Rewards junkies take cash back credit cards to the max

Jeremy Simon

The Chengs are better at earning cash back than you.

At least they hope to be. For consumers out to squeeze every dollar in rewards from their cash back credit card, people like Michael and Nicole Cheng of Centerville, Virginia, stand out either as an example to imitate or challengers to outpace.

According to an article in the Washington Post that used a profile of the couple as an entryway into the world of serious reward credit card aficionados, the Chengs were able to maximize their rewards to the tune of $1,121 in 2006 by carefully using certain credit cards for certain purchases. They also employ Post-it notes and spreadsheets to regulate and record their reward credit card usage.

As the article noted, gaming the credit card system this way only works when cardholders always pay off monthly balances in full. Revolving a balance from month to month means interest charges, which can effectively wipe out any cash back earned. The Chengs do this, and also apparently pay no annual fees.

In addition to the danger of running up debt in pursuit of rewards, some critics worry that consumers may spend more than they otherwise might just to nab a few extra reward points. These consumers will end up with larger rebate checks from their card issuers, but they end up with larger credit card statements, too.

But conscientious consumers can really rack up the points.

What techniques and tricks have you used to maximize credit card rewards? How many points or dollars have you been able to earn with one major purchase? How about in one month or one year? What kind of perks, merchandise or experiences have you turned that cash back or those rewards points into?

Most impressive answer gets to buy me lunch on their rewards credit card.

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  • Dan

    I take a different approach to being a CC points junkee.
    I consolidate to one card for business and personal. Remember to try not to pay fees, and to use a card that doesnt have any upper limits of how many points you can earn. This helps prevent you from not having a thick wallet, paying too many fees, and not being considered as loyal a customer as you can be.
    Also, remember to use a card that can be easilly redeemed for travel or merchandise. If you collect points but you can’t use them, it’s probably not worth it.
    I use the Starwood Amex Card because I am a frequent biz traveler and Starwood (W, Sheraton, Westin, etc.) allows platinum members to earn additional points for loyalty, even more points for using their Starwood card at those stays.
    Here’s the kicker… There are no blackout dates or restrictions. So if there is a room available you can use it.
    Most airlines and other hotel companies make it difficult to use points even if you have a ton of them.
    A points story:
    My fiance and I were married in September 06. We were able to use miles and points to get free flights and hotels. We went to Tahiti — her first choice — from 9/12-9/22. Using American miles and Starwood points, the only cost will be out of pocket costs such as food, gifts, tours, etc. It would have cost $7000-8000 or more. Flights were $1800 each. Rooms ranged between $600-700 per night US. We were also upgraded for the bulk of our stay to overwater bungalows in one resort in Tahiti for 8 nights. We also stayed at the DC landmark hotel, the Mayflower, on our wedding night for Marriott points. The only inconvenience was American Airlines didn’t offer the free flights on the exact dates we wanted them so we had to start a day later and end a day later. Yes we saved a ton, so we could put that money to having fun when we got there.

  • Ginny

    I love getting points for books with my card. I love books, buy a lot of them but have not had to pay for them in the last couple years. I put any large item on it that I can, such as my daughter’s wedding reception, carpeting, trips. I then get $25 gift certificates for purchasing books. I’m still leary of putting groceries on it, I have to be careful not to get out of control. Oh yeah, and I put my gas on it, at least I get something back on the high prices. And, yes, I pay it off in full every month. Wouldn’t work unless you do that. I have no annual fee and do not have to worry about the interest rate because I do not carry a balance.