Keep or cancel? Paring down a premium card collection

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Last week, I wrote a post about considering which ultra-premium credit cards to keep (those with annual fees of $350 or more). That post inspired Greg to make an awesome spreadsheet for evaluating your ultra-premium cards (See: Your turn: Which Ultra Premium Cards are Keepers?). I initially set out this week to do a similarly mathematical analysis of my current collection of premium cards — those with annual fees around $100. I played with spreadsheets and charts and numbers and eventually came to the conclusion that premium cards are a different animal. Whereas you get an ultra-premium card primarily for its benefits and can therefore assign value to those benefits based on which ones you use, premium cards are less clear. Some are worth keeping for their bonus categories, others for spending bonuses, and others because they come with an anniversary benefit that helps to mentally offset the annual fee. Much of it depends on your spending patterns and whether or not you MS. In this post, I’ll look at my collection of premium cards based on those I plan to cancel at the next anniversary, those which I’m still questioning, and my definite keepers.

Definitely on the chopping block ($554 in total annual fees)

Between my wife and I, we have three of these cards…and the associated annual fees. My wife recently called in for a retention offer. Unfortunately, we had neglected to call in time to cancel and get the annual fee refunded. They offered her a $100 statement credit after spending $1K for each of her next 3 billing cycles. Three grand spend for $100 is not too hot. She HUCA’d several times and nobody had anything else for her. Faced with the prospect of coming out a full $95 behind on this card this year, she took the offer and intends to do some pajama MS to recoup most of the annual fee. The other two will (hopefully) get their limits combined to my Wyndham Rewards visa and then get shut while I can still get the fee back (i.e. within 60 days of the day the fee posts).

Long story short: we just don’t need this card. The 10% rebate on AA redemptions (up to 10K miles back) each year is nice, but we don’t anticipate redeeming many more AA miles until Baby Rey is 2+ years old (since AA charges 10% of the adult revenue fare for a lap infant on international awards), so the only real benefit we would be giving up would be reduced mileage awards. “Meh”. Those are nice when you can take AAdvantage. But I find that AAvailability is best close to departure — when AA wants to tack on a bogus $75 fee to redeem, meaning that the reduced mileage award isn’t saving me much compared to using Avios.

We don’t chase airline status, so the big spend bonus doesn’t appeal to us and we mostly fly Southwest domestically and have plenty of ultra-premium cards to cover baggage fees, so the ancillary benefits don’t do much for us either. These are out.

I had opened this along with a personal for the signup bonuses and kept them around for the annual companion tickets. I’m glad I did as an opportunity to put those tickets to good use presented itself earlier this year. I let this one renew (I product changed my personal to a Cash 3-2-1 card) to pick up one more companion certificate “just in case”. Since you can book any time up until the expiration for flights through the end of the schedule, it’s really good for about a 2-year window. Either I’ll use that or I won’t, but this one is out the door by the time the next fee posts.

This was our first rewards card with an annual fee. Back in the day, we redeemed our “miles” for flights, European rail passes, and a cruise and thought we were doing AOK until we found this world of airline miles and transferrable currencies and elite status. Many cards later, this one has endured longer than it should have — at least in part because Capital One has been willing to waive the annual fee with a quick phone call each of the past several years. This year, they waived it once again. However, the agent made it clear that this was the last year for that — next year we’ll have to either pony up the fee or cancel. It just doesn’t make sense to pay a fee when you can get the same return on spend with no annual fee with other cards. Pass.

This one just recently survived its annual fee period by the skin of its teeth, and much to the credit of the retention specialist. In addition to offering a $100 statement credit after $1K in purchases in the next 3 months, he reminded us that if we cancelled now, we wouldn’t be eligible for another signup bonus on this card for 24 months. If we wait until next year, we would potentially get a new signup offer before cancelling this card. Clearly, this guy’s been reading the blogs. The retention offer is easy to knock out in one fell swoop and we should become eligible for a new bonus right in time to get it before cancelling this card next year. It was a weak offer, but a good piece of advice.

Questionable ($728 in total annual fees)

Benefit: Keeping this card would be all about the free night.

We each have this card — the old version with an $85 annual fee that now comes with a free night worth up to 25K points. Ironically, after talking about cancelling all of our Marriott and SPG cards, I’m second-guessing the decision. With both of us having Platinum status post-merger (mine from spend on the Ritz and hers apparently from Amex Platinum->SPG Gold->Marriott Gold->Marriott Platinum), I’m kicking around the idea of keeping these. I’d rather have the Premier Plus as the annual fee difference is only $10 and I’m coming around to the notion that the 35K night is worth more than that price differential. According to Marriott’s byzantine credit card rules, I’d still be eligible for the Marriott business card if I upgraded, so I’m leaning towards doing that.

All that said, I’ll likely only have Platinum status next year and thus we’ll probably only keep these for their 2019 anniversaries. After that, they’re likely out.

Benefit & Spend: Keeping this card would be all about the free night, though 4x at gas stations may have me spending on it now and then.

The thought process here would be the same as for the Marriott cards, though the key difference is that this card comes with a free night worth up to 35K. If we hold both of these and upgrade our two Marriott cards, we would have four nights for $380. While I wasn’t initially excited about that, I’ve since found a few uses where that might make a lot of sense. However, my biggest hesitation here is that Marriott is expected to implement peak and off-peak pricing in early 2019, likely before we have the certificates from our business cards. That’s bad because we don’t know how that will affect the value of those certificates, but good as I should get a chance to gauge whether or not these will be worth having before I have to make a permanent decision about whether to keep or cancel. I just wish our anniversaries lined up better.

Spend: 3% back in the first year, 2.5% back after that

We’re still in the first year on this one, meaning 3% back everywhere, but that will come to a close before the end of 2018. At that point, this becomes a 2.5% cash back card with a $59 annual fee. While 2.5% is still an excellent return for a cash back card, the annual fee makes me question this one a bit. An easy cash back alternative would be the Citi Double Cash, which earns an effective 2% back (1% when you purchase + 1% when you pay the bill) and has no annual fee. We would need to spend more than $12,000 per year on the Alliant card to justify its fee in comparison. Here’s my math on that:

  • $12,000  spend on the Alliant card at 2.5% = $300 back – $59 (AF) = $241 net cash back
  • $12,000 spend on the Citi Double Cash card at 2% = $240 cash back

Any less than $12K spend in a year and the Double Cash would yield more net cash back. I think we will probably keep this card, but we’ll have to be sure to put $1K+ per month on it to justify keeping it. That’s not hard from an MS perspective, but Alliant isn’t necessarily the best for that as it turns out.

Spend: 2x US gas stations, 3x US supermarkets (up to $6K per year, then 1x) — get 50% more when making 30 purchases in a billing cycle

I initially assumed this was an easy keeper, but I moved this to the questionable category after considering it more carefully. The return on gas and groceries is excellent. If you make at least 30 purchases per month on the card and you value Membership Rewards at our Reasonable Redemption Value of 1.82 cents each, you’re looking at getting around 5.46% back at US gas stations and 8.19% back at US supermarkets (on up to $6K in purchases per year, then 1.82%). Those numbers are excellent.

Why is this card in the “questionable” pile? First, we haven’t been good about doing 30 transactions per billing cycle. To justify its annual fee, we really need to be doing a better job of that. Second, there have been opportunities like the Amex Offer for 10% back at Exxon Mobil that have shifted gas spend to other cards. I think we will likely keep this card, but we’ll have to be more careful about reaching the correct number of transactions to maximize bonus categories.

This card comes with enough points at anniversary (6K) to roughly offset its $99 annual fee. I actually slightly prefer the points to cash here as Rapid Rewards points are more flexible than cash in some ways. When you cancel a cash ticket, you receive a credit good for a year from the date of booking. Cancel a booking made on points and the points return to your account without expiration. I’m not morally opposed to paying $99 a year for 6000 points because that flexibility enables me to make a speculative booking now and then, but on the other hand I have enough points right now that I don’t need to buy them. This one is probably on the chopping block unless they add a referral bonus (since points earned from referrals count towards the Companion Pass).

This card is potentially on the chopping block since the death of 3x through Plastiq. We don’t spend enough in the card’s bonus categories to justify keeping this over converting it to an Ink Cash. However, we haven’t yet made the conversion for two reasons: First, this card comes with cell phone insurance when you pay your monthly cell phone bill with it (some other cards carry that benefit with no annual fee, but we don’t have any of those). Second, this card has had a referral bonus of 20K per referral up to 100K per year, meaning that just a couple of referrals more than make up for its annual fee. We’ll have to make a decision soon as the annual fee just posted on this one.

My definite keepers ($579 in total annual fees)

Spend: 3x online retail and travel websites + annual spend bonus + good retention offer

This card is is no longer available for new applicants, but you may be able to product change to it (if you can’t product change directly, you might try changing to an AT&T Access card and then to the Access More). The Access More card is probably my favorite card for spend. That’s because it earns 3x points for online retail and travel purchases. For some reason, not all websites will trigger the 3x bonus category on this card, but many will. We spend plenty of online at 3x to justify the $95 annual fee, but Citi makes it even easier to keep this card: they offer a bonus 10K points if you spend $10K in a cardmember year. That more than offsets the annual fee for me. I’m currently even working on a retention offer of an additional 2 points per dollar on up to $17,500 in spend over 6 months — meaning I can earn a total of 5x online or 3x everywhere for a healthy chunk of spend. This card is a keeper for spend.

Spend: 5x Office supply stores up to $50,000 in purchases per year

This is yet another card that is no longer available for new applicants, though in this case I don’t believe you can product change to it. The Ink Cash is a very similar card, albeit with a lower annual cap on 5x spend ($25K) and without the ability to transfer directly to partners (you’ll need to combine points from the Ink Cash with a premium Ultimate Rewards card in order to be able to transfer). I’ll keep this one for easy 5x spend, like this week’s Office Max deal and last week’s Staples deal. I haven’t always maxed out the cap, but as long as I spend more than $30K per year in its 5x categories, I’ll feel pretty good about keeping this one.

Benefit: 1 free night each year (Note that certificates issued after May 1, 2019 will be capped at a maximum value of 40K points

Lucky for me, I’ll have one more anniversary before the free night gets capped. Forty-nine bucks for a night at any IHG property in the world has always been a steal. I’ll likely keep this card even after they institute the cap. Just last month, I spend at least one night a year at an airport hotel where the brand doesn’t much matter to me, and those would almost always cost more than $49 or its equivalent in points.

Spend & Benefit: 2x everywhere (I’m grandfathered in to an older version that is no longer available) & 15K points at anniversary

Yet again I’m lucky to have gotten in while the situation was good — I’m grandfathered in to a good earning structure for this card (2x everywhere). While I don’t spend a lot of nights at Wyndham properties, I’ll hold this card mainly for MS opportunities. The cost to manufacture nights is low and it can come in handy — last month I spent 2 nights at the Wyndham Santa Monica, which has a prime location across from the Santa Monica pier. I was glad to spend 15K points per night in lieu of the $230+ nightly rate.

Spend & Benefit: 6x US restaurants, US gas stations, & US Supermarkets; 1 free weekend night after $15K spend

I will keep this card to do exactly $15K spend in its bonus categories. Our RRV for Hilton points is 0.45 cents each, making the initial return in the bonus categories around 2.7% — definitely not leading returns for those categories. However, I value the free annual weekend night at $200 (you can certainly get more value out of it than that), giving me an additional return of ~1.33%. The math is fuzzy since cash is obviously better than points and a restricted certificate, but 4% is a return I can live with in those categories. Furthermore, I do find opportunities to get outsized value out of Hilton points now and then — just yesterday I redeemed 40K per night for a hotel going for just under $400 per night with taxes, so I’ll put the annual 90K points earned here to good use.

Spend & Benefit: 5x everywhere & 40K points at anniversary

I’m keeping this card as I think the return on everyday spend is reasonable and the anniversary points outweigh the annual fee. If this came with an annual free night certificate, I’d probably be less inclined to keep it, but the ability to buy 40K points per year for $75 means I can stack up the points for a couple of years and make one decent redemption every 2-3 years and come out well ahead even if I don’t spend on the card. I’m somewhat tempted by the big spend bonus (1 free night at a property in the US for each $10K spend up to $30K), but I’ve got enough spend spread on other cards not to be too focused on that right now.

Benefits: 6K anniversary points & referral points

The key difference between this and the business version is that there has consistently been a referral promotion on this card where one can earn up to 50K points per year from referrals. Earlier this year, I wrote about how you might actually be able to earn 100K points in a single year from referrals, and that would put a Companion Pass in reach, so we’ll keep this one for that possibility in the future when our current Companion Passes run out.

Bottom line

I originally expected to do a more quantitative analysis on my premium cards, but I came to realize that it is hard to compare apples to oranges. While the ultra-premium cards have a fairly similar set of benefits that can be compared more concretely, I think the premium cards need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. In my case, I obviously had too many of these cards to justify long-term, even as a blogger. While my collection of “keepers” still carries a hefty fee, I think I’ll get more value out than I’m putting in on an annual basis. Of course, that requires some time and organization to be sure to get enough value to justify the cost, and not everyone can justify the time cost of being sure to spend $15K in bonus categories on the Ascend or to monitor progress toward the spending cap on another card. I definitely intend to cut back and formulate a simpler everyday spending strategy (which will include no-fee cards as well) — though when one also considers minimum spending requirements, upgrade offers, and retention offers, it can certainly become a tough act to juggle.

What about you? Which premium cards are your keepers? Which am I keeping that you think I should dump?

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