Best credit card combos: Ultimate Rewards

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Best credit card comboUPDATE: After this post was written, Chase introduced two new cards: Chase Freedom Unlimited which offers 1.5 points per dollar on all spend and Chase Sapphire Reserve which offers 3X points for travel and dining.  For a look at how these new cards work in combination with others, please see: The BEST travel rewards card and FU Sapphire Reserve: Better combos exist .

This is part 1 of a multi-part series of “best credit card combos”. The goal is to find the combination of 2 or 3 credit cards that, together, offer the best rewards for day to day spend.  The full series (not yet completed) will likely be as follows:

I’ve written before about which one credit card is best for spend (found here).  The options listed there are great for the person who wants to keep things simple.  If you’re willing to juggle a few cards, though, you can do quite a bit better by using the right card for the right situation.  For example, one can use a Chase Ink card for its 5X (5 points per dollar) categories and for gas (2X) and use the Sapphire Preferred card for restaurants and travel (2X).  Since Ultimate Rewards points are combinable across cards you own plus across significant other cards with the same home address, this is a great way to rack up a pile of Ultimate Rewards through spend.

Note that it is always possible to earn more points through credit card signup offers.  This post is not about that.  This post is for those who prefer to get a few cards and stick with them over time.  If you’d like to read about how I plan to replenish my Ultimate Rewards stockpile, please see: Chasing Ultimate Rewards.

Analysis

I used my Credit Card Analysis Spreadsheet to estimate the number of points per dollar one could earn with various combinations of cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points.  I also took into account the “cost per point” of using this combination of cards (and paying the annual fees, if any) by comparing to a no-fee 2% cash back card.  In other words, annual fees plus the earnings you would have had with a 2% cash back card are accounted for as your “cost”.

I evaluated the following combinations:

  • Chase Freedom + Sapphire Preferred
  • Chase Freedom + Ink Plus
  • Chase Freedom + Ink Cash
  • Chase Freedom + Sapphire Preferred + Ink Cash
  • Chase Freedom + Sapphire Preferred + Ink Plus

I didn’t evaluate any cards that are no longer available (such as Sapphire, Ink Classic, etc.) even though some readers may still have those cards.  I included the Freedom card in all analyses since it has no fee, but still earns a very healthy 5X bonus on changing quarterly categories.

Assumptions

In evaluating various combinations of cards, I made the following assumptions about spend:

  1. Total annual spend: $30,000
  2. Spend would be divided into the following categories:
    • Travel: 15%
    • Dining: 20%
    • Gas: 15%
    • Grocery: 25%
    • Other bonus categories: 5%
    • All other: 20%
  3. The cardholder would always use the card that earns the most at any given location (e.g. at a restaurant they would use the Freedom card during a quarterly 5X category bonus (up to a total of $1500 spend) and would otherwise use the Sapphire Preferred (2X) or Ink Cash (2X).
  4. Chase Freedom 5X bonus categories are based on the 2015 Freedom 5X calendar
  5. While it is often possible to increase rewards by buying gift cards at 5X, this analysis does not take that into account

Results

Card Combo Avg Points Per $ Annual Fee Total Cost Per Point vs. 2% Card
Chase Freedom + Sapphire Preferred 1.9 $95 1.22
Chase Freedom + Ink Plus 1.9 $95 1.22
Chase Freedom + Ink Cash 2.01 $0 0.99
Chase Freedom + Sapphire Preferred + Ink Cash 2.16 $95 1.07
Chase Freedom + Sapphire Preferred + Ink Plus 2.16 $180 1.20

As you can see in the table above, the combination that earns the most points per dollar is the trifecta of the Freedom + Sapphire Preferred + Ink (Ink Cash or Ink Plus).  When you take into account annual fees, though, the best combinations are:

  • Chase Freedom + Ink Cash: 2.01 points per dollar; no annual fee; .99 cents per point
  • Chase Freedom + Sapphire Preferred + Ink Cash: 2.16 points per dollar; $95 annual fee; 1.07 cents per point

Recommendations

If you’re interested in doubling down on Ultimate Rewards cards, the first thing to do is to add your own spending assumptions to the Google Docs spreadsheet (make a copy first so that you can edit cells). If the results come out similar to those presented above, then I would recommend the following:

Single Individual

Go with the Chase Freedom, Sapphire Preferred, and Ink Cash combination.  The advantage of this combination is that the Sapphire Preferred gives you the ability to transfer points to loyalty programs or book travel for 1.25 cents per point value.  Use the Freedom card whenever it offers 5X.  Use the Sapphire Preferred card for travel and dining (2X).  Use the Ink Cash card for office supplies, cable, phone, and internet (5X), and for gas (2X).

Couple

Since Chase allows couples living together to move points freely between each other, a couple can do better by keeping only one card with a fee.  So, I would recommend the following:

Person 1: Chase Freedom, Sapphire Preferred, and Ink Cash

Person 2: Chase Freedom, Sapphire Preferred (free authorized user card from Person 1), and Ink Cash

The advantage of Person 2 having their own Freedom and Ink Cash cards is that it expands the 5X category limits over sharing a single account for each of those cards.  If the expanded limits aren’t needed, person 2 could always, instead, carry an authorized user / employee card from Person 1’s accounts.

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