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How rewards card experts manage their payments

Dawn Papandrea

Points hackers – you know, the ones who earn free flights, hotel rooms and luxurious perks from their credit card spend – know just how to maximize their plastic. They use it for everyday purchases, pile their bills onto their cards, and prepay everything from home insurance to school tuition in order to get the most points possible.

For run-of-the-mill credit users who are just getting into the game, this could be dangerous practice if you don’t learn how to manage card payments. Avoiding “balance creep” takes diligence and as we learned from gathering up insight from credit pros and rewards hackers, a few tricks, too.

Here’s a look at how credit users who bang out sign-up bonuses and earn mega points and miles with ease keep on top of their payments:

Turn credit into debit.
Lee Huffman, travel blogger at BaldThoughts.com, literally pays off his credit debt every time he uses his card. “I recommend using Debitize.com. Whenever you use your credit cards, it pulls the purchase amount from your checking account and pays the credit card company,” he says.

Pay more than once per month.
“I get paid twice a month and usually pay down balances right after getting paid,” says Grant Thomas, founder of travelwithgrant.com. This helps keep the amounts manageable, and also helps control the credit utilization ratio (how much you owe compared to your credit limits), so that the creditors are not always reporting giant balances owed to the credit bureaus. From a credit score standpoint, keeping balances below 30 percent of your credit limit and close to zero is best.

Check credit accounts daily.
To avoid end-of-month balance surprises, some rewards cards users do daily check-ins on their credit card balances. “It may not seem like a big deal to spend $50 on Amazon and go for that second cup of Starbucks coffee on occasion, but it adds up,” says Ariana Arghandewal, founder of Pointchaser.com. “Checking my balance daily helps me stay on top of my spending and dial it back if necessary.”

Set alerts.
If you know you have budgeted a certain amount for credit spending, use your card notifications and alerts to let you know when you’re approaching that threshold. “Many credit cards can send you an email or text if you spend over a certain amount, and this will allow you to better keep track of expenses and pay things on time or early,” says Jamie Larounis, founder of TheForwardCabin.com.

Make a date for credit management.
Bryce Conway, founder of 10xtravel.com, says his payment method is simple but effective, since he’s juggling multiple rewards cards at any given time. “I do all my financial stuff in one day. I check statements, pay cards, to make sure I don’t to miss anything,” he says.

If you’re looking to up your points game, start slowly, and develop smart habits along the way that work for you, says Beverly Harzog, credit expert and author of “The Debt Escape Plan.”

There’s no “right” way to do it (other than paying your bills on time), she adds, noting that some people use financial tracking apps while others rely on spreadsheets. One universal rule she does have, however? “As soon as you can’t pay all of your credit card bills in full by the due dates, think of that as an alarm, and plug the hole wherever it is,” she says.

Conway agrees. “Successful rewards hackers share a mindset that there’s no amount of debt that is acceptable in your daily personal finances,” he says. “The moment you start paying interest on a credit card is the moment you should stop using it.”

See related: 5 dream vacations funded with rewards, 7 ways to get the most from rewards credit cards,

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