Low spend credit card strategy: A lot of vacation with low expenses

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Last weekend, an interesting reader comment came in from regular commenter LarryNYC:

Towards this end, it would be interesting to have a series of articles or podcasts each of which talks about what you can accomplish with different levels of organic credit card spend each year. For instance, if you spend $10K each year on credit cards — what’s reasonable to expect in points from that spend and how what strategies would you use (target one currency? multiple sign-ups?). The same at $20K, $50K, $100K, $200K, or whatever levels you think make sense.

On tomorrow’s Frequent Miler on the Air podcast, Greg and I will talk about strategy for low, medium, and high spenders. Today, I wanted to dig in a bit on the low spender end of the spectrum because I think it shows how you can still get far outsized value even with very modest spend.

Best offers for low spenders

A credit card strategy for low-spenders ($1K per month / $12K annual spend)

At this level of annual spend, which amounts to an average of $1,000 per month, you will really need to focus on welcome bonuses to produce a meaningful number of rewards points. However, that will not be without some challenge given the fact that the spending requirement to earn the welcome bonus on some popular cards would be out of reach with only $3K spend in 3 months.

If you spend a thousand dollars a month, I assume that most of your expenses are groceries and utilities. With this level of spend, I also assume that you are not currently paying your rent with a credit card whether that is because your landlord doesn’t accept credit cards or because they charge a fee to accept them (or because you don’t rent).

If you do rent, I think that there is a strong argument for getting the Bilt Mastercard since it provides a way to earn points on the rent by paying with a credit card without paying any fee (even if your landlord doesn’t accept credit cards). While this is not a good “everyday” card nor does it feature a welcome bonus, the points earned each year from paying the rent will give you a significant boost. If your rent is $1500 per month, that 18,000 points that you likely won’t otherwise earn. That’s a nice boost to your points balance that comes in particularly handy at this end of the spending spectrum.

However, though I think the Bilt card will make sense for many who rent, if your landlord currently accepts a credit card, it may be worth paying your rent with a card even if they charge a fee so long as you’re using that spend to pick up new welcome bonuses that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to meet without that spend. If this applies to you, consider checking out the section below that roughly matches your annual spend with rent cost included. Also keep in mind that you could pay your rent with a Mastercard or Discover card using bill pay service Plastiq. Plastiq charges a 2.85% credit card fee, but you can check out the Best Mastercard Offers and see that it may be worth paying the credit card fee if this helps you meet the spending requirement for a bonus worth far more than the fee.

Apart from that, at this level of spend, in order to earn a meaningful number of points each year, you’re going to want to focus your efforts on:

  1. Finding at least 2 welcome bonuses per year that you can meet with your ~$3000 in purchases over 3 months
  2. Finding ways you can time-shift spend to meet a higher spending requirement.

Step #1 is pretty easy. We maintain two low-spend lists: you’ll find a list of the best offers that only require $500 (or less) in spend and a list of the best offers that require $1,000 in spend on this page: Best offers for low spenders (card offers with low spend requirements).

You’ll need to carefully consider what type of points you’ll actually be able to use. For instance, with low spend like this, I imagine that a significant portion of your spend may be utilities, which can earn 5x on the Wyndham Business Earner card (which also happens to have one of the best low-spend bonuses). However, are Wyndham points going to be useful for you? At this low spend threshold, you won’t be able to diversify points much, so investing in a hotel-specific currency only makes sense if you anticipate using that currency regularly. If you know you’ll use those Wyndham points for an awesome Vacasa vacation rental, it could be a good pick, but if you don’t know how or whether you’ll use the points, that card probably isn’t a fit for you.

On the other hand, at this end of the spectrum, you should look to maximize very low-hanging fruit. For example, the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red card offers 50,000 American Airlines miles after first purchase and payment of the annual fee. Since you only need to make a single purchase to trigger the intro bonus, that offer doesn’t really take up any of your spending bandwidth and it provides you with a usable quantity of American Airlines miles. If you also rent an apartment and you get the Bilt Rewards card, you would likely have enough miles to fly one-way saver-level business class to just about any region of the world without diverting any ability to meet other welcome bonuses and before considering any other cards. It’s worth a mention that we sometimes see the bonus on this card increase to 60,000 miles with a single purchase, so it may be worth holding out for a better offer, but this card is worth picking up at some point since American Airlines miles are relatively easy to use and the bonus requires so little effort.

A Capital One starting strategy

Conventional wisdom would be to recommend starting with Chase Ultimate Rewards cards like the Chase Freedom card (good for rotating quarterly 5x categories) or the Chase Freedom Unlimited card (for 1.5x everywhere) because of the Chase 5/24 rule.

Chase's 5/24 Rule: With most Chase credit cards, Chase will not approve your application if you have opened 5 or more cards with any bank in the past 24 months.
To determine your 5/24 status, see: Easy Ways to Count Your 5/24 Status. The easiest option is to track all of your cards for free with Travel Freely.

 

However, I might recommend a different strategy. At this level of spend, I assume you would be just starting out with rewards credit cards — perhaps you’re a student or recent graduate. It might make sense to start your strategy with Capital One cards instead.

The reason I think a Capital One strategy could be smart is two-fold: first, Capital One is known to generally be tougher on approvals for people who have opened many cards. Second, you can earn transferable points and transfer them to airline and hotel partners without an annual fee card.

For instance, if you were to open the Capital One SavorOne card and the Capital One VentureOne card, you would have two decent low spend bonuses. The SavorOne card’s bonus could be taken as cash back or it could be converted to miles with your VentureOne card if you have both.

This card combination provides a lot of options. You’ll have flexibility:

  • Rewards earned on the SavorOne can be redeemed as cash back or converted to miles (at a value of $0.01 per mile) by moving rewards to the VentureOne card (read more about that here)
  • Rewards earned on the VentureOne card can be transferred to airline and hotel partners (See: Capital One transfer partners) or used to reimburse travel purchases

Note that the VentureOne card earns at a very poor rate of 1.25 miles per dollar, but the initial welcome bonus could reimburse $200 worth of travel expenses or combine forces with the SavorOne to get you a total of 40K airline miles or hotel points.

After meeting those two bonuses and moving your Savor rewards to your VentureOne card, you would have nearly enough points to book a Vacasa vacation rental for 3 nights like this one I visited in Pigeon Forge, TN. Use the American Airlines miles noted above to get there and three credit cards and just one month of expenses nearly gives you enough for a 3-night vacation. At just $1,000 per month in credit card spend, that’s quite a lot of return.

Long-term, you’ll be better served with a Venture or Venture X card so you can earn 2x everywhere, but since the welcome bonuses on those cards are out of reach at this spend level, you could consider the VentureOne.

On the other hand, rather than settle for the VentureOne, if you can time-shift a little spend, the welcome bonuses on the Venture or VentureX cards come into reach fairly easily. At the time of writing, either card requires $4K in purchases in the first 3 months to trigger its 75K introductory bonus points. That’s $1,000 in purchases above the ordinarily spend threshold we set ($1,000 per month), which is a small enough amount that you may be able to time-shift spend without much effort or difficulty.

Time-shifting spend

What I mean by “time-shifting spend” is this: let’s say you open a Venture card on June 1st and you spend your usual $1,000 in June, July, and August on your new card. Near the end of August, you know you’ll be $1,000 short of meeting the welcome bonus requirement. You could (for example) go to the grocery store and buy two $500 Visa Gift Cards. Then, the following month (September in this example), use your Visa Gift Cards to make all of your ordinary $1,000 in purchases instead of your credit card. In this way, you don’t spend more than the $1,000 you ordinarily would each month (apart from the activation fees on the gift cards), you just time-shift and do your “September” spending in August by purchasing the Visa Gift Cards that you’ll use in September (and you get the opportunity to trigger a large welcome bonus). Note that Visa Gift Cards usually feature an activation fee, so you’d spend about $12 in activation fees with this method. That’s a relatively small price to pay to earn a big bonus. The 75K bonus points you would stand to earn could reimburse $750 in travel expenses or it could be enough to fly round trip to Hawaii five times with Capital One transfer partner Turkish Miles & Smiles.

A Chase strategy

Of course, if you’re able to time-shift spend, a lot of other opportunities come into focus. In fact, if you can time-shift spend, you might want to forgo the Capital One strategy and instead open a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (which features a similar spending bonus and has an even better welcome bonus at the time of writing) and then later in the year fill out your wallet with a Freedom and Freedom Unlimited card to pick up two easy bonuses that only require $500 in spend each. Based on current bonuses, by opening those three cards, you would have more than 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points before the end of your first year without breaking a sweat (using up only $5,000 of your annual spend).

Chase points can be highly valuable for a low-spender since they have a lot of flexibility:

  • You could cash out the points at a value of $0.01 each (100K points = $1,000)
  • You could use the points to book paid travel at a value of 1.25c per point (100K points = $1,250 worth of travel booked through Chase)
  • You could transfer to airline and hotel partners for outsized value. (100K points could potentially get you a round trip lie-flat business class flight the east coast of the US to Madrid (as low as 68K points with Iberia) and a couple of free hotel nights there (with Hyatt). That’s just one example of many).

To illustrate outsized value, let’s assume a situation:

  • You get the no-fee Aviator Red discussed above (50K easy American Airlines miles)
  • You pay rent of $1500 per month and you get the Bilt Rewards mastercard to pay it (18K points that can transfer to American Airlines, Hyatt, United, Turkish, and more)
  • You time-shift spend so that you can meet the spending requirement on the Chase Sapphire Preferred with four month’s worth of expenses packed into 3 calendar months
  • You open a Chase Freedom Unlimited after meeting the spending requirement on your Sapphire Preferred

By paying your rent and meeting the spending bonus requirements for the cards above, you could have as many as:

  • 116,000 Ultimate Rewards points (from a combination of the welcome bonuses, points earned from minimum spend, and assuming you use your Freedom Unlimited card for 1.5x everywhere for the rest of the purchases you make in year 1)
  • 50K American Airlines miles
  • 18K Bilt Rewards points

Keep in mind that Bilt and Chase share some transfer partners, so you could combine forces and transfer that entire 134,000 points to a single transfer partner if it were advantageous for you.

Let’s alternatively imagine that instead of using your Freedom Unlimited for the rest of your annual purchases, you use your American Airlines or Bilt Rewards card to make your $1,000 in purchases each month (note that I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend this, but it makes for a good example here). At the end of year one, you could transfer your Bilt points to American Airlines and have 75K American Airlines miles (and in this example, you would only have 104K Ultimate Rewards points.

That would be enough American Airlines miles to fly round trip to Bali, Indonesia, paying only the taxes. You would have enough Chase Ultimate Rewards points to transfer to Hyatt and spend as many as 20 nights at the Hyatt Regency Bali (which, as a Category 1 Hyatt property, only costs 5,000 points per night) or 10 nights in a premium suite thanks to Hyatt’s premium suite awards.

That’s a downright amazing trip that would probably otherwise seem out of reach for someone with $1,000 per month in credit card spend. And it’s just one very small example of the type of outsized rewards possible even for a low spender with a little strategy.

Bottom line

It is possible to get far outsized value in this game even with very low spend with just a little bit of credit card strategy. This post represents just a couple of examples out of many ways you could slice and dice your way to an incredible vacation at very low cost out of pocket. Now I want readers to chime in: let me know in the comments what your strategy would be if you had just $1,000 per month in credit card spend.

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LarryInNYC

At $12k spend a year 2% cash back will get you $240 and 3% will get you $360. Not going to get a huge amount of travel there. Leveraging bonuses is the way to go.

Cavedweller

Sounds like me before paying Taxes IF I need the spend.My PTer has a Costco card like so what.Wait for a good offer then FLIP !!! Thanks no 2% for me…

Aloha808

Thank you for the post. Relatedly, I wonder if it might also be worth discussing some thoughts on whether points/miles are a better strategy for a low-income credit card enthusiast or if cashback might be a better fit.

Jay Rome

At 1k/month, I would say the aa cards, Alaska cards, freedoms, custom cash/r+, ihg’s, all the Barclays cards, and crap1 would all be in play. Might make sense to open an Amex everyday At 10k for future placeholder capability. If 4k in 3 months is do-able, csp, citi premier, even the plat 6month offers if your income supports it. This is basically my position, anything over 5k in 3 months is kinda outta reach without a good amount of MS

Jake

I agree. It is amazing that a low spender can earn a trip to Bali every year. Life changing really. Assuming low spenders have low income I would caution them to be particularly careful about late fees and not carrying a balance. These spenders may be more likely to be on a tight month to month budget.

Art Leyenberger

For someone new to the game, you provide some useful if not clever info Nick. And well-written as usual.

Grant

Another card that might be a good contender is the Citi Custom Cash. It currently offers a $200 bonus (20k Citi ThankYou Points) after spending $750 in 3 months and offers 5% cash back, up to $500 in whatever category you spend the most in each billing cycle: 5% eligible categories: Restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, select travel, select transit, select streaming services, drugstores, home improvement stores, fitness clubs, live entertainment.

I assume restaurants and grocery stores would be easy to use categories for people in this spend threshold.

Sam

Or… Time shift the Premier card & get Double Cash. That way 2 per $ is the lowest you will earn.

Jay Rome

As someone who has a small stable of citi cards(premier, r+, c.c), i would go for custom cash or even rewards+ over the dub cash. 3x everything generally ends up being my floor, but with 2 custom cashes, i could see that being more like 4x+, but that’s also gonna be dictated by personal spending habits/willingness to buy vgcs

Gubmintmole

I tend to be find United miles more useful than American, but reading this has made several different thoughts percolating in my head. I can see why writing this would be hard, so many different paths to go down

LarryInNYC

Something else to consider is, if you’re in this lower-end annual spend category because you’re young and adventurous (and willing to fly economy) if you fly, for instance, to Bali, there are double rooms in well-reviewed guesthouses for $6 (six dollars US) currently showing on Agoda. Chiang Mai is showing rooms for around $10. Hostels are around $5.

If you use your points for airfare and pay cash (possibly “paying yourself back” using points) for hotels you are getting close to flying one person in business or two people in economy to SE Asia and you could stay for months, even on this relatively light spend.

Last edited 2 months ago by LarryInNYC
Jay H.

Great article. Innovative thought process to go through it like this. Looking forward to the next one.

Htown Harry

I have a spreadsheet I use to strategize my next application. Fields include sign up bonus, annual fee, spending amount and duration, etc.

Relevant to this post: Using the Frequent Miler’s first year value figure for each card, I divide that by the minimum SUB spend to create metric that I call value / $ spend.

Right now, any value over 30% puts it in the top third of the cards I track. Example of one near the top of the list: Chase Flex with a a 20,000 point bonus for $500 spend has a first year value of $575. $575 / $500 = 115%. Extraordinary return, low spend and no annual fee.

Right now, a value over 30% puts a card in the top one-third of those I track.

PeterSFO

That’s an interesting way to analyze this but how does the Freedom Flex get $575 worth of value? SUB is 20k points and there’s no annual fee so generously, we could value it at $400 if we assume 2 cents per point valuation. Where’s all the extra value on that card coming from?

Htown Harry

Nick or Greg would have to answer that, but I assume they have also assigned a monetary value to this kicker noted on the Flex entry on FM’s Flex credit card page: 5x Ultimate Rewards points (worth 5% cash back) on gas purchases for 1st year (on up to $6K in purchases)

usernamechuck

I used to think of it this way, and I think it’s an under-analyzed consideration. But I concluded that I needed to modify it.

  1. There is a cost (at least opportunity cost) to doing too many new credit card applications. If you could be opening $500 initial spend cards all day, maybe it would work; but you do run up against barriers to that. You ideally want is really to maximize the amount of your spend that is sign-up bonus spend. Low initial spend is not always the best way to do that.
  2. There are opportunity costs. For instance, in the old days, I signed up for an SPG business card for 10K SPG points because it didn’t require much spend. Face palm.

Here’s how I find the sweet spot of not too much spend but making sure the rewards were enough to justify the squeeze: I look at those percentage return stats, but I rule out cards that yield less than $500.

The other modification I introduced for myself is to think about those points in the year when I can handle greater spend. For instance, I have to pay property taxes twice a year. I could get a 3K spend card at other points, but not a 10K spend card.

Htown Harry

Agreed on all points. I also use the concept of a 1st year floor value as a marker, highlighting entries in that spreadsheet column that are greater than $400 value earned on the SUB.

Every couple of months when I near the completion of pending SUBs, I update to entries to the current FM 1st year value and update the old highlighted fields if any changes put a value outside my selected range.

From there, my actual thought process on the next P1 and P2 application is more complex (and subjective) than just one or two indicators.

For example, P2 currently has Amex points and I do not. I want some, too. Instead of picking the absolute best value card on the list, I might see which AMEX points card on the list has good value indicators across several measures.