What’s in my wallet (besides gift cards)

Thanks to my hobby of aggressively collecting points and miles, I’ve accumulated an overwhelming number of credit cards and prepaid cards. I can’t keep all of these in my wallet, so I need a plan for which cards to take with me and which to leave at home.   

When I wrote “One card to rule them all,” card decisions became easy… for a little while.  My strategy at that time was to carry my Ink Bold for business expenses and reload cards, and my prepaid American Express card for almost all other purchases.  I also occasionally used my Sapphire Preferred card for dining and travel.  Then I began experimenting with other prepaid cards.  First a NetSpend card, then a Mio card, and later a MyVanilla card were vying for wallet share.  Life became complicated again.

Then came Bluebird.  The American Express Bluebird card was so much better than the other prepaid options, that I happily put away everything else.  For a brief time, life was simple again.  I used Bluebird almost everywhere. 

Then I realized that I wasn’t optimizing my point earnings by using Bluebird for spend (see “Now that you have a Bluebird card, don’t use it“).  And, to further complicate matters, Office Depot stopped selling Vanilla Reload cards (see “Office Depot discontinues Vanilla Reload cards“).  So, once again, I had to rethink what was in my wallet.

After thinking about it for a while, I now have a credit card strategy that I’m happy with.  Here is my current approach (which will probably change in about 5 minutes):

Credit cards in my wallet

  • Hilton HHonors American Express: I use this one for groceries, gas, and drug store purchases in order to earn 6 points per dollar within those categories.  Hilton points aren’t nearly as valuable as Ultimate Rewards, but even if you value these points at just half a cent each, 6X equates to a 3% rebate on all such purchases.  It’s also convenient that I’ve found local drug stores (CVS and Walgreens, for example) that let me to buy Vanilla Reload cards with credit cards.
  • Citi Forward: I use this one for restaurants, bookstores (such as Amazon.com!), and movies in order to earn 5 points per dollar within those categories.  If used wisely, Citi ThankYou points can be worth up to 1.33 cents per point (see “Forward 5X“).  This means that 5X equates to as much as a 6.65% rebate.
  • Chase Ink Bold: I use my Ink Bold to pay all telecom, cable, and internet bills in order to earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar within those categories.  With the Fair Trading Price of Ultimate Rewards points at 1.31 cents each, 5X equates to a 6.55% rebate (although you can easily argue that it is worth much more). I don’t need to carry the card in my wallet for those items, though.  I carry the card in my wallet to pay for business expenses and office supply store purchases (5X).  I also visit the Office Depot gift card rack regularly…
  • US Bank Cash+: I use my Cash+ card, this quarter, for charity and department store purchases.  Within those categories, I earn a 6.875% rebate (see “Cash+ Update“). Each quarter I’ll have a chance to re-evaluate which categories to select for 5X earnings (US Bank offers quite a few options).
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred: I use my Sapphire Preferred card for all personal travel expenses in order to earn 2.14 points per dollar (2X for travel plus 7% annual points dividend = 2.14).  With the Fair Trading Price of Ultimate Rewards points at 1.31 cents each, this amounts to a 2.8% rebate.  I also use this card as my catch-all for the few times that an expense doesn’t fit in the above categories, and I don’t have a gift card or prepaid card that fits the situation.

The strategy shown above is far from optimal.  It is possible to do better within specific categories.  For example, one could earn 6% cash back at grocery stores with a Blue Cash Preferred card; and one could earn 5% back at gas stations with a few different cards (see “Best Category Bonuses“).  There are also better options for non-category spend.  One could use an SPG card, for example to earn points that are arguably more valuable than Ultimate Rewards; or use the Capital One Venture card or the Escape Discover Card to get 2% back in the form of travel credit.  Another very strong contender is the new Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa (or the Business Rewards Visa).  See “Club Carlson rocks our world… Again.”

Credit cards in my travel bag

Other than my Hilton card, I don’t use my hotel credit cards for day to day spend.  However, I do like to use them when I’m staying at a hotel in order to get higher point earnings.  Rather than carry my hotel cards around in my wallet, I simply keep them in a bag that I take on all trips.  This way, regardless of the hotel chain I happen to be at, I most likely have a matching credit card for the circumstance.

What about “5X everywhere?”

Some will ask why I don’t earn 5X everywhere through one of the many tricks I’ve written about before.  For example, see “Almost too good to be true,” “One card to rule them all,” and “The 5X everywhere backup plan.”  These are still great options, but as long as its possible to buy reload cards and unload them through Bluebird (or a similar means), I can do better than 5X everywhere. For details of this thinking, please see “Now that you have a Bluebird card, don’t use it.”  If options for buying reload cards dry up, then I’ll probably go back to one of the “5X everywhere” options for everyday spend.

What about meeting minimum spend?

Usually, credit card sign-up offers require high spend in a short amount of time to qualify for sign-up bonus.  In those cases, I may add the new card(s) to my wallet until the requirements have been met.  Or, I may find other ways to spend money quickly…

Reader comments

Can you think of ways to improve my credit card plan?  And, how about you?  How do you decide which credit cards to carry, and when to use which?

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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  1. What’s in my wallet (besides gift cards)?
    $17 in cash, two ink credit cards, one debit card, old receipts, some beach sand, driver’s license, health insurance card, and condoms.
    Ready to conquer the world!

  2. I have those first three cards in my wallet too.
    I also always keep my AMEX Gold card in my wallet solely for free roadside assist.
    And a better AMEX than the HHonors AMEX for Costco purchases (usually a prepaid AMEX purchased at OD or my Target AMEX prepaid)

  3. Wouldn’t you get more points if you buy $500 prepaid cards from office stores, use them for everyday spend, then buy VR at CVS with the HH card, then pay your credit card bills using BB? This seems better than using Sapphire or HH for everyday spend.

    • RP: I know it’s counter intuitive, but when you use prepaid cards for everyday spend, you do not earn any additional points above what you already earned when buying them. So, an extreme point collector is better off liquidating the prepaid stuff in other ways.

  4. If you can only select one hotel card, will you pick the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa or Hilton HHonors American Express? Thanks!

  5. Good post, as always. As you noted, for those who buy a LOT of groceries (ahem) you cannot beat the Blue Cash Preferred while it is still paying unlim 6% CB

  6. Take out the Amex HHonors and perhaps the BCP for a year:

    creditcards.CitiCards.com/usc/ThankYou/Preferred/2012/Nov/internal/default.htm

    5x TYP on gas, grocery, and drugstores for 12 months, + 15K TYP + 0% for a year, no annual fee.

  7. I’m wondering why it is worth it to keep both the CSP and Ink Bold past the first year? Especially with someone like you who probably has just about every airline & hotel-related cc. If you were to downgrade from the CSP to the non-Preferred, you’d still get 2x on dining. You’d also still be able to transfer pts to other loyalty programs via the Ink cards. The Ink also gives 2x on hotels. You’d lose the 2x on non-hotel travel expenditures (but this is what the other airline/hotel cc’s are for). You’d also lose the extra 7% (0.14 pts)annual dividend. My thought would be that the loss of 2x on non-hotel spending (offset by other loyalty cc) and the loss of 7% annual dividend would not overcome the $95 annual fee of the CSP.
    If I’m missing something I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  8. Business Amex. Platinum, Citibank AAdvantage Mastercard, a personal SPG Amex., A business SPG Amex., Ink Bold card, Ink Plus card Chase Sapphire card, some business cards, insurance cards, car wash card, Costco card, and my concealed weapons permit.

  9. I just recently got & passed Amex’s FR. The CR warned me not to buy GC’s or cash-equiv with my Amex cards. There were only two separate transactions for $503.95 and the rest are not too obvious. I mixed in regular spending as well. Is there anyway for your credit card company to tell what you buy based on your transaction total? I wonder if spending $500 at a pharmacy did it for me. Thanks!

    • Teri: different stores send different amounts of transaction info to the credit card companies. Thanks for the info about your FR. It sounds like I do need to write a cautionary post!

  10. @Teri, I’m in a similar boat. Too much large transactions at cvs. They must think I’m buying a lot of medicine because I am unhealthy. I believe Amex will start freezing accounts for too many large purchases at cvs.

  11. Teri and Grant, How much $ monthly were you putting through AMEX to buy gift cards or VR through CVS? I am planning on one or two $500 gift card purchases and your posts make me nervous about a AMEX FR. Thanks.

  12. Love the idea of putting your hotel cards in your travel bag so you only have them when you need them. That’s a great idea for my Hyatt and Priority Club cards. Now I will do that and not remember where I put them!

  13. I’m missing something – how is getting 2.14X with a Sapphire better than 5X from a prepaid card, bought with Ink? Then pay cc bills with VR/BB.

    • RP: I still get 5X by buying prepaid cards. I don’t use them anywhere I could earn more than 1X, though, because that would not earn me any additional points. Here’s an example:
      A) Buy $1000 worth of prepaid cards at 5X, and use them for daily spend. Points earned = 5000
      B) Buy $1000 worth of prepaid cards at 5X and use them to buy reload cards. Use real credit cards for daily spend. Assume average 2X for these cards. Points earned = 5000 + 2000 = 7000
      Scenario B wins.

  14. I appreciate the explanation. I thought most of us have difficulty using a prepaid card to buy a reload though, and we are lucky if we can buy reloads with a cc. I don’t understand how using a real cc (if it gets less than 5x) in your scenario above is better for daily spend than a prepaid (5X), but I’ll stop beating a dead horse. 🙂

  15. What about those Delta cards you’re using to get status (“mileage run from home?”) Are those in your wallet, or only at your home computer desk?
    .
    I also think that the recently-posted FT link on levels of transparency – Levels I-III and what the CC bank can and can’t see – is part of a good cautionary tale/post that should be told. Unless we want to just lead the lambs to slaughter, which might make some other people around the blogs happy.

  16. My cards are similar but i was going to take out the sapphire. I still use amex spg for much in travel because i value spg points more than most. While the sapphire gives you the 2.14 do you think its ok if i take it out? Whats “travel” expenses anyway? Im already using the hh amex for 6x gas, and an airline specific cc for any airline fee, or amex plat for multi MR, so whats left? Car rentals? I dunno.

  17. referring to USbank 5 % rebate card:
    I understand that insurance payment (statefarm in their website is included in bill pays along with cable wireless internet payments) is a 5% rebate.
    Anthem CA let you charge monthly premium with Visa/Master card. Is this counted as the 5% Bill pay category? and also the auto home liability insurances ?

  18. marathon man,

    Sapphire Preferred is very liberal on travel expenses: on top of airline hotel car rentals booked through EXPEDIA ( ie NOT DIRECTLY) etc are still counted as travel. Parking fees ( if small I pay with freedom cards) monthly commuting tickets. Time share maintenance fees RCI or Interval Internationalannual fees etc. are all ok Best with Sapphire Preferred: when you think you deserve the 2X, call them up THEY NEVER LET ME DOWN

  19. All spend is 5x for me. No need for anything else. Only if my Ink dries up will I then go to Plan B with Amex Surpass/VR/BB and get those Hiltonpesos.

  20. Same here Jim, 5x via prepaid etc unless getting a bonus or meeting spend via a churn. 1x..even 2x is so yesterday in this game 🙂 I have 2 inks so plenty more to get

  21. harvson3: Yes, I just keep the Delta cards at home. Good idea about a post on the levels of info submitted to CC companies. I don’t consider myself an expert with that at this point, though…
    .
    marathon man: As others have said, there are a number of miscellaneous travel expenses that the CSP gives 2X for. Of course if you don’t use it much for those things then it makes sense to lighten your wallet

  22. does anyone know for sure what level of info is submitted to Amex for purchases at drugstores? It does look a little suspicious for a normal person to spend around $500 at a drugstore a couple times a month. Any tips on how to make the transaction appear less obvious?

    • Teri: Here’s a roundabout approach. Go to this site and search for drug stores that offer Level III line item detail. If the drug store you shop in is not in the list then we can guess that the detailed information is not given to the credit card companies.

  23. Hi,

    I’m not understanding why you would use the HHonors AMEX card instead of an SPG card, even at a the places that pay 6x. By my math, the 1 SPG point is worth more that the 6 HHonors points, and is more flexible. Am I missing something? Thanks.

    “…Hilton HHonors American Express: I use this one for groceries, gas, and drug store purchases in order to earn 6 points per dollar within those categories. Hilton points aren’t nearly as valuable as Ultimate Rewards, but even if you value these points at just half a cent each, 6X equates to a 3% rebate on all such purchases. It’s also convenient that I’ve found local drug stores (CVS and Walgreens, for example) that let me to buy Vanilla Reload cards with credit cards.”

    • Chris: SPG points are definitely more flexible, but I do value 6 Hilton points above 1 SPG point for hotel stays. In my experience, I can usually get between .5 and 1.5 cents per point value from Hilton points, so 6X is like a 3% to 9% rebate. With SPG, I usually get between 2 and 5 cents per point value. So, its true that 6X Hilton points aren’t way more valuable than 1 SPG, but I still think they are more valuable. The math becomes more compelling when you use the points on top end Hilton properties for 4 or more nights (so as to get an AXON or elite discount). Hilton top properties top out at 50K points per night, but go down to as little as 37,500 points per night for a long stay (with AXON or elite discounts). Top SPG properties can be as much as 35000 points per night, which goes down to 28000 if you stay for 5 nights and get the fifth night free. So when comparing top property to top property, SPG points are worth less than twice as much as Hilton points.

  24. How does Hilton HHonors American Express equal to 3% rebate? I just looked at the hilton hotel in Chicago. All the hotels will cost 40K to 50K points per night. However, they just cost around 120 dollars/night. It seems like 1 hilton point only worth about 0.25 cents. Are there any ways to better utilizing the points?

    • Hello: As I just replied to Chris, I usually see between .5 and 1.5 per cent value from Hilton points, so 6X is like a 3 cent to 9 cent per dollar rebate. Yes, there are properties and situations where points are worth less than half a cent each, but you’ll find that in all points programs. Sometimes it makes sense to redeem points and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, I just looked at a night in Chicago and saw that SPG wants 12000 points for the W Chicago Lakeshore, but the room rate for that night is just $110. For that hotel, in that situation, SPG points are worth less than a penny each. In most cases, though, SPG points are worth much more (especially when Cash & Points redemptions are available)

  25. @FM – thanks for the link. After a quick search, it looks like ALL office supply stores around my area offer Level III details. Has anyone tried searching for the ones around their area? Does anyone know what the implications of level III are? Am I just getting really paranoid or does it mean credit card companies are paying more attention to what we are inking?

  26. I just checked that site and Officedepot submits Level III line item detail. Does that mean they know when people are using INK cards to buy Visa gift cards?

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