Ultimate Rewards has long been my favorite transferable points currency. Compared to its rivals, in my opinion, Ultimate Rewards offers the best options for point transfers, purchasing travel with points, and cashing in points for those who prefer money over travel. And, of course, the addition of the new Sapphire Reserve card has made the Ultimate Rewards “ecosystem” even better…
Ultimate Rewards also has the best options for point earnings, such as:
- Ink Plus or Ink Cash: 5 points per dollar for cell phone service, cable TV, internet, and office supply purchases
- Freedom: 5 points per dollar in rotating categories each quarter. 5X earnings are limited to $1500 spend per quarter, so it is often advantageous to get more than 1 Freedom card. This is often accomplished by downgrading a Sapphire Preferred card to the Freedom card.
- Sapphire Reserve: 3 points per dollar for travel and dining.
- Freedom Unlimited: 1.5 points per dollar for all spend.
As I showed recently, by owning a combination of Ultimate Rewards cards, it is possible to earn, on average, up to 2.66 points per dollar simply by selectively using the card that offers the best rewards for each purchase. But… what if 2.66 point per dollar isn’t enough? Wouldn’t it be better to earn 5X everywhere? You can (almost)…
5X almost everywhere… what you need
To earn 5X Ultimate Rewards points almost everywhere, you don’t need the Sapphire Reserve card. You do need:
- Chase Ink Plus or Ink Cash. See: How to get approved for Chase Ink. The Ink Plus card’s 5X bonus is limited to $50,000 in spend per cardmember year, and the Ink Cash is limited to $25,000.
- Chase Freedom. The Freedom card’s 5X bonus is limited to $1500 spend per quarter.
The Ink Cash and Freedom cards have no annual fees, so a good way to get around their 5X limits is to get more than one of each. Here are a few strategies:
Couples who spend together earn 5X together…
One way to get multiple Ink and/or Freedom cards is as a couple sharing finances: each of you can sign up for your own Ink and Freedom cards and then add the other as an authorized user.
Downgrade to a card you already own…
If you don’t already have a Freedom card and/or an Ink Cash card, you can sign up new (assuming you can fly under or over Chase’s 5/24 Rule). If you already have the card, you can get a second (or third, or fourth, …) card by downgrading from another card. For example, you can downgrade the Sapphire Preferred card to the Freedom, and you can downgrade the Ink Plus to the Ink Cash.
Chase will let a single person signup for the same business card multiple times, and get a signup bonus each time, as long as they do so under separate businesses. For example, I’ve had luck signing up for the Ink Plus twice: once under my blog business and a second time under a rental property business. If I wanted to I could also sign up each business for the Ink Cash card to get extra signup bonuses and then I could downgrade my existing Ink Plus cards to Ink Cash cards so that I would end up with 4 of these cards. I don’t think I really need the $100,000 worth of 5X spend that this strategy would give me, but it is possible to do.
Keep a premium card in the mix
Regardless of how you go about getting multiple cards, keep in mind that each family should have at least one premium card (Sapphire Reserve, Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Plus) in order to preserve the ability to transfer points to airline and hotel programs, and to buy travel at better than 1 cent per point value.
5X everywhere… basics
Once you have the above cards in-hand, the obvious thing to do is to make sure to use each card for its 5X categories. For example…
Freedom 5X through regular spend
Pay attention to the Freedom’s quarterly 5X calendar, and always make sure to enroll your card every quarter. Here’s the 2016 5X calendar:
Through the end of this month, the Freedom card earns 5X at restaurants and wholesale clubs. Beginning next month, the card earns 5X at department stores, wholesale clubs, and drug stores. Earlier in the year we had the opportunity to earn 5X at gas stations and local commuter transportation, and then grocery stores (including wholesale clubs).
Ink 5X through regular spend
Always use your Ink card for it’s 5X categories: cell phone service, cable TV, internet, and office supply purchases.
- Cell phone service, cable TV, and internet: I recommend setting up your phone and cable bills to be auto paid with your Ink card.
- Office supply purchases: Use your Ink card when shopping in-person or online at places like Staples and OfficeMax.
5X extended via time-shifting spend
The fact that the Freedom card makes it possible to earn 5X rewards for things like gas, groceries, restaurants, and wholesale clubs is awesome. The problem, of course, is that the card might not offer 5X rewards at the time you need it. For example, Chase offered 5X rewards at gas stations in January through March of this year. If you need gas now, though, that bonus isn’t very useful unless you plan ahead…
One way to extend the Freedom’s 5X categories is to pre-buy credit for things you know you’ll need. For example, if you regularly buy gas from a single gas station chain, then it makes sense to buy gift cards from that chain while Chase offers 5X rewards. That way you’ll earn 5X in advance, and you can spend down those gift cards throughout the rest of the year when you actually need to purchase gas. There’s a side benefit to this approach: Some gas stations charge extra when paying by credit card, but not when paying with cash or with gift cards.
The same approach can be done with other categories: grocery stores, wholesale clubs, restaurant chains, drug store chains, etc.
5X many other places via 3rd party merchant gift cards
Another great way to extend 5X rewards almost everywhere is by buying 3rd party merchant gift cards. For example, with your Ink card, you can walk into almost any Staples, Office Depot, or OfficeMax store and find a large selection of gift cards to restaurants, gas station chains, department stores, and more. If you buy those gift cards with your Ink card, you’ll earn 5X rewards even though you ultimately plan to spend the gift cards elsewhere.
Similarly, with your Freedom card, you should be able to find 3rd party gift cards in places matching 5X categories such as: gas stations (also check 7-11 since it usually codes as a gas station for 5X purposes), grocery stores, wholesale clubs, and drug stores.
There are also a number of online opportunities to earn 5X when buying 3rd party gift cards:
Staples.com is a great option for Ink 5X spend. They carry a large selection of e-gift cards (which have no fees), as well as physical gift cards which usually incur a small shipping & handling fee.
Additional options for earning 5X with your Ink card for online gift card purchases can be found here: Merchant gift cards, best options for stacking deals.
Samsclub.com is a great option when Freedom offers 5X for wholesale clubs. Not only do they have a decent selection of 3rd party gift cards, but they sell them slightly below face value as well!
If you have an Amex card: Log into your account to check your Amex Offers. You may have an offer to get a $45 rebate on a new Sam’s Club $45 membership (offer expires 9/30/2016).
And while Amazon.com isn’t a 5X option this year, it was the primary 5X category in the 4th quarter of 2015 so it seems likely that it will return next year. Amazon sells 3rd party gift cards too…
5X everywhere else (almost)
Merchant gift cards are a great option for extending your 5X buying power, but that approach is obviously limited to merchants with widely available gift cards. Another option is to earn 5X buying Visa, MasterCard, and Amex gift cards and then use those cards to pay for almost everything.
5X everywhere else via Freedom 5X
Most of this year Chase has offered Freedom cardholders 5X at wholesale clubs. It happens that at least one such wholesale club, Sam’s Club, sells MasterCard gift cards in-store. If you purchase $500 at a time,the $4.94 fee comes to just under 1%. In my opinion it’s well worth paying a 1% fee in order to earn 5X everywhere (almost). Samsclub.com also sells MasterCard gift cards but in lower denominations and with higher fees. Sometimes they’ll offer bonus Sam’s Club gift cards, though, to partially offset that fee.
The Freedom card’s 4th quarter bonus category this year includes drugstores. Many drugstores have great selections of gift cards. Usually Visa, MasterCard, or Amex gift cards can be found that are loadable up to $500 and with fees of just under $5. In other words, expect fees to be about 1%.
Grocery stores and gas stations used to be great options for buying these gift cards, but many have stopped allowing credit cards to be used for buying gift cards. This varies regionally, though, so you may still have plenty of opportunities where you live.
5X everywhere else via Ink 5X
Office supply stores don’t usually carry $500 Visa/MC/Amex gift cards and when they do, they don’t usually allow them to be purchased by credit card. That said, Staples.com offers $300 Visa gift cards, each with an $8.95 fee (3% fee). And Office Depot / OfficeMax is known to carry $200 Visa and MasterCard gift cards with fees as little as $4.95 (2.5%).
Better yet, Office Depot / OfficeMax regularly offers sales on bank gift cards. And Staples frequently offers rebates for bank gift cards purchased in-store. For example, this week Staples is offering a $15 Staples gift card rebate with a purchase of $300 worth of MasterCard gift cards in-store. And OfficeMax recently offered a $15 instant rebate on $300 worth of MasterCard gift cards and, before that, Visa gift cards. Discounts like these go a long way towards reducing the otherwise onerous fees for bank gift cards.
As detailed above, it is possible to use a combination of Chase Ink and Chase Freedom cards to earn 5X Ultimate rewards for almost all purchases. In many cases the trick is to earn 5X in advance by buying gift cards and then use those gift cards later for daily spend.
Mathematically it all works. Logistically, it can be a nightmare. To make this work, you’ll need to pre-buy gift cards to cover almost any situation that may arise. You’ll have to carry these gift cards around when shopping. You’ll have to keep track of how much money is left on each card. And, god forbid you ever return anything, you then may have to find the previously spent gift card which now once again has funds.
Expanding 5X with prepaid reloadable cards
Many of the problems described in the section above (Living 5X) can be eliminated through the use of prepaid cards that can be reloaded via debit gift cards. The idea is to earn 5X buying Visa and MasterCard debit cards, then use those cards to reload prepaid cards, and then use those prepaid cards everywhere.
Even better, if you use reloadable cards with free bill pay services, you can indirectly earn 5X for things that can’t usually be paid by credit card without a fee, such as: rent, mortgage, tuition, contractor services, legal services, credit card bills, etc.
While this sounds great, the process is complicated by regional differences in what works and what does not, and the fact that some types of gift cards work at some locations while others do not.
If you’re interested in pursuing this approach, you can find most of the information you need to get started in these posts:
- Connecting the dots: Prepaid cards that allow debit reloads.
- Reload Cards with Free Bill Pay
- Best practices for prepaid card manufactured spend