Rewards programs are awesome. These days, retailers and credit card companies are so eager to hold onto your business that they’ll offer all kinds of great incentives to build that coveted “brand loyalty” and keep you spending money.
Sure, the marketing psychology behind it is a little terrifying, but if you play your cards right, you can max those opportunities and earn great perks on stuff you’d be buying anyway. It’s the reason that my “buy 9 burritos, get 1 free” stamp card occupies a permanent slot in my wallet. I mean, it’s just smart economics.
From loyalty programs that offer discounts or free products at your favourite stores, to credit card rewards points that could cover your dream trip to Copenhagen, there’s an infinite variety of opportunities out there. Thankfully, there’s an active subculture of points hoarders who share their best tips on blogs and forums to help you get started.
Matthew Lau is the editor of Pointshogger, a Canadian blog covering all aspects of maximizing rewards programs. Lau got started in the points hustle really early — he’s been collecting since his early teens. “It felt like a video game to me,” he says. “I was trying to get the high score by racking up those points. I treated it as a hobby.” Today, Lau estimates he’s a member of over 40 different loyalty and rewards programs.
Want to collect like a champion? Here are Lau’s four tips on how to go all Punch Drunk Love with the rewards.
1. Get your financial house in order.
While loads of credit cards offer rewards bonuses just by signing up, you’ll probably have to spend a certain amount of money to keep earning those points — a red flag if you’re not already the type to pay off your balance each month.
“The maximum rewards that you’ll get from a credit card is two or three percent, while their interest rates are usually around 18 percent,” explains Lau. “If you’re accruing any interest at all, it’s going to nullify any rewards that you get.” You’re going to want to pay off any existing credit card debt before diving into points collecting.
Next up, take a look at a several recent bank statements to see what you’ve been buying. Fly home twice a year? Commute by car? Figure out what’s eating up all your money, and then start hunting for the best programs to reduce your expenses.
2. Collect where you shop.
Just like with extreme “couponing”, the greatest thrills in rewards collecting come with stacking up the deals: earning 2 percent rewards points on your credit card plus the points you get from a store’s own VIP program.
The most efficient way to do this is to just start where you already shop. “Sure, you could look online for what’s available,” says Lau. “But it makes the most sense to go directly to the source, to places you already go.” Make a list of your favourite shops — like your local supermarket, tech store, and clothing chain of choice — and ask about loyalty programs next time you stop by. You might get stuck with an inbox full of newsletters, but you could also save a small fortune.
Not sure your brand of choice is working for you as much as it could? Then it might be time to hit the blogs. According to a recent survey, 78 percent of millennials are willing to switch retailers in order to earn better savings rewards.
3. Read the fine print
It’s important to examine all the details when committing yourself to a rewards program. Annual fees might not always be clearly stated, some programs allow their points to devalue, and even petty explicit claims like “no blackout dates” can come with a lot of string attached.
“It should not cost money for you to accumulate rewards outside of your regular spending,” says Lau, “and it shouldn’t affect your credit in any way, aside from applying or cancelling a credit card.” Ask a lot of questions when you’re signing up, and either of these seem to be required, bail immediately.
4. Follow your dream (with a little planning)
Inspired by that smiling stock model couple sprawling on a white sand beach on the points program’s website? It’s a beautiful fantasy, but like, can you really snag a cruise solely on points if your grocery budget skews more towards red beans and rice?
“The place I wanted to visit the most was Hawaii, and my miles and points got me there. And that includes airfare and hotel,” says Lau. “The signup bonuses from two credit cards covered the airfare, and I just had to put regular spending of $500 on each. I used them for the gas and groceries I was going to buy anyway.”
Lau still put in a huge chunk of time and energy into making this dream come true — I mean, buddy does run a points blog — and he’s built up an incredible credit history over the years. If you’re just getting started with credit cards and points collecting, you may have to downscale your jet-setting to a red-eye flight to Saskatoon.
Quick tips: Lau swears by FlyerTalk to find travel rewards, and uses RedFlag Deals for booking flights out of Canada. And skip the Excel spreadsheet — Michael uses an app called AwardWallet to manage all his miles.