FU Sapphire Reserve: Better combos exist

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The title of today’s post purposely has a double meaning. Many who’s applications have been denied for the “amazing!”, “awesome!”, “INCREDIBLE!” Sapphire Reserve card are bitter about the constant coverage of the card. For them, today’s post shows that you do not need the Sapphire Reserve to do well. Even though “FU” in this context actually stands for “Freedom Unlimited”, you can read the title in whatever way you prefer.

FU Sapphire Reserve

In the recent post “The BEST travel rewards card,” I argued without proof that the best travel rewards card was a combination of cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points: Ink Cash (or Ink Plus) + Freedom + Sapphire Reserve + FU (Freedom Unlimited). I added that, for those who can’t get or don’t want that many cards, the FU (Freedom Unlimited) + Sapphire Reserve combination alone is well worth considering.  And, for fun, I decided that the latter combination should be called “FU Sapphire Reserve.”

But… was I right? Is the Sapphire Reserve + Ink Cash + Freedom + FU really the best 4 card travel rewards combination? And, is FU Sapphire Reserve the best two card combination? Or, more importantly, can we get similar results without the Sapphire Reserve at all?

Background

Chase offers a number of cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points, and each offers different category spend bonuses. By using multiple cards, it is possible to take advantage of each of their spend bonuses in order to earn far more than 1 point per dollar. And, once points are earned, they can be moved from one account of yours to another, as needed. This is important because points are worth more when they are held in a Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus account than when they are in a Freedom or Ink Cash account. And, points are worth even more in a Sapphire Reserve account.

Here are the Chase Ultimate Rewards cards available today:

  • Sapphire Reserve: $450 $550 (as of 1/20) annual fee, $300 annual travel credit, 3X points for travel & dining
  • Sapphire Preferred: $95 annual fee, 2X points for travel & dining
  • Ink Plus: $95 annual fee, 5X office supplies, 5X cellular/landline/cable; 2X gas and hotels
  • Ink Cash: No annual fee, 5X office supplies, 5X cellular/landline/cable; 2X gas and restaurants
  • Freedom: No annual fee, 5X points in rotating quarterly categories limited to $1500 spend per quarter
  • Freedom Unlimited: 1.5X for all spend

Show me the money numbers

Last year I published “Best credit card combos: Mixed rewards,” where I calculated point earnings from a number of cards that earn transferable points (points that can be transferred to airline loyalty programs). Most of these also offer the option of using points to purchase travel at better than 1 cent per point.

In order to find the best combination of cards, I had to make a number of assumptions:

  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.
  4. The cardholder would always maximize bonus earnings by making at least 30 purchases per billing cycle with the EveryDay Preferred card (50% bonus).
  5. Chase Freedom 5X bonus categories are based on the 2015 Freedom 5X calendar
  6. While it is often possible to increase rewards by buying gift cards at a store that offers a category bonus, this analysis does not take that into account.

The above assumptions were input into my Credit Card Analysis Spreadsheet. The “cost per point” is calculated by comparing to a no-fee 2% cash back card. In other words, annual fees plus the earnings one would have had if using a 2% cash back card instead are accounted for as the “cost”.

And I arrived at the following best combinations based on the number of cards you’re wiling to juggle. These were calculated before Freedom Unlimited or Sapphire Reserve cards existed:

# Cards Card / Card Combo Avg Points Per $ Annual Fee Total Cost Per Point vs. 2% Card
1 EveryDay Preferred 2.33 $95 1.00
2 Amex EveryDay Preferred + Citi ThankYou Premier 2.65 $190 0.99
3 EveryDay Preferred + Ink Plus + Freedom 2.94 $190 0.90
4 EveryDay Preferred + ThankYou Premier + Ink Plus + Freedom 3.23 $285 0.91

As you can see in the table above, the more cards you are willing to juggle, the more points per dollar you can earn through spend. That said, the effective cost per point is just as good with 3 cards as with 4 (because the 4 card scenario requires a larger total annual fee). In fact, all of the options shown above result in an estimated “cost” of between .9 and 1 cent per point. That’s very good if you usually get much better than 1 cent per point value. Otherwise, stick with a no-fee 2% cash back card (such as the Citi Double Cash card) and you’ll do just as well with far less hassle.

So, how do the above combinations compare to my declared BEST travel rewards combo which includes the Sapphire Reserve and the FU (Freedom Unlimited)? Using the same assumptions, as above, let’s look at the NEW best combos of cards that earn Ultimate Rewards:

# Cards Card / Card Combo Avg Points Per $ Effective Annual Fee Total Cost Per Point vs. 2% Card
1 Sapphire Reserve 1.7 $250
($550 – $300 travel credit)
1.47
2 Sapphire Reserve + FU 2.03 $250 1.23
2 Sapphire Reserve + Freedom 2.2 $250 1.14
2 Sapphire Reserve + Ink Cash 2.05 $250 1.22
2 Ink Plus + Freedom 1.9 $95 1.22
2 Sapphire Preferred + Freedom 1.9 $95 1.22
3 Sapphire Preferred + Freedom + FU 2.18 $95 1.07
3 Sapphire Reserve + Freedom + FU 2.48 $150 1.01
3 Ink Plus + Freedom + FU 2.24 $95 1.04
3 Sapphire Preferred + Freedom + Ink Cash 2.16 $95 1.07
3 Sapphire Reserve + Freedom + Ink Cash 2.46 $150 1.02
3 Sapphire Preferred + FU + Ink Cash 1.93 $95 1.2
3 Sapphire Reserve + FU + Ink Cash 2.28 $250 1.1
4 Sapphire Preferred + Freedom + FU + Ink Cash 2.36 $95 0.98
4 Sapphire Reserve + Freedom + FU + Ink Cash 2.66 $250 0.94

Among the 2 card combinations, the Sapphire Reserve pairs better with the old Freedom card (which offers rotating 5X categories) than with the Freedom Unlimited. So, technically I was wrong in assuming that the Reserve + FU was the best two card combination. That said, it is probably the best combination for those who want to keep things simple. The regular Freedom card requires signing up for the 5X bonus each quarter and remembering to use the Freedom card for the right types of purchases. The Freedom Unlimited, on the other hand, is dead simple: 1.5X everywhere.

As you can see in the table above, you need to juggle at least 3 Ultimate Rewards cards in order to get near the 1 cent per point “cost” to match options found in my old Best Combos analysis. And, it’s very interesting to see that you do not need the Sapphire Reserve card to get there. One of the best 3 card combinations includes Ink Plus, Freedom, and FU. And the Sapphire Preferred + Freedom + Ink Cash combo is not far behind.

If you’re willing to go with four cards, the difference between the combo with the Sapphire Preferred and the Sapphire Reserve is tiny: .98 cents per point for the former vs. .94 cents per point for the latter. Both are very good and are competitive with the combos I identified in my original post.

Authorized User Card Changes the Math for Couples

One big difference between the Sapphire Reserve and the Sapphire Preferred is that the former charges $75 per authorized user whereas authorized users are free with the Sapphire Preferred card. This means that the total fees required for a couple increase with the Sapphire Reserve card and cause the estimated “cost” per point to increase:

# Cards Card / Card Combo Avg Points Per $ Effective Annual Fee Total Cost Per Point vs. 2% Card
4

Sapphire Preferred + Freedom + FU + Ink Cash

+ Authorized User Cards

2.36 $95 0.98
4

Sapphire Reserve + Freedom + FU + Ink Cash

+ Authorized User Cards

2.66 $325 1.03

As you can see above, when considering the same scenario but for a two-person household, the estimated cost per point is slightly better with the Sapphire Preferred card!

What about redemption value?

In order to transfer points to airline and hotel programs you need either the Sapphire Reserve, Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Plus. If transferring points is your primary use of Ultimate Rewards, then the Sapphire Reserve card doesn’t offer any more value. And, even if you don’t have the option to get those Chase cards, the Amex EveryDay Preferred card offers equally good point earnings, by itself, as long as you use the card 30 or more times per billing cycle. Or, if you travel a lot, you can do very well with the combination of the Amex EveryDay Preferred card and the Citi Premier card.

That said, one of the heralded features of the Sapphire Reserve is that points are worth 1.5 cents each when used to book travel through the Ultimate Rewards site. This is considerably better than the 1.25 cents per point value that you’ll get from the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus cards. Does this feature make the Sapphire Reserve combos significantly better than the combos that don’t include the card?

If all you ever do with points is transfer them to airline or hotel programs, then the Sapphire Reserve’s enhanced redemption value is meaningless. And, as long as you don’t need to purchase travel with points often, it is probably possible to upgrade to the Sapphire Reserve from the Sapphire Preferred or either Freedom card before booking travel in order to get the higher redemption value. Then you can decide whether you want to keep the upgraded card long term or revert back to what you had before.

If you have Amex Membership Rewards points, you can get close to that 1.5 cents per point value when booking flights by signing up for the Platinum Business card. The Platinum Business card gives you a 30% rebate when points are spent to buy travel on your designated airline. That results in a 1.43 cent per point value — pretty close to the Sapphire Reserve’s 1.5, but unlike the Sapphire Reserve this benefit is limited only to airfare and only to a single selected airline. Even though the card has a $550 annual fee, it is possible to get $400 in airline fee reimbursements in your first year of card membership as long as you sign up for the card mid-year. And, of course, if it is your first time getting the card, or if you’re lucky enough to get an offer that doesn’t have the once-per-lifetime rule, you should be able to get a nice signup bonus or upgrade bonus.

Another approach to consider is to use one of the best cards for everyday spend as part of your card combination. A number of cards offer 2% to 3% per dollar in rewards for all spend. While both the Freedom Unlimited and the EveryDay Preferred cards are great options for non-bonus spend (they both can earn 1.5 points per dollar), you may do better choosing a card that offers a high % per dollar instead. Since the Freedom Unlimited card earns 1.5 cents per dollar, and the Sapphire Reserve lets you purchase travel at a rate of 1.5 cents per point, the combined cards result in 2.25% value for unbonused spend. You can do just as well, or better, with other cards. See: Best rewards for everyday spend.

My recommendation, for those who can’t get the Sapphire Reserve card, is to use your transferable points cards when they earn a category bonus (2X to 5X), but use your fixed % card for all other spend. This way, you won’t need the Sapphire Reserve or the Amex Business Platinum card in order to get full value from those rewards. Redeem your transferable points when you want to book award flights, and redeem your fixed value rewards (where you earned 2% or better) to pay for travel.

Don’t forget cash!

The best Ultimate Rewards combination shown above requires 4 cards and $150 in annual fees (or more if adding authorized users) and results in earning 2.66 points per dollar, on average. If you use these points to purchase travel at 1.5 cents per point value, then you can average 2.66 x 1.5 = 3.99% value per dollar spent. But, when you include the $150 annual fee, the effective rebate drops to 3.5% for a single card holder, or 3.25% for a couple.

But, that locks you into using your points to purchase travel. Another option is to go for cash back. Another “best credit card combos” post from last year was my post about combining cash back cards: Best credit card combos: Cash Back. While some of the options shown in that post have since changed, I believe that the general conclusions remain: It’s possible to average between 3.35% and 3.8% cash back by juggling a variety of cash back cards. That’s better than the Ultimate Rewards best combo plus, importantly, you can use cash back for anything not just for travel.

What about travel benefits?

In addition to having excellent point earning (especially when combined with other Ultimate Rewards cards) and value, the Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards offer excellent travel benefits such as primary car rental insurance, no foreign transaction fees, trip cancellation/interruption insurance, trip delay coverage, etc.  And the Sapphire Reserve throws in lounge access via Priority Pass Select membership.

The analyses shown above do not factor in the value of these benefits. If these matter to you, then it is worth comparing these benefits to those available with other credit card combinations you may consider.

Wrap Up

The analyses I presented above show that the Sapphire Reserve card really does have great point earning potential (especially when combined with other cards) in addition to offering better per-point value for purchasing travel.  But, the “FU Sapphire Reserve” combination is not necessarily the best two-card Ultimate Rewards combination.  And, it is possible to do equally well or even better without the Sapphire Reserve.

This is all good news for those who want to find cards to maximize value from spend.  There are plenty of good options!  Unfortunately, none of this helps those who are pissed that they can’t get approved for the Reserve card’s 100,000 point signup bonus. But maybe it eases the sting a little bit?

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