The earn and burn fallacy. Shall we give hoarding and cherry picking a try instead?

earn and burn“Don’t save your money. Spend it as fast as you can.”  Can you imagine anyone giving that advice?  And, if they did, would you listen to them?  No way.

What if the types of things you would blow your money on were likely to become more expensive next year?  Doesn’t it make sense to spend all of your money now on concerts, restaurants, clothes, whatever, since it will all likely become more expensive next year?  Sure you could save your money and earn a piddling interest rate, but price increases are likely to far outpace your meager returns.  Go for it now!  Spend it all!

Of course, the above is terrible adviceEveryone knows that the prudent thing to do is to save money for future needs.  However, when it comes to miles and points, conventional wisdom says the opposite…

Conventional wisdom in the miles & points world tells us that we should “earn and burn”.  That is, we should spend our points and miles quickly after earning them because award prices are likely to increase in the future.  Isn’t that similar to the poor advice suggested above?

The advice to “earn and burn” has become so ingrained into the miles & points culture that it is seemingly never questioned.  I think it’s time to question it!

Devaluations happen

The driver behind the “earn and burn” advice is the expectation of devaluations.  There’s no question that points and miles frequently devalue in a number of ways:

Miles and points enthusiasts get burned by devaluations like those described above.  They worked “hard” (often by signing up for credit cards and visiting Walmart) to earn all of those points and miles, and then they feel like they’ve been slapped in the face by the same companies that they’ve been so loyal to.  That promised dream vacation will now cost 30% more, 50% more, maybe even 100% more than before.

So, the advice makes sense, right?  Spend your points and miles before the next devaluation or else you’ll get burned too!

Deals remain

One thing often overlooked by conventional wisdomers is that amidst the wreckage of even the most severe devaluations there are often bright spots. Some deals remain intact or, often, new deals appear.  Here are a few examples:

  • When British Airways announced a huge change to their frequent flyer program in 2011, One Mile at a Time said “it’s time to burn those British Airways miles now.”  If you took that advice and used your miles for a great trip or two, that’s great.  But, some people may have regretted listening to that advice once details of the new distance based program became known.  It was absolutely true that international premium cabin awards became exorbitantly expensive under the new program. However, short distance economy flights became markedly cheaper.  It became possible to book some one-way flights for as little as 4,500 points.  The “devaluation” really exchanged one type of sweet spot redemption for another.
  • Hilton’s devaluation was a massacre on the high end, but actually good for those seeking low-end hotels.  Many low-end hotels became less expensive for points redemptions year around.  And, many mid-tier hotels became seasonally cheaper.  That is, Hilton introduced seasonal award pricing and, in the off season, some mid tier hotels became a bit cheaper than before.
  • United’s changes were drastic for many routes, but not all.  While most international business and first class partner awards increased in price anywhere from 25% to 87%, premium awards to Central and South America were barely affected at all.  With a few exceptions, economy awards held stable.  And, notably, premium awards between Australia (Oceana) and South Asia, North Asia, and the Middle East became cheaper.

After each of the massive devaluations shown above, opportunities remained for getting equal or better value today than before.

Opportunity knocks. Are you ready?

I won’t question the conventional wisdom that says that, on average, the value of points and miles decreases over time (due to devaluations like those described above).  But, it is also true that every now and then unforeseen opportunities arise.  And, often, the only way to take advantage of them is to have points ready for action.  Here are a few recent examples that come to mind:

  • Delta award sale to Europe: In August, Delta held an unannounced award sale on winter flights to Europe.  The remarkable thing about the sale was that Delta had also increased award availability on certain routes.  Finding round trip saver-level international business class awards for four people is often nearly impossible.  During the sale, on certain routes, it was easy.
  • OneWorld business class sale: Last week, a number of British Airways deals converged for two days and made it possible to buy round trip business class tickets to Europe dirt cheap (you can read the story here).  The one hitch: you needed to have British Airways Avios points at the ready in order to take full advantage of the opportunity.
  • Saver level award availability: Every now and then people discover wide open saver level award availability on certain routes.  A recent example was when AA released huge amounts of premium cabin award space on flights to Santiago, Chile and to Paris, France.

In each of the above examples and in countless other short term opportunities, only those with a stash of miles (or transferable points) could take advantage of these deals.

The cost of earning and burning

If you follow the practice of earning and burning points and miles, its inevitable that you’ll miss out on opportunities to get outsized value for you points.  Something will come up like one of the opportunities described above, or an unexpected travel requirement, and you won’t be ready.  Suppose, for example, you suddenly need to fly somewhere tomorrow.  Paid ticket prices would likely be sky high.  And, perhaps you have a stash of United miles remaining, but only the expensive “Standard” awards are available.  Then you find that AA has saver level flights.  You could have booked the $1,000 round-trip ticket for 25,000 AA miles or as few as 9,000 British Airways Avios, but you don’t have either of those currencies available.  Instead, you book the flight with 50,000 United miles.  That’s still better than paying $1000, right?  Yep, but then maybe you want to plan another trip and you find that United has saver level award space for that one.  Perhaps you would have had enough miles… If only you hadn’t spent them…

Opportunistic hoarding and cherry picking your currency

My general approach to earning points and miles is to go for the low hanging fruit.  What, there’s a 100K credit card offer for Membership Rewards?  Great, sign me up!  Hold on, I can earn 50,000 AA miles or ThankYou points by signing up for a bank account?  Awesome, let’s do it.  My US Bank FlexPerks card gives me 3 points per dollar for charitable donations?  Guess which card I’ll use for donations and Kiva loans?  Citi gave me a retention bonus of 2 extra points for all spend?… Guess which card goes to the top of my wallet?

This scattershot approach to earning points and miles leads to a nice result.  When it comes time to plan a trip, I have the luxury of using whichever points currency is most valuable for that situation.

I’ll use Avios, for example, for short non-stop flights.  If I’m looking, instead, to buy an economy ticket and the price happens to hit a sweet spot in the FlexPerks award chart, I’ll burn those points.  Otherwise, when flying American Airlines, I look to pay with ThankYou points (except when the ThankYou search engine doesn’t work!) because my Prestige card makes my points worth 60% more towards AA flights.  When booking international premium awards, I hunt for award availability across all airlines, and then I find the airline mile currency that can be used for that award at the lowest price.

When looking for hotels, I’ll try first to identify where I want to stay.  If it’s a chain hotel, I’ll see if award space is available.  If it’s not a chain hotel, maybe Orbitz will let me use my accumulated Orbucks to pay.  How about a B&B?  Fine, I can pay with a card like the Capital One Venture or Barclaycard Arrival Plus and then use points to offset the charge.

On average, I believe that hoarding and cherry picking results in better value from your points than earning and burning even with devaluations taken into account.

Safe investments

There’s no question that some points and miles are safer investments than others.  Transferable points programs probably carry the least risk.  If one transfer partner devalues, then there should still be plenty of others to fall back to.  I’ll happily earn and hoard Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, ThankYou Rewards, and SPG points all day long.

At the other end of the spectrum are the points that expire with no way of keeping them alive other than spending them.  Programs like this are unusual, but they do exist.  Choice Privileges points, for example, expire after a set amount of time regardless of whether you have new activity in your account.  In such cases, I would be willing to redeem these points for less than their top value just to ensure that some value is received.  This becomes especially true as the expiration date nears.

What if the opportunities stop?

Some will say “No, Greg, you should earn and burn now because opportunities for earning and burning may all go away in the future”.  Hmmm.  Yes, I can imagine a day when all of the easy opportunities for earning points goes away.  In some cases, for example, credit card companies are cracking down on “churners” (people who sign up for cards over and over).  Chase, for example, has started denying most applications for their Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus cards if they see on your credit report 5 or more credit card applications in the past two years.  Amex has taken a different approach: each person can get the signup bonus on their personal cards once per lifetime.  If you’ve already earned the signup bonus for the SPG card, for example, you can’t get a signup bonus again even if you closed that card 15 years ago.

What about “burning” opportunities?  Will they all go away?  Sure, many opportunities will become more expensive, but I have a hard time imagining a future where none of the loyalty programs will offer outsized rewards.  Whenever airlines and hotels have excess capacity, they have the opportunity to foster brand loyalty cheaply.  Why would they all stop doing that?

I think its very unlikely, but if we see a day where earning points and miles in large quantities has become almost impossible, then what?  I expect that the point hoarders will be very happy that they didn’t earn and burn!

The case for “earn and burn”

There is at least one situation in which I’d argue in favor of the “earn and burn” strategy…

Some people save up for years for the perfect trip that never happens.  There’s too much to do.  The kids are too small.  The kids are in school.  There’s not enough time.  Whatever.

Don’t be that person.  As I proved recently (see: “One day in Beijing. Fewer words, more photos”), you don’t need to wait for the perfect opportunity.  You can get a lot of enjoyment from very short trips.

People get stuck thinking that there’s no point in going to this or that far away place unless they can spend weeks exploring.  When are you ever going to have weeks to spare?  Instead, I think that a much better approach is to go while you can, and realize that you can always go back.

Points and miles make it possible to fit travel into the nooks and crannies of your schedule.  If it takes an “earn and burn” mentality to get you to actually do it, then that, in my mind, is a good thing.

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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Pingbacks

  1. […] The advantage of this scattershot approach is that when it comes time to redeem points for travel, I can cherry pick the best opportunities.  Usually, one program or another offers the best value for a particular trip.  I almost always have enough points or miles in whatever program I need, especially considering that I have large balances of transferable points (Amex, Chase, Citi, and SPG).  For more about my approach, please see “The earn and burn fallacy.” […]

  2. […] spending. How do you choose your rewards: is it based mostly on a super credit card duo, or are you hoarding a little bit of everything and looking to cherry-pick? Do you deal with a selected purpose — like a resort or airline award or an amassed amount of […]

Comments

  1. Earn and burn, but maintain a reasonable balance in most major currencies. It would be sad if someone didn’t even have 25K AA in your example.

  2. I think the case is “Earn and Burn and Earn” which is somewhat different.

    Earn and burn within the same award chart so that your value calculations make some sense and aren’t overly affected by devaluations OR uncertainty. That also implies not over-investing in your earn beyond what you can spend in a reasonable period of time.

    Earn what you can spend, spend it, and then earn some more within whatever chart is available in the future and then spend then. It’s a lifetime cycle. The plan isn’t “earn as much as you can and blow it all and then you’re broke.” And it isn’t “spend wastefully at low marginal value.”

    • Gary, do you practice what you preach? Do you only have enough AA miles, for example, to take care of your travel needs in the next 3-9 months, before their inevitable devaluation happens?

      • you cannot “control” the amount you earn. you can only control the burn.

        saying i will earn X amount to maintain Y burn to avoid devaluation is pure nonsense. So once you earned X miles, do you stop earning? what do you do? use cash only? why? you’ll just continue with your daily spending habits right using cash? you mean you will forgo the miles just so you can stop earning just enough miles/points? are you crazy? or stupid?

        so, no gary, you are talking out of your arse.

        a final note. what happens after devaluation? will you stop earning because they upped the redemption amount? if so, you will be out of this hobby a long long long long long long long long time ago. why are you still here?

        • You absolutely control your earn, and you control where you earn. Or at least you should at any high level of earn.

          Post-devaluation you earn again at the new value per mile (adjusting how much you will invest to earn accordingly).

      • The merger of American and US Airways sort of got in the way of that. My largest balance was with US Airways acquired at a low enough cost basis that when I made the decision to go all-in there it was with the expectation of a devaluation.

  3. Absolutely, 100% correct. Methinks that more than a few earn-burn proponents have a vested interest in keeping those card apps churning. I too am a selective hoarder and refuse to pay more than $.01 for a mile or redeem for less than $.02. It may take more work to find these scenarios but I will take that any day over being chicken-littled into spending them foolishly out of fear of deval.

    • Yes, it is important to note that another large motivator of the “earn and burn” crowd is that they need people constantly hungry for miles. When there are millions of dollars being made each year by the top bloggers, they need to create and strengthen the demand for miles obtained via their referral links.

  4. I’ve also ignored the “earn and burn” people as being overly simplistic. I have taken the same approach to you as earning and banking to allow myself flexibility with redemptions. That sometimes includes spending more than saver – premium in fact, because I need to travel during school vacations. Having options allow me to use the cheapest redemption relative to my portfolio (wow how wall street does that sound – ha ha!)
    Low hanging fruit makes sense, cost is minimal and what else was I doing anyway? Plus, I love the collecting. Your analogy to $ is a good one because I view miles and points as a currency. After, why else am I earning money other than to spend it after taking care of necessities? And what better to spend it on than travel!

  5. I agree 100%. Last year, when the AA Exec card offered 100000 miles, we loaded up. Our immediate plans were to go to Europe and AA was no help, but I don’t pass up an opportunity like that. This year, my kids get into anime and the family wants to go to Japan. Suddenly, those AA miles for which I had no use, are extraordinarily valuable.
    I earned a load of Virgin Atlantic miles with no idea where I was going to use them. 18 months later, the only award tickets I can find available are on Delta. Suddenly, I have a use for Virgin Atlantic miles.
    I say take advantage of every opportunity to earn and then wait for the opportunities to burn when it suits your travel goals. In my case, when we are often traveling as a group of 6 or 8, hoarding is the only way to get us anywhere, but I think I would do the same if it was just 2 of us.

  6. Great post! I’m probably a selective hoarder as well.

    I agree with @Truth that many of the earn-and-burn proponents have a vested interest in such.

    It always amuses me when a situation like the BA changes hits and people start discussing their plans to immediately burn down all of their currency…even blatantly doing so for trips they hadn’t planned or needed to take. Just for what? Spite?

  7. Great post! I started this hobby about a year ago and aggressively went after sign up bonuses until about April. I now need to slow down and be selective as I have a new mortgage in my future early next year. The hoard and cherry pick is the approach I am following and it has suited me well. There are certain trips we are targeting over the next few years that we need to save for. IF they become more expensive, it doesn’t mean we won’t go, we just need more points/miles. In the mean time, we will take advantage of deals that pop up for some shorter trips.

  8. The validity of “Earn and Burn” assumes a good supply of additional points coming in. Between bonus restrictions (one per lifetime on a given card being the most restrictive), and more limited MS opportunities, that assumption becomes harder to achieve. A lot of people who support the theory also have more earning opportunities than others (or at least ones they’re willing to take). Some people do not have a business, and do not want to represent that they do. And they’re just not into MS. Of course many also just have less available time to travel so the supply builds. I won’t fly out today and back tomorrow just to blow points before they devalue. I guess it also a matter of how you value memories of past trips vs points on hand (albeit possibly devalued), and dreams of future trips.

    I am also looking at retiring within a year or so. I am not positive how much that will affect the future bonus credit card earnings because of lower income. I feel the points can be more productive for me then.

  9. Meh – as all MS folk know we live in Looking Glass World. You must spend more than you earn to save. The more you spend, the more you save. The more you save, the less you have to spend. One way will make you grow richer, and the other way will make you grow poorer. ‘You’ll get used to it in time,’ said the Caterpillar…

    >“Don’t save your money. Spend it as fast as you can.” Can you imagine anyone giving that advice? And, if they did, would you listen to them? No way.

  10. Between all of the program’s my airline/transferable points balance was about 1 million. I figured I had enough points that is until I booked my wife and son F on OZ back to China to visit the in laws and C on KE on the way back. A few hundred thousand points gone but it was worth it. A few more trips like that and I may need to start earning again. Good thing I didn’t blow the MR and UR points. Great advice a portfolio of diversified points / miles is really helpful.

    • depends how fast you can actually earn….

      if you can earn mega miles quickly all the time, year after year, you will be inclined to spend it all quickly as well..

      but if it takes some time to earn the miles, i doubt you will blow it all at once..

      only the US has great miles/points sign up bonuses…

  11. The burn-it philosophy exists because people in this community tend to hoard. Also, because the “normal” or status quo thing for Americans to do is to go to work and take 1-4 vacations per year, which would mean accumulating miles far in excess of the redemptions (if you’re churning & manufacturing correctly). People that travel compulsively and have a hard time keeping down a job are basically excluded from needing this burn wisdom.

  12. Never understood earn and burn. Last year, due to a death in the family, I had to send 3 people to Asia the next day. Cost was 250,000 miles. Really glad I had those miles. Otherwise it would have been thousands of dollars.

  13. “Don’t save your money. Spend it as fast as you can.’ Can you imagine anyone giving that advice?”

    Yes, I can. In an environment of rampant inflation (a rise in price and corresponding reduction in the value of currency). When you currency is losing value, trading it for a good or service as fast as possible is the right move. Since miles’ value are set by the institutions, we don’t see the daily devaluation that Zimbabwe did, but make no mistake, Miles Hyperinflation is happening (I’m looking at you Delta).

  14. Excellent article and I fully agree.
    Back in Vanilla days, my wife and I each got the 100,00 Avios bonus and companion certificate, thinking we’d go visit her family. One baby, no vacation (we use that for visiting family), and sky-high fuel fees later, we’re using them for long weekend jaunts to the Caribbean instead.

    Keep in mind that Americans are envied the world over for their ridiculously generous credit card sign up bonuses. Everywhere else they typically have to get by on regular spend alone. Imagine your salary doubled but so did the price of everything you buy. You’d be outraged at the price gouging even though you aren’t any worse off. That’s the world of award devaluations, where points are handed out like Halloween candy.

  15. if someone told you real estate costs would triple in 5 years while interest rates will stay at 0% would you keep your money in the bank or buy some houses?
    The whole purpose of points is to spend them before they are useless. They are not cash or investments. If you like to amass a huge total to brag to your FT friends and then pay out of pocket to earn more, your a fool.
    This hobby started with the people that earn points from business travel and spend them on personal vacations, but now you have MS’ers and churners and people who are spoonfed deals with circles and arrows. It seems like there are tons of bloggers telling people how to earn points but they don’t earn referral money telling people how to spend them.
    Someone posted if your doing it right you should acquire many more points than you can use each year. the drive to burn should not be based on fears of devaluation but on getting value out of them and taking cheap or free vacations…including aspirational ones you would not consider if you had to pay cash….how many frugal people would spend 10k for a vacation to stay in a over water bungalow in Bora Bora? who would pay 3 times the cost of a coach seat to fly up front or twice as much to stay on the club level at the hotel?…these are what the points are for. Use them. Set goals and acquire accordingly…we vacation 5-6 weeks a year and my wife and I each have way more points than we will use in 3 years, and even with this year being totally devoted to WF 5% back card we will not drain any programs points that cant be replaced easily….the bottom line is: if your not burning points, your not traveling enough for free.

    • Sorry, wise2u, I call false equivalency! You have equated hoarding miles versus burning them with investing money in the bank versus investing money in real estate. Both putting money into real estate and putting money in the bank are equivalent to hoarding. The real analogy in real estate would be putting money in the bank versus renting the biggest, most expensive house you could find, because 5 years from now the rent will triple, without really knowing how you are going to pay the rent on any place, never mind the bigger better place, a year from now. Burning points is consumption, not just a different form of investment. Maybe you do want to enjoy yourself until the money (points, miles) runs out, and that is okay as long as you understand that you have made the decision to consume resources now rather than save them to consume later.

  16. Great article but I really like best : ” go while you can and realize you can always go back . ” near the end . I have friends who have turned down invitations to visit in Japan with Japanese people and others who have turned down China with Chinese friends . Incredible opportunities but they always have something to do first . I’m almost screaming ” Do it ! Go ! You can’t miss this ! ” Just can’t convince them . Maddening .
    But , for some , miles must be just like the new money burning a hole in their pocket , for others their miles are buried in coffee cans in the back yard . The sweet spot may be somewhere in between .

  17. I think “earn and burn” is aimed at people who have millions of miles across various programs yet still end up paying cash for flights and hotels because they aren’t achieving their desired CPM value. I think the idea is that your earning rate should be roughly balanced with your spending rate over a 1-2 year period. If over a long time span, you continue to accumulate miles without spending many, you should be burning more.

    For me, a good amount of airline miles is enough to do a RT first class redemption for two in any alliance. If I drop below that, I start to get nervous.

  18. Great article, and enjoy the alternate point of view. You did leave out the biggest difference between points and money in your analysis: we each own our money, we don’t own our points – the programs do.

  19. IDK… Earn and burn almost sounds like a tagline invented by bloggers who are trying to get people to apply as many as possible CC thru their affiliate links. Reminds me of DeBeers and their diamond is forever tagline… Now everyone buys the worthless stone for engagement without really knowing why…

  20. Your philosophy is dead on as always pack leader…………AA and AMEX 100k offers and Lufthansa FC post French Alps availability + recent Qantas FC availability are great examples of out sized values………and when they come if your credit isn’t pristine and your accounts gaudy then you can do nothing but cry………keep up the brilliant work!

  21. I agree with most of what you say, but not with the “you can always go back.” At 56, with many many places I would like to see, and only a couple weeks a year I can spare, my travel is very limited. I already have some physical limitations, and foresee those increasing soon. So, I agree with “go now!” But I do not agree with “you can always go back.” Do what you most want to do NOW, and just hope you may return.

  22. Maybe “earn and burn” works for those who travel solo or with one companion.
    For family travelers, that philosophy doesn’t work.
    A family of 4 will easily burn 600K worth of miles for one trip. Since not every destination is accessible by every alliance, having at 600K in all 3 alliances (or being able to transfer to one if need be) is the only way to ensure you can book an award.
    Add the fact that everyone has different accounts, with leftover points and miles that cannot be combined – and you need at least 1.5M points to be able to book airfare alone.

    I don’t think many bloggers travel with families – or their advice would be very different.

  23. I’m earning AND burning… both of them as fast as I can! I’m at nearly 4 million points… I earn as much as I can, I burn as fast as I can! That does not mean that I would be happy earning at exactly the rate that I’m burning. Yes, the points may devalue, but, that only means that they’ll be harder to redeem (because you’ll need more of them.) Like others that have chimed in, I have a family to move around. I like to go a lot of places. I want to have enough points on hand, in all programs, to go where and when I choose. That requires lots of points. So, my cherry picking strategy is to swoop up all the 2x, 3x, 5x points that I can. I’ll take all the sign up bonuses that they’ll give me, etc. I think “hoard and burn” is more my style.

  24. I totally agree. “Earn and burn” is a great concept, but I never intend to miss out on a great signup bonus because I can’t spend the miles right away.

    It’s also a lot different if you are trying to save miles and points for a family of 4 compared to a single person. Yes, a single person can very easily “earn and burn” from mainly credit card signup bonuses, but it takes a lot more planning and strategy than that to get enough points and miles for family travel.

    You shouldn’t hoard points and miles, but there are certainly reasons to save them, and there is no good reason to miss out on an exceptional signup bonus just because you can’t use it right away.

  25. As others have mentioned, the strict earn and burn strategy doesn’t work as well in family situations. We have two earners (wife and I) and 4 travellers. We need to save up large balances to take some of the trips we want to take. We’re also limited by school schedules. I’ve gone mostly to the cherry-picking method of CC apps, we’ll sign up for huge bonuses of flexible programs when they’re available, and also sign up for individual program bonuses when I have an idea for how we’ll use them.

    I’m currently at my all-time high of about 2.2 million points and miles across all programs. I’m almost 3 years into the hobby, have a shade over $28,000 in savings/redemptions, and about $1800 in expenses related to earning miles (mostly annual fees). All in all I’m happy with where I am. I have all my future travel booked as far out as I can, and enough miles/flexibility that I’m quite confident I’ll be able to get flights for the two trips that are more than a year out.

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