With the activation of my Chase Rapid Reward Premier credit card on March 1st of this year, I officially became a credit card churner. You might be one, too. But, in case you are not, here’s the skinny:
Credit card churning is done by obtaining credit cards for the sole purpose of getting the introductory awards associated with the cards. This is typically accomplished by meeting some minimum spending requirement.
Credit card churning has become an industry unto itself, and several top notch blogs (Richmond Savers, The Points Guy) and websites (CreditsCards or NerdWallet) have sprung up for an express purpose of furthering this trend. After almost a year, I now consider myself somewhat of an expert in the field—a title that is remarkably easy to get. I call credit card churning one of my favorite side hustles, and building up some hefty point balances is a big factor in avoiding travel costs while still doing plenty of travel, and being able to budget very little for travel in my retirement expense projections.
This post is a monster, and will be broken out as follows, so please skip around as you please:
10 Months. $5,306.
I’m not gonna make you work for it, so why not jump into the juicy numbers right away? Like I said above, it started with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Visa from Chase. But, it got pretty crazy from there (and not in a bad way). Here is a table of all of the cards I used this year. I also included the points I accrued from both purchases and rewards, as well as a dollar value assigned to those points.
A few notes on the table above.
- First Two Columns: I grayed-out cards I no longer use. Bold cards are my “stay in the wallet” cards (more on those below).
- Points From Purchases Column: I did a bit of estimating for the last two months of the year. Because I track my expenses monthly, these are high-confidence estimates, but I was very conservative nonetheless. My total points from purchases will probably be higher than these estimates when the year is through.
- ¢/pt column: To get a good idea of the true value of card churning, it’s nice to assign a dollar value to a given point. Luckily, a lot of points are “Cash” or “Any Travel” which means the statement credit is a pretty straightforward 1-cent per point. However, for Airfare or Hotel points, the value depends a lot on what you redeem them for. Luckily, industry extraordinaire The Points Guy puts together a monthly valuation of all the points programs. When it wasn’t an obvious statement credit amount, I deferred to his valuation.
- Other (Last) Column: I valued each of my free hotel nights at $300. This might sound high, but really isn’t considering you can use them for any property. For instance, I’ll be using those free weekend Hilton nights when I churn our way to Hawaii next year, where entry-level rooms can run well over $400/night.
The breakout of rewards is important, too. My total rewards broke out as follows:
Most rewards were for hotels and airfare. However, “Any Travel” is pretty sweet, given that I used those for our Amtrak tickets, rental cars, busfare, any much more. Then, of course, cash is king, although that is typically the most difficult one to obtain.
What’s In My Wallet
At any given time, I’m only churning on one or two cards. AmEx isn’t accepted at many places, so when churning an AmEx card, I’ll usually have another Visa or Mastercard to churn alongside.
However, I do have three cards I keep permanently (none of these have annual fees).
The first is my Amazon Store Card from Synchrony bank. I use this for all my Amazon purchases, as it gives 5% back on everything from Amazon. Since I only use it for Amazon, it’s not physically in my wallet.
The second permanent card is my Sam’s Club Savings Mastercard. This card can be had if you are a Sam’s Club member. It offers 5% back on all gas stations everywhere year-round, 3% on all travel and dining, and 1% on everything else.
The last card is my catch-all. American Express Blue Sky gives you one point for every dollar you spend, but 7,500 points gives you a $100 statement credit on travel. So, it’s effectively a 1.33% cash back rate. This card will soon be phased out for the Citi DoubleCash Card, which is 2% on everything.
In the game of credit card churning, organization is key. As such, you should be able to make a table like the one above, but you don’t have to. It is important, though, to track all of your cards. I use a nice spreadsheet like this…
Since there are a lot of moving parts, the last thing you want is a card payment go unnoticed, an annual fee come up, or an award not be given to you. Late fees and interest will quickly make credit card churning a losing proposition. So, it’s important to stay on top of things.
As you can see, some cards come with annual fees. The bonus makes the fee well worth it. However, for most cards with annual fees, I will cancel prior to my anniversary. (Note: Not in all cases, though. For instance, the IHG Rewards Card from Chase gives a free night on your anniversary for a $49 annual fee—well worth it.)
I also keep track of my rewards programs in a spreadsheet that looks something like the below table. A lot of folks use AwardWallet to keep track of all of their programs. I don’t find it particularly difficult to do so on a spreadsheet, so I’m still in the stone age.
What’s the “Point”?
The first question I got from my buddy Dan when I told him these numbers was, “is this sustainable?” Good question, Dan, and the answer is: yes. There are hundreds of these offers out there, and if you cancel a card, you can typically re-up after an 18-36 month hiatus.
However, why would I, or you, do this? Well, a few reasons.
In my current stage of life, “Travel” isn’t exactly a high priority in the budget. I’d rather build up big amounts of passive income to fund my early retirement. However, I don’t want to totally mortgage the next four or five years of my life. Travel churning makes travel a very affordable possibility.
Second, I want to have flexibility. In these past few months, we’ve been able to get my wife’s brother (who was returning from a Middle East deployment—he’s in the Army) a hotel room at the last second. He was otherwise spending the night in the airport.
Last week, my goddaughter said she really needed to come home from college (she’s a freshman). It was a total non-issue to drop a few points to get her a last-minute flight.
When we flew to Minnesota for a wedding last month, we could have had a cheaper, totally inconvenient flight out of Dulles, or a slightly more expensive, very convenient flight out of Reagan National. In a past life, we would’ve gone the cheap route. With points, it was a no-brainer: convenience.
This past summer we were coming home from a cruise when weather delayed us overnight in Nashville. Rather than come out of pocket, we dropped some points on a last-minute stay with breakfast. We had zero stress among a sea of angry travelers begging for hotel vouchers (which, of course, were not provided).
So, the ability to make life stress free, travel plenty while staying frugal, and do nice things for others are my reasons for credit card churning.
No matter what your motivations are, I’d like to help you get started. Head to the next page for some of my personal guidelines.