After the TSP, I invest my money in Betterment and Vanguard. I track all of my investments with Personal Capital. I also wrote a short, 2 hour book summarizing this site. You can buy it here.
This year and last year I stepped up my “travel hacking” game. In this article, I’ll cover the two easy systems I use to find the best cards and meet the minimum spending. I will also cover which cards I plan to keep, which ones I plan to throw out, and the effect on my credit score of this churning.
You will find that credit card bonuses can be easier to find and earn then you thought and it does not have a negative effect on your credit score.
Here are the best credit cards for sign up bonuses I found over the past year:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- American Express Hilton Surpass
- Chase Freedom Unlimited
- AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest
- Citi Hilton HHonors
- Chase Ink Business Plus
And here is the breakdown of the $4675 in bonuses I earned:
|Card Name||Bonus Points||Reward Program||Spend||Annual Fee||Value|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||100k||Ultimate Rewards||$4k/3 mos||$495||$1500|
|American Express Hilton Surpass||100k||Hilton HHonors||$3k/3 mos||$0||$500|
|Chase Freedom Unlimited||15k||Ultimate Rewards||$500/3 mos||$0||$225|
|AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest||35k||SPG||$5k/6 mos||$0||$875|
|Citi Hilton HHonors||75k||Hilton HHonors||$2k/3 mos||$0||$375|
|Chase Ink Business Plus||80k||Ultimate Rewards||$5k/4 mos||$95||$1200|
Note that none of these links are affiliate links. My site does not get as much traffic as some sites so I am not eligible for the highly lucrative credit card affiliate links. Sites like The Points Guy, Million Mile Secrets, and MadFIentist can receive up to $500 for a single credit card sign up.
The average sign up commission is probably closer to $100-200, but with a few hundred sign ups a month, a credit card affiliate site can make millions per year. The more you know…
How to Easily Get Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses
After taking an extended break from the credit card reward game, I got back into it last year. Chase offered 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for anyone who signed up for their Chase Sapphire Reserve card. If you cashed in the points for just cash, they would be worth $1000. If you spent the points on travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, they are worth $1500. Quite a good deal for adjusting how I spend and pay for things for a few months.
The two hardest things for me about credit card sign up bonuses is:
- Making sure I find the best deals
- Putting enough spending on the card
The best way I found this year and last year to find the best credit card sign up bonuses is the MadFIentist’s Travel Card website. It’s extremely easy to filter by the type of reward program you want to target, whether you want to pay annual fees, and what kind of spending you do per month.
The easiest way I found to meet the credit card spending minimums to earn the bonus is Plastiq. Plastiq accepts American Express, Visa, and MasterCard and allows you to pay bills that you normally have to pay by check through a credit card. If you use the referral code 471946, I will receive some fee free dollars and you will as well.
Plastiq charges a fee of 2.5% for most transactions, so obviously if you are not earning more than 2.5% cash back or in reward points it is not worth putting all your transactions through. But when you have a bonus like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that offers $1500 in Ultimate Reward points, paying $125 in fees to Plastiq is well worth it.
To meet the spending requirements, I simply put my rent payment through Plastiq. I also try to remember to use whatever card I am working on the bonus for all my groceries, gas, Amazon purchases, and when I am TDY for food and other necessary purchases.
I find that it is easiest to have one card at a time to “work” on. Tracking any more than that can get a bit stressful. At the moment I am working on meeting the spending requirements on both the AMEX SPG card and Citi Hilton HHonors card, because both were offering extra bonus points for a limited time. Usually though I like to just apply for 1 card every 3-4 months.
Cards I Plan to Keep in My Wallet
The Chase Sapphire Reserve will probably remain in my wallet, even though it comes with a hefty $495 annual fee for the first card and an additional $75 for each authorized user. How can I justify spending $570 annually on a credit card?
First, the card comes with a $300 annual travel credit. See below to see how the credit is applied. When you make any travel related purchase like rental cars, Uber or taxi trips, airfare, checked baggage fees, etc, Chase automatically applies a credit the same day. Nothing to apply for, it’s all transparent to you and automatic. See below to see how it worked for me when I took an Uber to the airport and rented a car at my destination.
So while it is a $570 annual fee, you can take $300 off that because of the travel credit. That leaves $270.
The other benefit I use the most is the no foreign transaction fees. This saved me a few hundred dollars last year as I frequently travel internationally for both work and pleasure. Also, travel and restaurants give you 3 points for every dollar spent, or about 4.5% cash back when you consider the 50% bonus Chase Ultimate Rewards pays when you book travel through their site.
The AMEX Hilton Surpass waives the annual fee for active duty military members and offers automatic Gold status in the Hilton HHonors program. This one will stay in my wallet and I will probably favor Hilton properties when I go TDY for the next few months.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases. It’s a good everyday card when I am not trying to meet spending mins on another card or travelling. I move the points from my Freedom Unlimited card to the Sapphire Reserve card to take advantage of the 50% bump when cashing them in.
The AMEX SPG has no annual fees for active duty military, so I will keep it after meeting the bonus requirements. I am still waiting for a 100,000 point bonus to apply for the AMEX Platinum card.
I do not plan on keeping the Citi Hilton HHonors card, as I can keep my Gold status with the AMEX Hilton Surpass card with no annual fee. Also I cancelled the Chase Ink Business Plus card 6 months after receiving the bonus. Chase offered me an annual fee refund of $95 which I accepted. That offer delayed my cancellation by a month but I still ended up cancelling to simplify my credit card portfolio and reduce my annual fees.
Effect on My Credit Score
Churning credit cards does not seem to have that much of an effect on my credit score. Besides, I am not applying for a car loan or mortgage in the near future. If I was, I would probably just stop playing the credit card bonus game a year out to let my score stabilize and reduce the number of inquiries on my account.
Also, I would probably cancel some of the more recent cards I pulled out to increase the average age of my accounts, which has a medium impact on your credit score. I can pull up my credit score for free on American Express, Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, and USAA.
As of March 2017, American Express reports my FICO Score 8 as 748, which they consider “very good.” As you can see in the graph below, my score has not fluctuated much in the past year. The highest reported score was 795 and the lowest is my current 748.
Credit Karma reports my score as 820. It hasn’t fluctuated below 800 for the past two years.
Credit Sesame says my score is 820 as well. They have not reported a score below 800 for the past year.
Finally, USAA reports my score as 808. It’s changed maybe 10 points in the last year.
Overall, I am not concerned about the effect of credit card churning on my credit score. I think the free credit card score tools like Credit Sesame and Credit Karma may overestimate your score to get you to apply for more cards so they make more money. That’s just an educated guess, no evidence to support it.
While it’s been good getting these bonuses, I will see if I continue to do it throughout 2017. We are moving OCONUS and will not have a monthly rent check to pay, so that will decrease the consistent monthly spending we put on the cards. I do not want to have to come up with creative ways of reaching the spending minimums.
When meeting the spending bonuses becomes a hassle, it’s probably no longer worth the time and effort. Life is too short to worry about what credit card to use and when to cancel which card.
Did you take advantage of any great credit card sign up bonuses recently? Let us know in the comments!
2 Websites I Use to Achieve Financial Independence Faster
I have investment accounts all over the place. To keep track of all of them in one place I use Personal Capital. It combines all of my accounts, shows me where I may be overpaying in fees, and provides beautiful charts showing my overall asset allocation and performance.
I use Personal Capital to track my Roth and Traditional TSP, Vanguard IRAs, banking accounts, SDP, and my Betterment taxable account, all in one place. It's free, secure and presents me with a one-stop dashboard so I can see all my money on one site.
Read my full review of Personal Capital and see how easy it can be to manage your investments in one place. Trust me, once you try it, you'll love it.
P.S. - If you have over $100,000 of assets and a 401k, you really need to run the Personal Capital 401k Fee Analyzer.
The best way I know to achieve financial independence is to keep your investments simple, diversified, automatic, and low-cost. Costs eat into your returns like you wouldn't believe! A 1% difference in expense ratios can mean $100,000s lost to fees over a lifetime of investing.
Even if you're a DIY (do-it-yourself) investor like I am, you need to check out Betterment. You can read my full review here, but the bottom line is for only $250 per $100,000 invested (0.25% expense ratio) you get simple, diversified, and automated investing. In addition every account now gets free Tax Loss Harvesting+ features, which should increase returns for the average investor more than the minuscule management fee.
If you're not a DIY investor or are just getting started with investing, then you definitely need to check out Betterment. It's what I recommend to my family and friends who aren't strong investors or don't care to learn about asset allocations, diversification, or rebalancing.