Exercising the Amex Campus Edition card

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It’s been almost two years since I first wrote about the American Express Campus Edition card.  At the time, I found the card interesting, but there were better and easier point earning opportunities available.  As a result, my Campus Edition card languished in a drawer. 

For review, here are the basics of the card:

  • One per person
  • Loadable at Barnes & Noble Campus Bookstores with a credit card for a $3.95 fee
  • Maximum register load: $500
  • Maximum register loads per month: $1000
  • ATM fee: first withdrawal per month is free; then $2
  • ATM limit: $400 per withdrawal; $400 per day max

AmexCampusEditionBanner

Two years ago, I found this card to be not worth bothering with.  The campus bookstore requirement made loads inconvenient.  The $1000 per month limit was paltry compared to other readily available options.  And, at the time, I was readily earning 5X Ultimate Rewards points which I valued much more highly than the 5X ThankYou points which could be earned through the combination of this card and my Citi Forward card.

Now, circumstances have changed and I now find a lot to like.  Unfortunately for others, as you’ll see, my situation may be fairly unique…

I moved

The biggest reason this card is now interesting to me is that last year I moved closer to downtown Ann Arbor.  Our campus bookstore is now less than a mile and a half from my home.  For lunch, I often walk that direction anyway, so visiting the bookstore is no longer an inconvenient chore. 

I found a convenient $2 ATM

The easiest way to liquidate the money loaded onto these cards is via ATM withdrawals.  Most downtown ATMs charge $3.50 or more, but I recently found one that charges only $2.  And, best of all, this ATM is on my way home from the campus bookstore and very close to another bank where I can deposit the withdrawn cash.

I can still get 5X at bookstores

Last year, Citi stopped taking new applications for the Citi Forward card.  This is unfortunate since the card offers 5 ThankYou points per dollar at bookstores, restaurants, and a few other venues.  Luckily for me, I got the card before then and Citi has continued to honor the 5X benefit.

ThankYou points are gaining in value

Citi recently added the ability to transfer ThankYou points to various airline mile programs.  To me, that increases the value of ThankYou points quite a bit.  Full details can be found in these posts:

5X Ultimate Rewards have become harder to get

It used to be possible to run into Office Depot with a Chase Ink card and buy various money-like products (Vanilla Reload cards, Vanilla Visa cards, etc.).  By paying with a Chase Ink card (which earns 5X at office supply stores), this was a great and easy way to earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar.  Since that time, Office Depot stopped allowing credit cards for these products.  Now, the best bet for most people is to buy $200 Visa or MasterCard gift cards at Staples with a Chase Ink card.  This is still lucrative, but not nearly as great as the Office Depot approach used to be.  And, dealing with many $200 cards is much more hassle than dealing with a few $500 cards.

My exercise plan

My campus edition exercise plan is simple:

  • Once a month, walk to the campus bookstore and load my card with $1000 (requires two separate transactions).  Cost: $1007.90.  Points earned with my Citi Forward card: 5040.
  • Withdraw cash from ATM, $400 at a time.  The first $400 withdrawal per month will cost $2 (charged by the ATM).  The second and third withdrawal will cost $4 each ($2 charged by Amex + $2 charged by the machine).  Note that I will only have to do a third withdrawal once every other month as long as I’m willing to let $200 float on the card for a month.  So, on two-withdrawal months, total ATM fees = $6.  And, on three-withdrawal months, total ATM fees = $10.  Average monthly ATM fees = $8.
  • In total, I should earn 5040 points per month for a total cost of $17.90.  This amounts to buying points for only about a third of a cent each: .32 cents per point.

 

Going wide

Given this card’s $1K per month bookstore load limit, I can earn at most 5040 x 12 = 60,480 points per year with this card.  That’s not bad, but its not an amazing bounty either.  There is a theoretically easy way to scale up, though: get more cards.  The idea would be to get cards for other family members and use those in the same way as I described using my own card.  With 2 cards, I can earn over 120K points per year.  With 4 cards, I can earn over 240K per year, etc.  The only limit I can think of is if the Citi Forward card has an annual limit on 5X spend (anyone know?).

Trouble getting cards

As I described in my original Amex Campus Edition post, Amex often rejects applications for new cards.  The application seems to go through, but then you get an email stating that they could not complete the order for the following reason: undefined.  That’s what happened two years ago, and I find that it’s still happening.  The main difference is that I now get the rejection notice within minutes or hours rather than in weeks as before.  The only solution seems to be to keep trying.

Forward-free options

If you don’t have a Citi Forward card and you’re not interested in marrying someone who has one, there are other options:

  • The Barnes & Noble MasterCard earns 5% cash back on all Barnes & Noble purchases.  Please see my analysis here: Why the Barnes & Noble MasterCard might be worth a look
  • The SallieMae World MasterCard earns 5% cash back at bookstores, up to $750 per month (it also offers 5% at gas stations and grocery stores up to $250 per month).  Plus, get a 10% bonus by moving rewards into an accompanying Sallie Mae savings account, for a total of 5.5% cash back.
  • You could also consider the US Bank Cash+ card which lets you select bookstores as a quarterly 5% cash back category.  The 5% benefit is limited to $2K per quarter.

$1K balance limit, not so much

One of the ugly limitations made clear in the Campus Edition Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) is that you “cannot exceed a balance on the Card of $1,000 at anytime” when money is loaded at campus edition bookstores.  If true, this would be a nuisance.  In reality, they do enforce the monthly load limit of $1K, but in my experience they do not enforce a $1K balance limit:

AmexCampusEditionBalance

UPDATE

It appears that there is a $6K per rolling year register load limit.  So, I will change my process to load just $500 per month per card and one $400 ATM visit per month.  I’ll unload the remaining $100 once every 4 months via a $400 ATM withdrawal.  This makes it even more important to “go wide” and get extra cards.

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