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How I earned 6% Cashback and 20 points per dollar on Spending this year

 

“Daddy, can we fly on a plane someday?” A simple question set forth by my daughter January of this year. As a father and husband I wanted nothing more than to book a flight to some beautiful destination at that moment. Unfortunately, in my capacity as the personal financial planner I am much less flexible. Absent a wealthy philanthropist deciding to sponsor our family sometimes we will not be afforded certain luxuries.

 

 

A few days later my brothers returned from a ski trip and my mother suggested that we take a big family ski vacation during Christmas Break. In the same way that my daughter’s idea to fly on a plane sounded fun, this also sounded great. However, my mind slipped back into the “how can I make this happen” mode. Obviously to even consider this kind of endeavor we would need to tighten our purse strings and save as much money as possible. We would need to purchase at least 3 plane tickets, which would cost at least $300 each. At this point I stumbled upon credit card offers that may help my family out.

 

 

I have been a long time user of a couple different cashback reward cards and feel that these are fantastic. The first card I signed up for was an American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card that would earn me $200 sign up bonus and 6% cashback on any grocery purchases. At this point I figured that I would buy gift cards from Kroger and use the extra $200 bonus to pay for these. This card also has a 0% intro rate for 12 months so it was nice. This card is very nice, but is only part of my overall spending strategy. It seemed that the more I looked into credit card offers the more benefits I found.

 

 

After that card I found the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card which has a 40,000 point signing bonus which can be used as a statement credit and be worth $400! I signed up for this card as well, met the spending and got the bonus points.

 

 

My biggest score of the year I will be writing in more detail about in a few days, but I was able to sign up for 2 Southwest credit cards. This netted me 106,000 points which are good toward about $1,908 worth of flights, but it actually gets better. When you earn 110,000 points in one year you earn a “Companion Pass”, this allows me the opportunity to bring a companion (my wife) along with me for free on any trip I book. Even if that flight is booked and paid with points. This effectively doubles the value of my points.

 

 

So far this year, as of 7/30/2013, my wife and I have racked up many miles, points and cashback. These have been earned through cashback portals and credit cards. In cashback alone we earned more than $775 in cashback. Even after paying the $75 annual fee on my AMEX we have earned over $700 cashback this year on our AMEX, Discover, Gas Reward Card and TopCashBack. We earned nearly 6 cents back on every dollar spent. We used this money to purchase a computer, which I built.

 

 

Even more amazing is our return on points and miles! We have earned over 400,000 miles! Even if you value these at only 1 penny each this means we have $4,000 worth of travel in our future. However, 235,000 of these miles can be used toward Southwest, which means they are worth about 1.8 cents per mile (doubled to 3.6 cents per mile with Companion Pass)! If we used all of these for flying Southwest we could get as much as $8,460 worth of travel on those 235,000 miles. Most of these points and miles came from bonuses and they all came from spending money normally. We earned nearly 20 points per dollar spent. That is like getting a 20% (or more) discount on everything we bought, even after finding the lowest prices.

 

 

In order to maximize our points per dollar spent we focus our credit card spending on those cards that provide the biggest payoff. I have a 6% Grocery Card, 5% Gas Card, 2 points per dollar on restaurant and travel. Even with these bigger returns my focus is on meeting spending limits on individual cards that offer big bonuses. If I need to spend $5,000 in 3 months to earn 60,000 points this is far more lucrative than the 5% or 6%. So if I am at the grocery and have not hit my $5,000 amount I will use the card with a spending goal rather than a 6% grocery card.

 

 

Using credit cards has been very lucrative for us this year and we look forward to taking many enjoyable trips at a deep discount. The use of credit cards inappropriately can be very dangerous. If you do not have the money to spend in cash, then using a credit card for spending is out of the question as well. We pay off our bills every month and have not paid any credit card fees over this amount of time. Also be sure to not bite off more than you can chew. For instance if you spend $1,000 a month normally do not sign up for cards that will require you to spend $4,000 each month in order to get the bonus.

 

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“Doesn’t getting a card lower my credit score?”

Last month my sister was planning a rare international flight.  I recommended she pick up a travel rewards credit card.  The Chase Sapphire Preferred rewards 2 points per dollar spent on travel and gives a 40,000 point signing bonus if you spend $2,500 in the first 3 months.  The cost of an international flight alone is about $1,500 so hitting a bit over $300 a month in 3 months is easily attainable.  Minimally all the points could be applied directly to the statement to pay for her trip. Her reply was “Doesn’t getting a card lower my credit score?”

Theoretically, it could since inquiries do negatively impact your credit score.  However, using a smaller portion of your available credit has the opposite impact on your score.

For the past few years I have only had a few credit cards in my wallet.  My primary card was my Discover Card, which earns 5% cashback on revolving categories throughout the year.  All other spending earns 1% cashback which is not really a bad deal.  For gas, grocery and drugstore purchases I had an old credit card that rewards 5% in those categories.  In February, I called Discover about my account and customer service did very little to resolve my issue.  At that point I decided I would focus my spending on other cards.  When researching online I found a plethora of very great credit cards and companies competing for my business with nice bonuses.  I pulled a few credit reports and all of them put me in the low 700s range.  I have never missed a payment and nearly all of my spending is put on a reward credit card.

Since then I have applied for 4 different credit cards and been accepted for all of them.  Over the same time span my credit score has increased substantially.  All credit scores I have checked now put my credit score at over 750 and the only thing I have done is get more credit cards (more available credit) and paid off the balances in full with each statement.  In my personal experience, applying for credit cards actually helps to improve your credit as long as you are a responsible borrower.  In no way is this meant to condone applying for credit cards wrecklessly, but if you are dilligent with your finances your credit should not suffer.

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Dave Ramsey Modern Day Snake Oil Salesman / Financial Guru

In my formative years my attention was easily captured by loud, on-air television and radio personalities.  If they had such platforms they must be the smartest people in their profession right?  After I made countless billions of dollars following Jim Cramer’s shenanigans on “Mad Money”, I then sought out personal financial advice beyond investing.  I changed the radio dial and found Dave Ramsey with his strong voice and superior attitude, plus he was rich so he must know the best way to manage money.

After further examination, I found many flaws in the Dame Ramsey logic and philosophy.  But he wrote a book, so he has to know the best way, right?  What do I know though, he has way more money than me.  I recommended my brother get a reward credit card with a lucrative signing bonus for spending rather than a debit card.  His question to me was, “Doesn’t Dave Ramsey say that people shouldn’t have a credit card and use cash or a debit card?”  I asked him to explain the difference between spending money on a credit card and paying it off every month and spending it on a debit card.   The only thing I know for certain is that the math that I use to make financial decisions must be different from the math used by the financial guru.

Advocating Luxury Spending

Budgeting can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it.  You can break down every dollar spent for every category (Clothing Budget) including allocating expenses into subcategories (Cut-off Jean Shorts).  Most importantly to climb out of debt is to maximize the difference between income and expenses.  This means cutting out any luxury expenses.  Certainly Dave Ramsey demonizes many of the luxury expenses that I agree with cutting out.  However, he still advocates a 10% tithe to church and charitable donations (versus 5% for utilities).  Giving to charity is luxury afforded those who have met all other obligations.  If you are in debt and cannot adequately provide for your family then you should not be considering trying to support others.  I understand that giving money to charity is nice, but it is also a luxury.  This is one of those luxuries that does not seem luxurious, it just seems like the right thing to do.  However, if you are focusing on climbing out of debt your money could be put to better use.  Let’s assume that you make $48,000 a year and give $400 a month to church, that amounts to $4,800 a year.  Let’s assume you owe $10,000 on a credit card paying 12% interest, if you are currently trying to pay off the loan in 3 years you will pay $1,859 in interest over the 3 years.  Instead you could spend the extra $400 a month paying off the credit card and you would save $1,089 in interest ($1,857 vs. $768), and pay off the credit card 1.7 years sooner than under your current schedule (3 years vs. 1.2 years).  If you’re still set on giving the 10% away make an IOU and keep track of all the charity you did not give.  As you can afford it, you can increase the charitable donations.  This also has tax implications as well since it would be better for most tax filers to donate to charity in a lump sum.

No Credit Cards

Dave loves to talk about how bad credit cards are for consumers, but goes out of his way to point out good deals.  I absolutely agree that using a credit card to accrue tons of debt at 15% interest is a ridiculous notion.  However, banks also have enticing bonus offers.  Such as the Chase Slate card which offers a 0% introductory balance transfer for 15 months.  Using the same scenario as above you could apply for the card, transfer $10,000 to the Chase Slate card and pay $0 in interest plus if you paid $729 per month you would have your loan paid off sooner.  Although I have heard him say that he can allow a 0% balance transfer he needs to be telling everyone to reduce their interest rates immediately.

The first time I really questioned his advice was when I was buying a computer in college.  Best Buy was offering a 3 years interest free financing offer.  I needed a computer and was going to spend $1,500 on the computer I wanted with cash or credit.  I had the cash in the bank accruing interest (higher interest rates than now) so I decided to finance the purchase.  I paid it off $50 a month and paid it off ahead of time.  Never did I miss one payment, nor did the credit card companies lose my payments or force me to spend more.  I still had the cash available to earn interest and spend as needed.

Over the past few years I have used my Discover card and a gas, grocery and drugstore reward card to earn cashback on almost every purchase.  I earned 5% cashback in specific categories, but never did I overspend to earn money.  However, I did earn a few hundred dollars extra on money I was going to spend anyway.  Sure, it has not helped me retire early, but it did allow me to have a few hundred dollars extra to spend on my family.

More recently I have captured signing bonuses of $400,  50,000 airline points ($833 worth of airfares) and other offers from credit cards just for signing up and spending money as I normally would.  Studies may suggest that people spend more with credit cards, (as Mr. Ramsey loves to point out) but this really throws personal responsibility out the window.  If you are responsible and pay off your credit card every month you actually benefit quite greatly from a credit card.

Dave likes to say that he does not know any millionaires who got rich from credit card rewards, but that is hardly the point.  To me, these reward bonuses are extra unearned income.  I can take a trip using these airline points which will provide richer experiences for my family to share.  Otherwise we may have not been able to afford to fly for a vacation, even on Southwest.  Millionaires never worry about things like this because they can just buy their own plane tickets (or plane if they have enough millions).

Debt Snowball

For those people listening to Dave Ramsey to pull themselves out of debt he advocates the “Debt Snowball”  whereby the individual pays down the smallest debt most aggressively.  The theory is that as you pay off debt you can have a small moral victory.  From a psychological vantage point this makes a modicum of sense, but from a mathematical and fiscal sense this seems absolutely illogical.  Let’s imagine that someone has debts of $5,000 at 0% interest $8,000 at 3% interest and $10,000 at 12% interest.  Mr. Ramsey would suggest paying the minimum balance on the $8,000 and $10,000 debts then pay the rest toward the $5,000 debt.  Unless the 0% interest rate is about to expire and reverting to a higher rate there is no reason to be paying this amount at all.  If you pay down the higher interest rates you will save money over the long-term.  If you are paying off $500 a month over the 10 months it takes you to pay off the $5,000 debt your other debts will have accrued over $1,000 worth of interest.

I feel like Dave Ramsey has spent so much time being a part of the rich and elite that he does not value an extra $1,000.  Whether it’s from money saved on interest rates or rewards earned through the purchases you are already going to make Mr. Ramsey finds these methods undesirable.

Selling Services to Broke (Broken) People

I am not against the profit motive, but I do think that picking the targets of profit attainment is something else entirely.  Dave’s core audience seems to be people who do not need to spend a dime on incremental expenses.  These people usually need to even cut their fixed expenses.  Yet, Mr. Ramsey seems to be more than ready to constantly recommend to his adherents that they purchase his books or come to his conferences.  As an accountant I always loved making budgets, especially creating them for individuals is fun.  The problem with this is that a Catch-22 situation is created.  Most people who need a budget cannot afford to pay for a budget and most people who can pay you are pretty good with money and can set up their own financial policy.

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Walt Disney World on a Budget (Part 2 – Lodging)

Walt Disney World simplisticsaving.com

 

“You HAVE TO stay on site!”,  “You’ve GOTTA get the Disney Dining Plan”, “If you do not buy a souvenir at every shop you hate your kids”

As soon as you express plans to visit Walt Disney World you will get a myriad of advice on how to have a great trip.  If you follow every piece of advice you are obviously quite wealthy and I would suggest that you bring me along next time.  While many of these tidbits are excellent on an unlimited budget, they are quite unproductive when planning a trip on a realistic budget and salary.  My brother recently got the insider advice to stay at the “W” when visiting Washington D.C.  While this advice may be excellent I would assume that a $500 per night hotel room would be pretty good.  I can only assume that this local preferred the accommodations found at the “W” to what you might find at “The Lincoln Bedroom”.

Keeping in mind when reading advice that every family is different and we all enjoy different things.  Stating an opinion on lodging is even more divisive than most opinions. While some people might think a $20 motel is a great value another family would refuse to stay in such a place even if they were paid $20 (or $2,000) per night.  As I have stated before, I feel that maximizing value based on your own valuation is most important.  This also goes for time spent in planning such a trip.  I enjoy putting time into the planning stage and minimizing costs while maximizing my value.  Sometimes I have trouble pulling the trigger for fear of a better deal passing me.

Disney Resort Hotels

In 2011 we went to Orlando and I did all of the research online.  I first looked to stay onsite because the accommodations at Disney’s lodging options are excellent.  I visited my cousin staying at the Wilderness Lodge and it is gorgeous.  All of the options staying on the property are fantastic.  If money is no object we would stay at Disney World, in the future we will also likely stay at one of the resort options.  I think that staying at the resort is much more valuable when you fly to Orlando rather than drive.  Staying at a resort allows you free transportation to and from the airport, which also means no rental car is an option.  I have not done this myself, but the minimal research I have done thus far this seems like a viable option.

Off-Site Rankings

The first thing I did was to take a look at all of the hotels in the area.  I found many different “deals” around the area, but it’s really hard to evaluate a property that you have never seen.  One of my favorite ways to check out a property is Trip Advisor because their rating system is based on actual experiences by hotel guests.  Other rating systems sometimes have a vested interest in ranking certain properties higher than reality.  One problem with all of the available discount sites such as Hotwire, Priceline, etc. are the huge price differences between each hotel guest.  The price you pay on a hotel room will definitely influence your ranking.  If I pay $300 per night for a room my perspective will be different than if I only pay $300 for the week.  So even on Trip Advisor it will seem like some people will have higher or lower expectations.  Another flaw is that sometimes ratings might be different if there is a recent renovation.

List

On my list of things I needed in a hotel was pool, high ratings and free breakfast.  I figure if all other things are equal and one place offers breakfast I will pick that place. Since we are going to eat in the morning anyway, if we can get it included in the price of the room that’s added value.  For 3 people that saved at least $8 per day if we just went to McDonalds.  I then evaluated all of the hotels that met our needs.  After that I checked out which one had the lowest price.  After narrowing them down is when the fun begins.  I did not pick the cheapest hotel on my list of acceptable hotels because I estimate value differently than lowest dollar amount.  I like to get the most bang for my buck.  I finally decided on a Country Inn and Suites – Calypso Cay, the pictures online made it look like a five star destination resort.  I searched around and found the room for $55 per night through EasyClickTravel.com.

Price Match

When you find a great price online there are often ways to make the price better.  I found the discounted price of $55 per night online, but when I went to countryinns.com I found that the same room was going for $75 per night.  However, I saw on their site that they guarantee that booking through them will get you the lowest price or else they will match it then discount the lower rate 25%!  I called the hotel and let them know that I had found the lower rate and they told me that I had to book through them first and it would be adjusted.  Much like mail-in rebates I am skeptical of offers like this, but I believe the best protection is backing up any claim.  So I took multiple screenshots of the discounted rate through every step.  I then booked the room and then immediately put in the price match request.  The first time I sent over a basic email stating that I had found the lower price and been told it would be matched.  I received an email saying, “Unfortunately we are unable to process your request”.  I then sent over another email with the direct link to the page and about 10 screenshots.  I got an email back saying “We have confirmed your lower price and have beat it by 25% your new price will be $39.90 per night”.  That was about as easy as possible.  Took just a bit of time and minimal negotiation. Not only is booking with the hotel superior because they beat the price, but I was also able to get 6,600 Club Carlson Gold Points.  I still have not used them, but if I get the Club Carlson Visa card, which currently offers an 85,000 point bonus, These points might be nice.

Cashback 

If I were booking this hotel right now doing the same method I would save even more money.  Using Cashback portals is so easy and can be quite lucrative especially when used in conjunction with a cashback credit card.  First you would click through TopCashBack then type in Country Inn and Suites, then simply click through there and get 5% cashback on the booked rate of $526.50 so I would have gotten $26 into my TopCashBack account.  Even if I did not get the extra cashback, it would be worth it.  I also booked with a Discover Card which had travel as a 5% cashback category so I saved another $26 in Cashback.  Basically those two cashback amounts paid for at least one night.  It is possible that they would catch on that the cashback was calculated using the higher amount, but either way it’s a nice bonus.

Blind Pricing

Priceline famously has a “Name Your Own Price” option which can be very good or very bad.  I have had both experiences and it goes back to the rating systems I spoke about earlier.  In my experience it appears that Priceline inflates some of the substandard hotel ratings in order to offer a really low price on a hotel.  If you take a bit of time it’s sometimes possible to figure out which hotel is being offered by either Priceline or Hotwire.  You can also go to BetterBidding.com and get some help on how to purchase a hotel.

Credit Card Sign Up Bonus

There are some very lucrative hotel sign up bonuses that can really help in paying for your trip.  You can get a credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred which gives a 40,000 point signing bonus.  Then use the $400 as a statement credit to cover your travel.  You could also sign up for different hotel reward cards.  For instance, if you plan on staying at a Starwood hotel you can sign up for a SPG card which gives 25,000 bonus points.  A husband and wife could both apply for the card and have 50,000 points by simply hitting the minimum spend amounts.

Conclusion

Take your time when booking a hotel and make your decision based on things important to you.  Keep looking for deals and remember that many hotel chains offer to beat a price offered by an online booking agency.  Take advantage of reward programs, reward credit cards and shopping portals to add more discount to your prices.

 

 

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