Maximizing Credit Card Points Is The Perfect (Legal) Scam
In a world where we’re guaranteed so little, at least you can count on cash back.
Area of Expertise is a column on niche interests, personal passions, and other things we might know or care a little too much about.
I was introduced to the idea of credit card points — as a full-time pursuit, a way of life — on a first date. “I’m paying,” he said. He wanted the points anyway. I had a credit card, but only knew how to redeem points for Uber rides home on nights like this. Better to convert them into airline miles or hotel points, my date said, to maximize their value. With points, he said, we could fly to Vienna in business class and stay in a five-star hotel for his birthday — and I wouldn’t pay a dime in cash. I laughed at him. I was sold.
We never made it to Vienna, or even a third date. It was a shame I lost a teacher, because credit card points have a steep learning curve, and I didn’t know where to start. Presented with double-digit interest rates, I feared opposing the time-honored pragmatism that “cash is king.” But with help from the only white gay men I trust nowadays — points bloggers One Mile at a Time and the Points Guy — I’ve found the central tenet of the points hobby is actually a simple one.
To play the points game is to earn rewards for spending money you would’ve spent anyway. You accrue points by putting your groceries, lattés, and had-a-rough-day Chipotle bowls on a credit card, and paying the entire balance on time to avoid being charged interest. Moreover, by using multiple cards with diverse rewards categories — using this one at gas stations nets three points per dollar, using that one at Target nets five points per dollar, but like, only on specific months — you can increase the rate at which you earn different cards’ point currencies. And, unlike bitcoin, these currencies actually get you stuff.
Per my date’s advice, I’ve used points for the Park Hyatt in Paris (room rate: roughly $800 a night) and a flight between New York and Manila in Korean Air’s first class (ticket price: $7500, one way). To redeem these, I used 150,000 points I earned from daily spending to top off a sign-up bonus, then paid just $60 in taxes and $50 for my continental breakfasts. Oh, yes, I was insufferable on Instagram. A journalism professor of mine asked, in a DM, if I was on a reporting trip. Yes, I joked, to see how the other half lives.
There is no need to grift innocents and reinvent identities; points meet you where you are.
These were, as points bloggers call them, aspirational redemptions. As a bonus for buying the things you need, points give you — for (almost) free — the things you want. It’s the perfect sport for those seeking Cristal on a Coors budget, or people like me: social climbers. But contrast this modus operandi with those of the Scammer Annas of the world. There is no need to grift innocents and reinvent identities; points meet you where you are. Simply spend what you must on books and MetroCards, doctor visits and rent; rewards will follow as you live your life.
That said, your lifestyle should dictate your points strategy, not the other way around. For example, I use the Amex Blue Business Plus (two points per dollar, or 2x) for my expenses as a freelance writer. It’s also how I track what I’ll write off come tax season: my new desk, some pens, a subscription to this dude’s OnlyFans account (research for an essay!). In my quest to find a husband, I use the Chase Sapphire Reserve (3x at restaurants, cafés, and bars). I like to pay for my dates, then have them Venmo me their share. That way, I get the points and I can make sure to leave a big enough tip whenever my dates are mean to waiters.
I’ve also discovered that immigrants are uniquely primed for the points game. I fly often to see my parents in Manila, and there’s no waiting for deals or off-peak prices. I go when I must, and use my Amex Platinum (5x on airfare) to buy tickets. I think of the money I’ve spent on round-trip flights across the globe, on tickets that cost me a month’s rent. Indeed, it’s what I pay to lease my homes, my countries. So if 10 flights can eventually pay for one, then sign me up.
Yes, accruing points, like golf or SoulCycle, is a leisure pursuit for the privileged some. And no, credit cards are not for everyone. Prerequisites include a healthy credit score and the means to pay entire balances upfront. But there are variations on the craft; some cards consolidate debt under 0% interest rates and others are specifically for building credit. And if it works for you to have a card, or a few, it’s a reliable way to pad your wallet and a built-in cushion against unavoidable expenses. A stash of rewards can be parlayed into hotel stays for a sibling’s wedding, cash back when that magazine doesn’t pay on time, or an emergency flight to escape an oncoming storm.
When I moved to New York, I signed up for a card with a promotional 0% APR and used it for everything: my air conditioner, my bed, my kitchen sink. I paid it off over time, never paying interest on this loan from myself. Now, a bit wiser, I make sure every payment I make leads to a subsequent reward — something I can give back to a future me.
These days, we’re guaranteed nothing. When you buy that new job interview outfit, pay that grad school application fee, or get drinks with someone new, the returns are never ensured. So any opportunity to secure even the smallest earnings for every gamble made is a valuable one.
With credit card points, it’s OK if my latest Tinder date doesn’t pan out; I wanted the points anyway. Even if we don’t make it to a third date, I can still make it to Vienna. ●
Matt Ortile is the managing editor of Catapult magazine. He is writing an essay collection, forthcoming from Nation Books. Previously, he was the founding editor of BuzzFeed Philippines and the global publishing lead for BuzzFeed International. He has written for BuzzFeed, Into, Self, Out, and Details, among others. Follow him @ortile.