Alliant looks to reclaim the throne as cash back king

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The Alliant Cashback Visa Signature card hit the scene in spring of 2017 and was one of the best cards for everyday spend straight out of the gate. Eventually, Alliant raised the annual fee and then at the beginning of last year they began limiting how much you could earn in rewards per billing cycle, which I thought was the nail in the coffin for this card. However, in last week’s post about awesome cash back combos, I noted that some positive changes are coming for the Alliant Visa Signature card, but I didn’t properly highlight them on their own: the Alliant Cashback Visa Signature is once again contending for the title of top cash back card and may be the card to beat for “everywhere else” spend. Maybe.

Is Alliant the new king? If they are, will it last?

Alliant Visa Signature basics and limits before July 2021

Card Name w Details & Review (no offer)
Alliant Cashback Visa Signature Card

FM Mini Review: Good cash back card for everyday spend as long as your expenses do not exceed $10K per month. Lack of foreign transaction fees is a positive.


Annual Fee: $99

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
2.5%

Earning rate: 2.5% cash back everywhere up to $250 back per billing cycle (Note that some purchases, like those from GiftCards.com, are not eligible for cash back)

Noteworthy perks: No foreign transaction fees

As of the time of writing and before the changes kick in during July 2021, the Alliant Visa Signature earns 2.5% cash back everywhere with a $99 annual fee and a key caveat: there is a limit on rewards earned each month.

When the annual fee on this card increased to $99 in April 2019, I asked Is the Alliant Cashback Visa still worth it? In that post, I noted that because of the annual fee, you would need to spend more than $20,000 per year to come out ahead of a no-fee card that earns 2% cash back:

  • $20,000 spent on a 2% cash back card = $400 back
  • $20,000 spent on the Alliant card in year 2 (2.5% back) = $500 – $99 annual fee = $401

And in order to earn greater than 2.25% cash back (an even more fitting comparison in 2021 for anyone with a Chase Freedom Unlimited and Chase Sapphire Reserve who might “cash out” via the grocery store at 1.5c per point), I noted that you would need to spend more than $40,000.

Furthermore, I noted that because of the annual fee, you’d never actually earn 2.5% back. After accounting for the fee, it would take $198,0000 spend to earn 2.45% cash back. In other words, the card only worked for relatively high spenders. See that post for more detail.

However, it was the monthly limit on rewards that came to be last year that was really the nail in the coffin for me. In January 2020, Alliant announced that beginning in March of last year, cardholders could only earn rewards on the first $10,000 in purchases per billing cycle. After $10K in purchases the card would earn nothing at all. At that point, I noted that the card had an even narrower use case since it only made sense if you spent between $20K-$120K per year and never exceeded $10K in purchases in a single month:

  • $20K in purchases x 2.5% back = $500 back – $99 annual fee = $401 net back / $20K in purchases = 2.005% cash back (any less and a no-fee 2% cash back card wins)
  • $120K in purchases x 2.5% back = $3,000 back – $99 annual fee = $2,991 net back / $120K in purchases = 2.4175% back

I found the monthly cap particularly ridiculous since it could be tedious determining exactly how much you’ve spent unless you have very few purchases (and even then, you might have to ask yourself whether you paid that big vet bill or a quarterly tax payment during this calendar month or last month and which billing cycle that was, etc). At the time, I said that I would likely look to the Bank of America Premium Rewards card as an “everywhere else” solution moving forward.

We did make that change last year, though the Alliant card didn’t come for renewal until the end of the year. When the fee billed, I intended to cancel it. My wife convinced me to keep it for a year since, at the time, we were engaging in some manufactured spending shenanigans where the extra bandwidth could be useful (n.b. Those MSing on this card may be playing with fire. A few years back, Alliant suddenly began paying 0% cash back at Giftcards.com without warning and they have occasionally shut down accounts for other types of activity that they don’t like.). Against my better judgment, we kept the Alliant card open despite its annual fee. Now I’m suddenly feeling like that was a brilliant(ly lucky) decision.

Alliant changes as of July 2021 billing cycle

Beginning in the July 2021 billing cycle, Alliant is making the following major changes:

  • No more annual fee
  • Removing the monthly limit on rewards earning (with a catch, read on)
  • Introducing two tiers for earning rewards on the card:
    • Tier 1 will earn 2.5% cash back on the first $10K in purchases per billing cycle, then 1.5% back
    • Tier 2 will earn 1.5% cash back everywhere

That’s a huge improvement since there will no longer be an annual fee and you will continue to earn rewards on more than $10K in purchases per billing cycle (albeit at a reduced rate). That works out pretty well. As a comparison point, here’s what it would look like if you earn Tier 1 rewards and spend $20K per year split evenly each month (i.e. never more than $10K in a billing cycle):

  • $20,000 at 2.5% cash back = $500 cash back

If you spent $20,000 in a single billing cycle, you’d earn:

  • $10,000 at 2.5% = $250
  • $10,000 at 1.5% = $150
  • Total = $400 cash back
  • $400 / $20,000 = 2% back

Somewhat interestingly, $20K continues to be a break-even point, albiet now a monthly break-even point. If you spend less than $20,000 per month on the card, you’ll earn more than you would with a card that earns 2% cash back. That’s still unideal from a tracking standpoint if you’re ever likely to come near $20K per month in purchases, though there is at least quite a bit more room now before the card becomes a poor value. And given that it will have no annual fee, the downside is limited there, too. For those who mostly spend less than $10K per month on the card, this is a terrific option to have in your wallet.

However, the caveat is that now you will need to meet a couple of additional requirements to continue to earn 2.5% back on the first $10K in purchases per billing cycle. Existing customers will automatically receiver Tier 1 benefits (2.5% back on the first $10K per billing cycle) for July, August, and September 2021. Then, they will need to meet the new Tier 1 requirements which are:

  • Maintain an Alliant High-rate Checking Account
  • Maintain an average daily balance of $1,000 or more in the checking account.

The requirements for the high rate checking are simple:

  • Opt in to eStatements
  • Have at least 1 electronic deposit per month post to the account (which could be a mobile check deposit, a transfer from another bank, an ATM deposit, an employer direct deposit, etc)

Those requirements are easy. Alliant acknowledges just how easy the electronic deposit requirement is on the landing page for the changes, noting:

You can easily schedule automatic recurring deposits via online or mobile banking so you can set it and forget it.

The requirement to have an average daily balance of $1,000 also seems very simple, though not without cost. The “high-rate checking” earns 0.25% APY. While Alliant touts that as better-than-average, those who play the bank bonus game know that there are plenty of ways to beat that. T-Mobile customers can easily earn 1% with a T-Mobile Money account and 4% on the first $3,000 with 10 debit card transactions per month. There is some opportunity cost to keeping $1,000 locked in an Alliant account earning a less-than-ideal rate.

That said, I’m sure that many readers aren’t working to maximize interest on their emergency funds, so keeping $1,000 at Alliant may be a negligible cost for many people.

Do these changes make the Alliant card the new king of cash back?

I had previously been kind of down on the Alliant card since the combination of annual fee and monthly spending cap had really limited the utility of the card. Now that both are being eliminated (to some extent), is this now the cash back benchmark card?

It obviously won’t be the benchmark for those who qualify for Bank of America Preferred Rewards Platinum Honors since that crowd can get the Premium Rewards card and earn 2.625% everywhere with no cap and no requirements (the card has a $95 annual fee, but it comes with a $100 annual travel incidental credit that works quite broadly). If you don’t mind moving $100K to Bank of America and/or Merrill Edge / Merrill Lynch, that card is still the one to have and hold. Note that Merrill Edge, the self-directed brokerage arm, has $0 stock and ETF trades and IRA accounts qualify toward the $100K necessary to get Platinum Honors status, so this may be easier to achieve than you imagine if you have IRA retirement savings.

On the other hand, for those who either can’t meet Platinum Honors requirements or don’t want to move investments to Merrill, the Alliant card could be a great fit. It also makes an excellent benchmark against which to compare other cards.

For example, as I’ve addressed in the past, having a card like the Alliant card available to you means that earning Thank You points on a Double Cash card costs you the chance to earn 2.5%. You could look at it as paying 1.25c per Thank You point each time you choose to spend on the Double Cash instead of the Alliant card (and the same is true for spending on a Capital One Venture Rewards card or the Blue Business Plus card). If you’re not willing to pay that much for Thank You points, it would make more sense to use the Alliant card and use your cash back to cover costs when you travel. If you know that you’ll use the Thank You points to better value, you obviously may choose to earn Thank You points, but the Alliant card helps keep things in perspective in terms of your cost to not use this card. Any spend you do on a card that earns 1x suddenly becomes equivalent to paying 2.5c per point (on the first $10K per billing cycle), which makes those 1x purchases a terrible deal. In most cases, you could instead earn cash back and buy miles and still come out ahead of the 1x card.

But there are still some limitations here:

  • The new terms & conditions note that you can redeem cash back only when you have accrued $50 or more. In other words, $50 is the new minimum redemption. That stinks for those who don’t spend a lot on the card. You’ll need to spend $2,000 to earn $50 cash back.
  • Cash back will expire. I’m not sure if this is new, but I caught this in the terms: “Cash back will accrue over five calendar years and will expire on a rolling, first-in/first-out, annual basis; cash back earned in a calendar year will
    expire on the December cycle date of the fourth calendar year following the year in which it was earned. For example, any unredeemed cash back
    that you earned in 2021 will expire on your December 2025 cycle date; unredeemed cash back earned in 2022 will expire on your December
    2026 cycle date, etc.” That sounds like something Citi would do. This would be a pain to track!
  • Spending more than $20K in a billing cycle will be a bad deal
  • Alliant can be difficult on approvals

To that last point, I’m not sure about the most current status of their applications / approvals, but when the card launched it was aimed at individuals with an income of $100K or more. When my wife applied for the card, she was initially told that she could only be approved for a lesser card because her income was not high enough. However, she pushed back and asked whether they could consider assets she had. Since we had a sizable amount of savings in one of her money market accounts, they were able to approve her for the Alliant cash back card after all. I don’t know whether they have become easier on approvals in the years since, though if this will essentially become a 1.5% cash back card for those who don’t meet the checking requirements, I would hope that they aren’t being too stringent on income requirements anymore.

While the 2.5% cash back will now have some hoops to jump through, you won’t need the be an Olympian as the bar seems pretty low. Keeping $1,000 in the checking account and automating an ACH transfer of $1 each calendar month is pretty darn easy.

On the other hand, I think these changes add silly complexity. Multiple cash back tiers just make a card confusing for the average consumer even if the requirements are easy to meet. Furthermore, this represents a lot of changes in the past 4 years:

  • The card started out with a waived first-year fee (then $59) and 3% back for a year with no cap
  • Next, they increased the annual fee to $99
  • Then, they eliminated the first year bonus and added the $10K monthly purchase cap on earning rewards
  • Now they are adding a checking requirement and creating two tiers for cash back

That’s four fairly significant changes in 4 years. While I think this latest round of changes is a net positive, the track record for longevity of their decisions is a clear negative. I think it isn’t unreasonable to lack confidence in the permanency of these latest changes. That said, with no annual fee, the risk in being hopeful is low.

Bottom line

Given the lack of an intro bonus, I don’t think it makes sense for most people to run out and get the Alliant Cashback Visa Signature card. However, for those looking for a strong “everywhere else” card who don’t want to put $100K into the Bank of America ecosystem, this card will likely be the king of cash back as long as you don’t spend more than $20K in a billing cycle and you continue to keep $1,000 in the checking account and have one electronic deposit per month and Alliant doesn’t maintain their track record for changes every year. That actually sounds like a lot of qualifiers :-). Personally, I’ll be happier to keep this card than I would have otherwise been, so I find the changes to be a net win and they make the card a useful benchmark for me when considering which card to use for any particular purchase (all of that is likely true for most existing cardholders). While I won’t use this over the Bank of America Premium Rewards card, I’ll likely keep it and meet the requirements for times when I need some additional cash back bandwidth. If cash is king for you, this card may be the momentary king of everyday spend. Hopefully it lasts and Alliant has found a format it can support for a while — or else beware the Ides of March.

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