Simplifying My Parents’ Credit Card Strategy

Filed Under: American Express, Chase
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I’m visiting my parents in Florida this weekend and nearly had a heart attack at dinner last night.

I’ve explained my credit card spend strategy in the past. It might seem complex to an outsider, though to me it’s quite easy. And that’s probably because I eat, sleep, and drink miles & points.

So I instinctively know subtleties, like that I should use The Platinum Card® from American Express for airfare purchased directly with an airline, while I use the Citi Premier® Card (review) for airfare purchased through an online travel agency, for example. I get that’s something most people wouldn’t understand, but then again, we’re not most people.

Fast forward to dinner last night. My dad insisted on paying, but when the check arrived he took out the Chase Freedom FlexSM.

“Dad, what are you doing??”
“I thought I was supposed to use this card for dining purchases?”
“No, that was last quarter, when they were offering 5x points at restaurants. Oh boy… so which credit card are you using for all your other purchases?”

He pulls out The Platinum Card® from American Express.

“That’s not the card you’re supposed to use for everyday spend!”
“I thought you said I was supposed to use the American Express?”
“Yes, but not that American Express. You should be using the Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card.”

That’s sort of the point at which I realized I had overcomplicated my parents’ credit card “system.” I was so focused on them maximizing spend in every category that they just got everything mixed up, which is my fault.

Now, I have both the Chase Freedom FlexSM and The Platinum Card® from American Express myself as well, and they’re fantastic cards. But they’re not what I’d choose to put my everyday spend on.

After realizing the cards my parents were using, I convinced my dad to take all cards out of his wallet except for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card.

Here’s the approach I’ve convinced them to take:

  • Use the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card for all dining and travel purchases including parking, as they’ll earn 2x points.
  • Use the Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card for everything else. They’ll earn 3x points at US supermarkets (on up to $6,000 of spend per year), 2x points at US gas stations, and 1x point per dollar spent on everything else. They’ll also get a 50% bonus when they make at least 30 purchases per billing cycle (which they’ll do), meaning in reality they’ll be earning:
    • 4.5x points at supermarkets
    • 3x points at gas stations
    • 1.5x points on everything else

Do the above two cards mean they’ll 100% maximize their return on every dollar they spend? Nope, but it’s pretty close, and I’d say it’s a great “compromise” between keeping things simple and making sure they’re maximizing their return.

I value Membership Rewards points at 1.8 cents each, so even on everyday spend they’ll be achieving a return of 2.7%, by my valuation.

Bottom line

While I can maximize my own credit card spend in my sleep, it’s a bit more challenging to make sure my family & friends are maximizing their points. And I guess I’ve come to realize that the simpler the strategy the better, even if it means sometimes forgoing points at the margins.

Based on my parents’ spend profile I’m almost wondering if I should just have them use the Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card for everything. They’d be giving up 0.5 points per dollar spent on dining and travel by not using the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, but at least I’d know they wouldn’t end up using the wrong cards altogether!

What approach do you take to ensuring that your friends & family are using the right credit cards to maximize their spend?

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  1. Regarding the Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card earning “3x points at US supermarkets (on up to $6,000 of spend per year)”, I assume that is “per calendar year” vice “per membership year”. Can you confirm?

  2. All this credit card stuff makes my head hurt. I just use my Citi AA World Elite MC until I’ve earned my 10,000 EQM, and then I switch to my Starwood AmEx. I know I’m not maximizing, but the shifting incentives are just too much to keep track of.

  3. I know exactly what you mean – even though we don’t even have that many credit card options over here in Germany, and none of them gives you any extra points on everyday spend our stuff like that. Getting my parents to use the British Airways Barclay Card for flights on BA (2 Avios per Euro) and the AmEx Gold with MR Turbo (1.5 MR per Euro) wherever possible is hard enough already. But they’re only collecting points for me so I guess I gotta be patient and explain the procedure again whenever necessary 🙂

  4. You say at the top you would use your citi premier for booking airfare through a portal or travel service website. Why is that?

  5. I generally give my wife two, or, at most three, cards to deal with and if it is three there is a sticker on the third one to tell her when to use it. I had her using exactly the same cards for the same things as Lucky, however, I am now stuck. We have hit $6000 in grocery spend for the year, so it drops to 1.5 points per dollar. We have a regular everyday card that would give us 2.4 points, but then all the other spending drops to 1.2 points from 1.5. Ideally, she would use the regular card for groceries and other transactions until we hit 20, then switch over to the preferred card to do the other 30 transactions (we average between 55 and 60 transactions per month), but that is crazy complicated to keep track of and she would have to figure out which card that looks exactly like the other card to pull out at which merchants AND at which time of the month. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we practice to maximize!

  6. I would do sth like this:
    Put stickers on the back of the cards with labels like “Gas” “Food” “Kohls” etc
    These are not permanent stickers, but used for the cards with rotating categories.
    Make it a point to “refresh” the labels each quarter (or whatever frequency) with the category bonuses.
    Apart from that, train them to use 2 go-to cards for everything. Like all groceries go on Card A, and everything else goes on Card B. This way it will be straightforward and easy for them. Even if there is some plastic juggling they will not be confused and they don’t use the wrong cards.

  7. Great article Ben. Setting my dad up with the same thing. However I’m going to have him use the Amex prg card since it no AF for the first year and he can grt on that 50k points offer with 1000 spend. Then apply for the Amex everyday after that.

  8. I think you gave them good advice. I have one relative whom I have tried to help…and she’s just annoyed with the whole points thang and uses IHG CC for all her spend. Oh well. Better to not be annoyed.

  9. I tell my parents to use the spg card everywhere Amex is taken and a 2% Visa card everywhere else. No hard decisions and is close enough to maximizing value.

  10. I must be getting old too… I find myself putting updated sticky notes in my wallet each quarter. 🙂 BTW, I have also been getting a lot of offers on my AT&T Universal Card (by Citi) for 5% on gas, groceries, dining which melds well with the Chase 5% quarterly deals. I think I get targeted since I never use it but now it seems I am getting them one right after another. There is a $500 spend limit on the offer, so I just need to keep it to that. It was the first card I had and have had it for 20+ years. It even says “Charter Member” on it since I got it during the first year, when I worked at AT&T. It was very unusual at the time as it was one of the first to combine other perks to a credit card (reduced price AT&T calling). Now it is practically obsolete yet still exists.

  11. Label with Paint Marker . More durable than Sharpie and similar .
    Also good for gift card pins and remaining balance .

  12. Ben,

    You earned my respect as a travel rewards blogger for your 31 July 2015 post titled, “Most People are Using the Wrong Credit Card” in which you cited the rationale, but unfortunately not the math, for most people using the Citibank Double Cash card. Most travel rewards bloggers quote credit card earn percentages without accounting for the impact of annual spend, annual fee, and the point redemption rate – all of which make it difficult to exceed a no fee 2% cash back card return. Point earning rates are widely discussed but the subtleties of the redemption rate and annual spend are usually not addressed. Granted, some redemptions may exceed a net 2% return, but most will not and the industry thrives because most folks aren’t really on top of the details. It is a sad fact that loyalty is not worth more than a net 2% return for most, or a very large percentage, of redemptions. Thus, might your parents be better off with more money in their pockets at year end, considering both the premium annual fees, redemption rates, and their annual spend with either the Citibank Double Cash card only or a combination of the Citibank Double Cash card and the AMEX Blue Cash Preferred card?

    It is sobering to contemplate the following fact and similar observations could be made for any travel rewards credit card with a $95 annual fee like the Chase Sapphire Preferred. For the AMEX SPG card with a $65 annual fee and at least $13,000 in annual spend, one needs to achieve a $0.025/point redemption rate ($ redeemed per $ spent – free night $ cost divided by points for a free night multiplied by 1 point earned per $ spent) to realize a 2% net return. Increase the annual fee to $95 and one needs to spend at least $19,000 annually with a $0.025/point redemption rate to realize a 2% net return. Now go see how many redemptions do not exceed $0.025/point redemption rate. Most people likely cannot afford to spend about $20k on one premium credit card so the rationale for owning several premium cards would require significant annual spend.

  13. @Lucky,

    I am sorry but this is too funny. I would also suggest putting a sticker/label at the back of the card for maximizing miles/points. Or use COIN and set up cards as 1, 2, 3, 4. They can always bring a cheat sheet for what number is for what category.

    It is because Citi Premier considers travel service websites/ agents as “Travel” category so you can still get 3X points. On the other hand, Amex Gold can only get 3X points if you purchase directly with airlines such as UA, AA, Delta, etc.

  14. I think the transfer partners for Amex are so poor, that I never recommend them (even though I use them and am saving for SQ suites, most people I know want to go to Europe).

    Therefore Chase Sapphire and Amex SPG. They have a far better mix of airline partners and you have SPG and Hyatt available, the best of the chains.

    Would you be recommending Amex if you weren’t doing the booking for them? Air Canada with fuel surcharges or ANA? (I know it’s good if they want to fly to Mia from Tampa using Avios on AA).

  15. It’s hard even for old hands. I recently had a stay at a Hyatt and then a Crowne Plaza.

    At the Hyatt I paid with my Hyatt credit card to get 3 Hyatt points per dollar. At the CP, I paid with my IHG credit card to get 5 IHG points per dollar.

    It was only later I realized I could have paid with my Amex Business Rewards at the Hyatt and gotten a 5% statement credit and still gotten 1 MR. 2 Hyatt points are not worth 5 cents.

    Then, with regards to the Crowne Plaza, my Chase Ink would have earned 2 UR. That’s certainly better than 5 IHG points.

  16. I am hoping Plastc fixes all of this. As long as you can manually input card names. I will be titling my card “Travel and Dining”, “Groceries if no take Amex”, “Groceries if take Amex”, “Amazon Oct-Dec” . Then you just scroll through and follow the instructions. Fingers crossed.

  17. Very similar to what I’ve done with my wife’s spending. Amex Everyday for everything. That way she almost hits the 30 mark (I’ll help if I need to at the end of the month). Just remember to give them a backup which isn’t Amex for places that doesn’t take it. CSP is a good backup.

  18. This is funny stuff! My frequent flyer programs date to 1981 and I amassed enough miles from job related travel for quite a few premium cabin flights to Europe. But then, forced into early retirement (remember that pretty recent economy issue?), I began to follow blogs like Ben’s and took advantage (especially with AAdvantage) of credit card opportunities. So, I’ve been able to redeem about 600K in the last eight months for award travel, including a family wedding in Ireland where I got three of us there in biz, return in 1st. But my younger brother, with years of banking and credit industry experience, couldn’t get his head around the concept despite his M.B.A. in finance. Finally, I gave him some baby steps with cards to get going and now he’s getting into it. Still, with him I’ll follow the old acronym alluded to by Ben, KISS, keep-it-simple-stupid.

  19. I am just graduating college and I am completely new at everything revolving credit cards. When I started doing my research for different credit cards, I could not figure out what to sign up for. I didn’t really know what I was looking for in the first place either. I will definitely be reading your articles from now on to get some insight.

  20. Here in Australia we don’t have the many benefits that American credit cards seem to offer. Best to look for cards which give bonus points for joining up. There are not many current ones doing this but there were quite a number earlier in the year when my partner and I managed to amass some 400,000 bonus points with no annual fee for the first year, holding the cards for up to a year and then cancelling The other trick is to phone up just before your next annual fee is due and threaten (gently) to cancel the card if the fee for the next year is charged. It works more often than not.

  21. I have an Excel doc grid that I created that lists each card and the bonus categories including categories earned in programs such as Visa Savings Edge. Category headings going across are Air, gas, restaurants, Hotels, grocery, etc. and underneath (in each card’s column) I list the % and simple notes if needed (5% Hyatt, 5% Apple, etc.). Could be created simpler than Excel though. I save as a PDF and keep a copy on my iPhone in iBooks. I refer to that PDF anytime I’m not sure which card to use. I also have a colum for “no forex” and check that column.

  22. Love the sleeves idea. I use a Google keep note that I share with my wife and let her know when I update it. Only keep three cards in her wallet to avoid confusion.

  23. Ben, I thing you did a wonderful thing with your parents. I’m the Mom of a travel blogger. I’ve made huge mistakes. Sometimes I think I should simplify what I’m doing the way you did with your parents.

  24. For me it’s the new card with a spend requirement I just met Hubby’s new AA – 50K miles. Put tonight’s meal on new Citi Prestige- 50k points. Have Hyatt CC on the way. Hope to use free nite in AUH during EY 1st trip in Oct
    As for this topic hubby likes the Sapphire Preferred card and has AA MC & AmEx Gold free this year.

  25. Folks,

    What am I missing in my post above? We use the original AMEX 5% Blue Cash card (since 2004) for gas, groceries, drugstore, and Costco. I acquired the AMEX SPG in 2013 and started using that for Costco and much (but not all) un-bonused spend. Cable, cell phone, and utility bills load automatically onto a Citibank Double Cash card which also gets used for some un-bonused spend by me. A Capital One Quicksilver card gets used when AMEX isn’t accepted by my wife and will be used as the future Costco card. I also have a no annual fee AMEX HHonors card and the Chase Marriott Premier which get light use at restaurants and each hotel brand (no general spend at all). I regulate the amount of AMEX SPG spending to not accumulate points to avoid devaluation. When I first got the AMEX SPG, returns of 2% to 4.5% were not hard but with recent devaluations and the annual fee increase, I have a hard time justifying my keeping the card. Thus, how do many of you folks justify one or multiple of these premium rewards credit cards with $95 annual fees? When I review potential redemption rates, I can easily justify keeping the AMEX SPG at a $65 annual fee but the ~20k spending for the $95 annual fee just does not seem worth it. I have tried to justify the Chase Sapphire Preferred card on a similar basis but it just does not add up – the no annual fee 2% cash back card beats it most of the time. Is the only answer to be a road or travel warrior and frequent international flights or what?

  26. Ben,
    Can you send AmEx Membership Rewards points to Alaska Air? By Transferring Amex points to SPG and then to Alaska Air? Or is there a more direct method?

    Thank you,

  27. I put a list in my wife’s wallet every few months – like business card size. I then write on the card in sharpie (or on a piece of tape if the usage categories rotates). This works well. I don’t mind that she messes up every now and then since I believe it’s good to do non-bonus/non-optical spend occasionally…just to appease the credit gods.

    I just use my memory for my cards. It gets difficult at times, but I feel it keeps my mind sharp.

  28. @Kurt – “Can you send AmEx Membership Rewards points to Alaska Air?”

    No. AS isn’t an AmEx transfer partner.

    “By Transferring Amex points to SPG and then to Alaska Air?”

    If you do that, you’ll lose a bunch of value, since AmEx MR transfers into SPG at a 3:1 ratio. 1000 MR = 333 SPG.

  29. I’m disappointed you are taking easy way out……they can handle it…… just need to tell them you will be certain to fly in at the beginning of each quarter and then you’ll rotate and sticker/sleeve their cards for them……shame….shame…..shame…………BTW the best card for each category post should coincide with that quarterly visit……….

  30. Is there a no annual fee card that keeps ultimate rewards points transferable to travel programs?

  31. @JimT I think it depends on your priorities, really. I agree with your analysis that cash back cards offer better returns than premium cards unless you put a ton of spend on the card, with some exceptions. The big thing, for me, is that I want to redeem my points for premium cabin travel or aspirational hotels only. I’m in the lucky position of being able to afford to otherwise travel during my limited vacation time, so I’m really looking to upgrade my travel experience rather than just get “free” travel. If I did just cash back cards, I wouldn’t get enough return to outright buy most premium travel (other than the occasional mistake fares or sales). So I gear my points accrual towards premium travel redemptions, which are pretty much always way over 2 cents/mile.

    For most people, however, and especially for people not in the points and miles community, they just want free economy tickets. And most of the time, when that’s the case, you’re absolutely right – it’s better to just get a free cash back card like the Citi Double Cash. However, keep in mind that Lucky’s blog is geared much more towards people like me, who want to redeem for premium travel, which is why he pushes the premium cards.

    FYI, personally I only keep two premium cards right now, the Sapphire Preferred and the Hyatt card. The Hyatt is a no brainer, I can always redeem the annual free night for well over $75. The Sapphire Preferred, as my only other premium card, is also obvious. I have a lot of work travel that I put spend on it, plus my wife and I put virtually all of the rest of our spend on it (other than the Freedom bonus categories and the occasional spend on a new card to hit a bonus). I know I’m not maximizing, but it’s not really worth the added effort for me, and I already earn way more points than I can spend. I have definitely thought about the Amex Everday, but I don’t really want to add another currency to the mix – I find UR points flexible enough to meet my travel needs, supplemented by miles I earn on AA and UA for work travel.

  32. Hey Ben, love the simplification. What would you suggest for the Business Card version of this post?

    Point being, my uncle charges everything to his business card instead. Do you know if the expense/tax consequences make 5x on a personal card less rewarding than 1 or 2x on a business card? And how about a combination of personal and business cards?

  33. I’m a couponer and I’m so interested in maximizing my points for travel. Love this blog and the comments. Very helpful.

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