In general, the loyalty/reward industry is based on how much effort you put in. Basically, the harder you work, the more you will be “rewarded” (pun intended). Below are some fundamental steps to maximize earning, redeeming and tracking rewards to get you going!
Step 1 – Identify Spending Habits
Identify all spending habits (e.g. gas, groceries, drug stores, movies, restaurants, hotels, clothes, bill payments), as well as frequent retailers that you shop at. Estimate how much spending on each category and stores throughout the year. The more specific you are, the more you will optimize your portfolio.
Step 2 – Sign Up for Loyalty Programs
Once you have identified spending habits and frequent stores, sign up for all the loyalty programs relevant to your spending. More specifically, sign up for the loyalty programs of the places that you are spending your money. For travel, it would be airlines, hotel and car rental programs. Most programs are free to sign up for. If they are not free, then you would need to calculate whether the benefits that you are receiving with a program outweighs the fees that you would need to pay. For example, Costco has a membership fee that many people pay, because they are getting more value than the annual fee that they are paying.
Step 3 – Tracking Loyalty Accounts
Signing up for so many programs can be overwhelming to keep track of. Online mileage managers such as Award Wallet help keep track of loyalty account balances, as well as provide reminders, such as advanced points expiry notifications. If you are uncomfortable with mileage managers, you can create a spreadsheet to track all the relevant information (it would need more manual updating). The idea is to have a tracking system to be as organized as possible. The more organized you are, the more time you can spend on optimizing rewards.
Step 4 – Know Your Credit Score and Financial Situation
The reason it is important to know your credit score is because credit card sign up bonuses are one of the most lucrative ways to earn rewards quickly. It is important to understand how credit scores are calculated to ensure that you can qualify for the best cards. For example, paying off your credit card bills on time and in full each month is the most important factor when calculating credit scores. So always ensure that you have sufficient funds to pay your balance in full before using your credit card; otherwise any rewards that you earn will be nullified by the interest that you have to pay.
Step 5 – Find the Right Credit Card(s)
Be sure to learn the different types of credit card reward options. Combine this knowledge with the spending habits identified in Step 1 to determine which credit card(s) to sign up for (e.g. airline, business, cash back, hotel, hybrid, speciality, student). Always watch for double and triple dipping opportunities such as higher than normal sign up bonuses, higher limited time earning ratio or first year annual fee waived promotions.
*BE CAREFUL with this step. Only apply for a credit card if it is within your means to pay off the balance on time. Otherwise, as explained in Step 4, any interest incurred on the credit card balance will completely nullify any benefits or rewards that you may receive.
Step 6 – Have a Shopping Strategy
Use your credit card(s) as frequently as possible. I would say there are three shopping strategies to keep in mind: (1) build a running list of items that you need to buy, the further ahead you plan the better; (2) know your prices by tracking historic discounts and trends so that you will know when it is actually a good sale; (3) search for your item on shopping portals to earn additional bonus miles and points when the item is at the price point that you are willing to pay. The idea is the earn as many points as possible while paying the least amount of money for the product or service that you want.
Step 7 – Set a Goal
Always set a goal of what you want to use your rewards for so that you can have a specific strategy. For example, you may have a trip in mind or earning the most cash back possible. Either way, the more specific the goal the better. Note that everyone’s goal can be different. A goal allows you to channel your transactions with a purpose; thus, increasing optimization.
Step 8 – Cash Out
All the above is nice, but the reward only comes in when you cash out. Loyalty programs constantly get hit with devaluations as time goes on (mostly because of inflation). So unless you have a cash back strategy, you may not want to hoard your points without a purpose (see Step 7). When a devaluation comes (and they will come due to inflation), the value of your miles/points goes down. There is a saying : the best value for your points was redeeming them yesterday, but the next best time is to redeem them today. Furthermore, I would watch for double dipping opportunities when cashing out. There are can be limited time offers where you can redeem less than normal miles and points for the same reward.
**BONUS THOUGHTS. I have always suggested two pointers: earn and burn, as well as keep your rewards portfolio diversified. You never know when a devaluation may come, so it is always good to cash out when you are ready to redeem your reward. I recommend keeping your rewards portfolio as diversified as possible so that you have more redemption options due to blackout dates and limited inventory.