to look for a way to supplement our income with some “fun money” without ruining our short- and long-term goals. It was around that time that I got my first credit card sign-up bonus offer in the mail.
Enter credit card rewards
I couldn't believe my eyes when I read a direct mailer from a major issuer promoting their new credit card. “Spend $500 in 3 months and earn a $100 statement credit.” Could it really be that easy? Why would they give away $100 in free money? As I read through the disclosures carefully, I determined that there was no “catch.” Truthfully, the issuer was offering a $100 bonus just to get new customers to try their card. As long as I paid off the card in full and accrued no interest, this $100 would truly be free money. Since our grocery spending approaches $500 on a normal month, I knew that we could reach the spending requirement easily and I decided to give it a try. Within the first month, we put our regularly planned spending on the card. The bonus points, equal to a $100 statement credit, were quickly credited to my account. I was hooked.
Soon after that, my husband applied for the same card and earned the $100 bonus just for doing our regular shopping. We then moved on to new cards in order to earn a new sign-up bonus. Another card from that issuer, which had better perks, required that we spend $3,000 in three months in order to earn a $400 statement credit. Since we had some upcoming expenses that could be put on credit, we each signed up. We put two family vacations and our regular monthly spending for groceries and gas on each card and easily earned $800 in statement credits. Since we were going to spend the money anyway, these bonuses were truly “free.” We used the $1,000 that we had earned up to this point on some fun activities with our children. I was also able to surprise my husband with last-minute tickets to see his favorite musical, “Les Miserables,” and a new grill for Father's Day.
Is this wrong?
Obviously there are some people who would say that we are gaming the system. Their argument may be that the credit card bonuses are meant to secure long-term customers, not to provide some extra cash to take my family to Applebee's. Some may feel that we are just using the banks for our own gain.
I don't see it that way at all. Actually, to a certain extent, some of their strategies have worked. For instance, I plan on keeping the perkier card because it has no foreign transaction fees. I have also found that this particular card comes with great customer service. Calling the 1-800 number on the card quickly connects me with a real, live person at any hour of the day or night. I would have never tried the card if not for the sign-up bonus. So, in that respect, I feel that the issuer did earn a long-term customer.
I also definitely do not feel bad that I never pay interest. For every person like me who pays their balance in full every month, there are far too many people making the minimum payment. Additionally, banks earn money from retailers just because they choose to take credit cards as payment. Simply put, when I spend $100 at the grocery store, they have to pay the credit card company a certain percentage of my order.
In the past two months, we have moved our spending from those cards to another issuer's premium card. Their new offer of “Spend $2,000 in 3 months and earn $250 in gift cards” was just too good to pass up…especially with Christmas just around the corner. Since we will put our gas, groceries, and our entire Christmas shopping budget on the card, we will easily reach the spending requirement and, thus, reap the rewards.
Chasing reward deals certainly isn't for everyone. However, it has definitely made a difference in our bottom line. It has provided us with some extra money that doesn't have to be accounted for. I can spend our rewards on gifts or something fun and not feel like I have sacrificed what is important to us. And now that we are completely out of consumer debt, I am actually finding that using credit cards helps us stay on budget. Both of the issuers have websites that make it quick and easy to track what I have spent and where.
Is this strategy right for you?
Before entertaining any credit card sign-up bonuses, I would ask myself a few questions. Are you in debt? If you are in credit card debt, then it is a bad idea to pursue credit card rewards. In fact, you might consider cutting up your cards or putting them somewhere not easily accessible. Work on getting out of debt and staying out of debt instead.
Do you have trouble tracking your spending? If so, then pursuing rewards offers may not be for you. While I tend to use one card at a time, some people try to juggle multiple offers at once and end up getting confused. If you are worried about losing track of your spending, then please skip using credit cards altogether.
Are you worried about your credit score? Remember that applying for new credit too frequently can reduce your score and make it harder for you to get the best rate for a loan. Please take into consideration how applying for credit will affect your credit score and do what is in your best interest.
Do you try to earn credit card rewards? If so, what is your favorite credit card rewards program?
Author: Holly Johnson
Holly Johnson is a credit card expert, award-winning writer, and mother of two who is obsessed with frugality, budgeting, and travel. In addition to serving as contributing editor for The Simple Dollar and writing for publications such as Bankrate, U.S. News and World Report Travel, and Travel Pulse, Johnson owns Club Thrifty and is the co-author of Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love.