Living with credit, Rewards, Shopping, Travel

5 things I learned in my first year playing the ‘rewards game’

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

It’s been almost a year since I joined and, shortly after, happily converted to the rewards game.

Twelve months after going from using my debit card for everything and being at risk of forgetting my PIN, I now pay everything I possibly can with my credit card(s). These are five things I’ve learned:

1. The rewards game comes with a learning curve.

Learning how to make the best out of the cards in your wallet and those out in the market can be intimidating – the options are endless!

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In my case, I started small using the only credit card I had back then, Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi. I still remember texting my wife from work one day, “Hey, we need to start using the Costco card to pay at the pump – it gives 4 percent back on gas!”

Sure, it helped that my new job implied learning all the terms, conditions, fees and benefits offered by all kinds of credit cards, including Costco’s. In a way, I didn’t have to set up extra time to learn what my card offered.

So, my advice would be: Start with just one card and learn everything you can about it – and, hey, is here to help. Our card reviews and product stories are a great starting point.

Especially, make sure you understand the fees and benefit structure of each card.

2. The rewards game only makes sense if it matches your lifestyle

It was easy to start using my Costco card all the time because it offered cash bonuses on categories that already aligned with some, but not all, of my spending habits:


My younger son plays soccer at the “travel sports” level. That means driving him to practice almost every night and to games on weekends, many times out of town – to Houston or Dallas, or even farther out. I can get 4 percent cash back on gas with my Costco card (on the first $7,000 in purchases, 1 percent thereafter)? Yes, please!

Dining and travel

Using the Costco card to get an extra bonus on these two categories made sense for two reasons. My family and I travel to Spain every summer to see our family – airfares alone are a major expense. Also, given the hectic schedule everyone at home has during the week, we enjoy taking a break from cooking dinner on weekends and eat out or order takeout.

Foreign transaction expenses

As our yearly sojourn to Europe loomed last year, though, I realized I needed a card I could use overseas without incurring foreign transaction fees (Costco slashed foreign transaction fees only earlier this year). Since I was still getting started on the rewards game, I applied for a no-foreign-transaction-fee cash back card with one key element, no annual fees: Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card. Not only was it a great card to use abroad, but it came with a modest sign-up bonus –$150 after spending $500 in three months – and a 50 percent discount on my son’s Spotify account through April 2018.


Later in the rewards game, I realized that scoring an extra bonus on groceries would be key – we have two ever-starving teenagers at home, so most of our weekly expenses take place at supermarkets. After doing some research, I took my rewards game one step further and applied for my first annual fee card: American Express Blue Cash Preferred – 6 percent on groceries for the first $6,000 a year, and 1 percent thereafter. The annual fee is $95. Believe me, I thought twice before committing to an annual fee card. I also ran some numbers. I factored in the $200 sign-up bonus the card offers if you spend $1,000 in the first three months. To me, that was like not having to pay the annual fee for the first two years.

3. The rewards game takes discipline

At that point I was juggling three cards, which means having to decide what card to use every time and to make sure you make all your payments in full and on time every month to avoid carrying a balance – the big rewards game killer – or paying late fees.

This can be overwhelming, especially if you were used to, like I was, paying for everything with a debit card.

This is what I do now: Every other Friday, on payday, I log in to all three card accounts and schedule my payments for the next two weeks according to my balances and other recurring charges that will be withdrawn from my checking account.

If for any reason my credit utilization on any of the cards goes above 30 percent – which is unlikely given my credit limits – I make a partial payment to make sure my utilization won’t hurt my score. Credit utilization, the amount you have borrowed compared to your available credits, is a key credit scoring factor.

And, of course, I pay my balances in full every month. Depending on your balance, even paying interest for just one month could cancel all the rewards you’ve earned in a year!

4. The rewards game is not for everyone

Excited as I was about getting traction on the rewards game, I persuaded my wife to do the same. She even applied for a Discover card that offers extra bonuses on rotating categories – hello, 5 percent cash back on holiday purchases made on Amazon!

A few months into this new strategy, she misses the old days when all she had to do was pay with her debit card and not worry about anything else. I don’t really see her eagerly applying for another card anytime soon.

5. The rewards game saved me more than $1,000 on travel in my first year

One year after getting in on the rewards game, one of the four tickets to Spain we just bought for this summer’s trip was paid entirely with the cash back I earned on my three cards. Not bad, eh?

Now, for year two, I just got approved for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Freedom cards. Using both combined, I hope to maximize my travel rewards. I will keep you posted!

See related: How cash back credit cards work, 7 ways to get the most from rewards credit cards

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  • Scott Holzinger

    You fail to mention that the 4% on gas with the Costco Anywhere Citi card is for the first $7,000

    • Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

      You’re right! I forgot to mention the cap on gas that comes with the Costco card, which should be enough for many regular families. We usually mention it every time we talk about the Costco card in stories and blog posts. I will update this post to include it. Thanks for the reminder!

    • You’re right! I forgot to mention the cap on gas that comes with the Costco card, which should be enough for many regular families. We usually mention it every time we talk about the Costco card in stories and blog posts. I will update this post to include it. Thanks for the reminder!