Shifting strategies in light of coronavirus


The past week has been unprecedented in many ways. Emotions are running high. Several times in the past few days, readers have asked here or in Frequent Miler Insiders about whether points and miles are dead and we (as a collective) should dump our annual fee credit cards since we may not be traveling for a while. Those questions have given me food for thought: How should our strategy shift in light of uncertain economic times? The answer is obvious: while I will still collect miles and points because I know I will travel again eventually, I also need to prepare for the as yet unknown economic impact of the next few very uncertain months. I think many of us need to consider a more cash-back-centric strategy, but I intend to attack that with a multi-faceted approach. Hopefully my attempt to map out my strategy in this post can help others chart their own courses as we navigate unfamiliar waters. Here’s what I intend to do.

Analyze upcoming annual fees & seek retention offers

I’m not particularly concerned with credit cards that are not imminently up for renewal. The truth is that I expect to travel again. I don’t yet know whether that will be this summer or this winter or the middle of next year, but I expect that I will indeed travel. I am therefore not feeling a sense of urgency in terms of canceling cards that are not yet up for renewal.

On the other hand, a reader noted facing renewal on an American Airlines Executive card. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to renew a card where the primary benefit is lounge access. In an environment where work travel may be drastically different for the remainder of the year, I’d be more likely to conserve cash now with the intention to re-open the card at a later point in time when travel picks back up.

In my case, within the next 4-to-6 weeks, two cards with big annual fees will be up for renewal in my household: an Amex Hilton Aspire card and a Citi Prestige card.

The Aspire card is an easy hold in my book. First, Hilton is extending any unexpired free night certificates and any certificates issued between now and the end of this August through August 31, 2021. We do have one unexpired night from this card and will soon pick up a second — together, that makes for an easy weekend away. Given the chance to use those certificates between now and August of next year, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble using those certificates to excellent value.

The airline incidental fees will still very likely get used this year even if towards travel for next year. The resort credit is a similar situation for me: if nothing else, we’ll use that to put down a deposit toward the place where we intend to use our two free weekend nights in 2021. I think this is an easy keeper for us especially given the extension of the free night certificates.

On the other hand, the Prestige card is going to be very hard (if not impossible) to justify. After having long been grandfathered into a $350 annual fee, I expect my next fee to be charged at the full $495 rate. I’ve already used this year’s $250 travel credit. The only real benefit from this card for me is 5x restaurants. While we have eaten out a lot since that bonus category increased to 5x, our dining spend is dramatically decreasing for the time being and I don’t imagine it will quickly rebound.

I will first try for a retention offer on the Prestige card and see if Citi wants to entice me to keep it. If I don’t get a very good retention offer, I think this card will be downgraded — the question will be whether I want to proactively transfer all of my points to Turkish Miles & Smiles and product change to a Double Cash card or downgrade it within the ThankYou family and hope my card number doesn’t change (since this would theoretically keep my points alive). That’s still a pending decision for me.

If you’re trying to determine which cards are keepers, see Greg’s post: Which ultra premium cards are keepers? (Version 3.2).

Go after checking account bonuses

Having a rainy day fund is obviously important and hopefully most readers have been saving for the unexpected. However, I know that many people will find themselves in a place where some extra money could come in handy over the coming month(s). I wrote a few months back about how I opened a few checking accounts for easy new account bonuses (See: Low-hanging fruit you ought to be picking). Some checking account bonuses can be very easy money that could make for a timely cash infusion.

As an example, one of the account bonuses mentioned in that post is from a Northeast regional bank called M&T Bank. This particular bonus is only available for those residing in CT, DC, DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA, VA, or WV — but it’s a quick and easy $250 money-maker for those who fit the geography for the offer. As I wrote about in that previous post, the account can be opened with a $25 deposit. Then a single $500 direct deposit triggers the $250 new account bonus. About one week after opening my M&T account, I was able to move $500 from SoFi Investing to M&T and by day 8 or 9 I had my $250 new account bonus available in my M&T checking account. Read more about this particular new account bonus at Doctor of Credit.

Not all new checking account bonuses are quite that easy, but some can be fairly simple. Keep in mind that in many cases, each spouse can open his/her own account. My wife has decided to open the M&T account since it worked out so easily for me. That’s a total of $500 in our pockets with very little effort.

SoFi Money isn’t nearly as easy as it once was, but it offers another opportunity for some quick cash without a high bar to meet.

I also wrote about a Wells Fargo checking account bonus I’d done. That bonus is currently good for $400. It requires direct deposits totaling $4,000 or more within 90 days of account opening — but in my case, sending an ACH transfer from one of my checking accounts at a different bank triggered the bonus. An ACH transfer like that isn’t supposed to meet the direct deposit requirement, but sometimes it does work. If you have some savings on hand that you can move around, you may be able to score some extra cash via bonuses like this.

Those are just a few examples. Doctor of Credit has a great resources on more new account bonuses, including what works/doesn’t work in terms of credit card funding and meeting deposit requirements. A couple playing in two player mode doing the 3 bonuses noted above could bring in about $1500 in extra cash. At a time like this, that could come in handy.

Continue to invest

The past week has been brutal on investments. Many of us have withstood huge losses. I can’t seem to get my wife to stop logging in to our IRAs for her latest dose of bad news. I guarantee that she logs in again the minute she reads that sentence and she isn’t going to be happy.

However, if you have faith that the US economy will eventually recover (and I do), I think the smart money is continuing to invest despite this historic downturn. I could be wrong: I am no investing expert. But Greg and I talked about this on Frequent Miler on the Air last week and he made a great point in saying that he is continuing to invest weekly during this time period. He may not buy at the absolute market bottom, but by continuing to invest regularly he can at least hope to have spread out his buys over the course of a low period to be able to be positioned to benefit when things turn around.

In my case, I certainly did some buying at the high point, so I will also buy now hoping to average out my cost and grow long-term. I’m going to continue to invest in ETFs/Index funds. I’ve got many years to go before I am at retirement age and I am optimistic that this too shall pass.

Pick up some brokerage bonuses

Piggybacking off of the previous two points, I intend to go after some brokerage bonuses if I can in the near future. Smaller investing apps like Robinhood, SoFi Money, and Webull offer new account bonuses in the form of free stock. Those stocks are usually fairly low-value, but with the market at historic low points, these could be good opportunities to pick up stocks that will hopefully rise long-term.

While I’ve done small account bonuses with Robinhood, Webull, and SoFi Money over the past few months, my wife hasn’t yet tried Robinhood or Webull. I intend to refer her and hope that we pick up some free stocks while their values are low with the chance for those free shares to grow a bit. Maybe if she can get the same kind of big deposit bonus from Webull that I got last month, she can pick up a chunk of free stock with a good opportunity for growth.

This strategy isn’t remarkably different from the point above about investing — but if I can invest with at least some of the house’s money, all the better.

No, miles and points are not dead (to me)

I don’t know when I’ll be on an airplane again. For the first time in probably a decade, I have no future flights booked. But I know that will change and I’ll travel again. It won’t be next week and likely won’t be next month. Will it be this summer? This fall? Early next year? Late next year? I don’t know exactly when I’ll be ready to travel again, but I know that it will happen.

Will points be a good deal when I’m ready to travel again, or will cash prices be so low that points just won’t make sense? I can see cash prices potentially dipping quite low for a while as I imagine it may take some time to entice people to travel again once this viral outbreak is behind us, so I could see forgoing points in favor of cash fares for a while. But I’ll want to fly up front on a long haul and will surely use points again. Perhaps availability will even be better for a time as things return to normal.

Short story: I don’t think miles and points are dead. I still intend to MS points and miles to beef up that rainy day fund as well.

Prep for side hustles

While social isolation is going to change things for many of us in the short-term, the closure of retail outlets and many non-essential businesses is surely going to have big economy impact. If more and more cities and states see closures of non-essential businesses, it is hard to predict the extent of the impact.

But for those who are positioned to take advantage, that could lead to opportunity when life begins to return to normal. I imagine we may see opportunities to pick up big ticket items for less than usual and there will be opportunities to buy, sell and trade.

Indeed, I got my start in reselling in the shadow of the 2008 economic downturn. I started with small electronics I bought online and eventually moved up to larger and heavier items that had me renting Uhaul vehicles to pick up and drop off things like stoves and motorcycles. At some point, I began browsing Craigslist barter sections and I was eventually able to trade a nice pellet stove with a retail value in the high $3,000’s for a Ford F150.

I’d paid about $1200 for the stove in an auction and the truck had a blue book value around $5K. A rear wheel drive 6-cylinder truck isn’t an easy sell in upstate New York, so the seller was happy to trade for a way to save on his home heating bill and I was happy to pick up a truck that I then used to make several trips to Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and many places in the Northeast to pick up and drop off resale items. It was a win-win.

That side hustle was made possible in part because I had access to credit cards. I eventually began to focus more on shopping portals and earning miles, which in turn led me to discover Frequent Miler. It was a fortuitous series of events. We recently sold the truck for $1,000 after having it for the better part of the past decade. I was sad to see it go, but it treated us well from a side hustle standpoint.

I don’t know that product resale will be the side hustle that comes out of this particular downturn (and I sure hope that it isn’t of this type), but I imagine that there will be side hustles to come. With many more people working from home for the first time given the current situation (and some of them likely to find they enjoy that), there will be opportunities to cater to those folks or serve those who want to re-tool careers to be able to work from home. Online education and entertainment will surely be more relevant than ever before. There will be opportunities coming that we don’t yet see. Having access to credit and travel rewards may position those of us playing this game to be able to take advantage of those opportunities. I’m hopeful.

Renewed focus on cash back and cash back bonuses

While spending requirements and various restrictions obviously vary, a quick glance at our Best Offers page shows over $5,000 in cash back welcome bonuses available. A couple playing in two-player mode could double that. While MSing from home isn’t as easy or cost-effective as methods that require social interaction, Greg wrote about ways to do it just yesterday. Some of those higher-cost methods can be well worthwhile if you’re triggering new cash back bonuses.

In my case, I’m more likely to go after rewards that serve a dual purpose and can be cashed out at reasonable value or leveraged for more valuable travel rewards. But I will almost certainly continue to spend on cards that earn cash back or a cash equivalent like Chase Ultimate Rewards or the Citi Double Cash. Currencies like those are a way to hedge my bets in case my travel gets curtailed longer than I anticipate and I find more immediate use for the cash.

That’s not to say that my eyes aren’t peeled for the right points opportunities. I imagine that we’ll see shopping portals entice people to buy online and we may see more generous retention offers. With new cards rumored on the horizon, I’ll certainly keep my ear to the ground for opportunities to earn more points, but I’ll equally be on the lookout to recover some of what I’ve lost in the market when there is low-hanging fruit to be picked.

Bottom line

I’m not at all giving up on points and miles, but I think that a more cash-back-angled approach makes sense given economic uncertainty. Many of us will go into a bit of a cash-preservation mode in the short term, but in that pursuit I don’t intend to give up on credit card rewards. In fact, I hope to expand my looks at cash back cards and keep an eye out for easy bank account bonuses in order to keep my rainy day fund intact through uncertain times. I’ll also continue earning points and miles — and I’m sure that in the coming weeks, I’ll spend some time looking at how to leverage them into future travel plans given what I expect might be better-than-usual award availability for at least a short window of time when things become more normal. Truthfully, my strategy won’t vary wildly from that before the coronavirus pandemic: I’ll seek to earn good welcome bonuses, cancel cards that don’t provide enough value, and keep my eyes peeled for ways to increase rewards. In short, I’ll keep playing the games we play — I just might keep a closer eye on cash in the short-term.

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