In mid-December, the $175 annual fee posted on our Amex Business Gold Rewards (BRG) card. This is the old legacy version of the Business Gold card, not the recently-refreshed “new” Amex Business Gold card, which comes with enhanced benefits and a $295 annual fee.
Each time an annual fee posts on one of our cards, we go through a full analysis of whether to keep the card, cancel it, or product change. In addition, we also make a call to the card issuer to see if there are any retention offers available, unless there’s a good reason not to make that call. We always like to share on Middle Age Miles our thinking and strategy with respect to these “Keep or Cancel?” decisions and our data points on retention calls.
In this article, we’ll share our thought processes and decision with respect to the Amex BRG card (legacy version). Forgive us for being long here, but this was a particularly nuanced analysis and decision-making process for us. The good news? We think you’ll get depth of thought here that you don’t see every day in the travel blogging world, and we hope that laying our thought process bare will help you in making your own challenging and nuanced credit card decisions!
We originally got this card way back in late 2015, when we were just getting into the points-and-miles game. It has an interesting history. This card started out as a Business Platinum card, and it was our first Amex business card. Although I now can’t remember the details, we used a mailer to apply, and I think the sign-up bonus may have been a whopping 150,000 Membership Rewards (MR) points.
In January 2017, when the annual fee came due, we downgraded the Biz Platinum card to a BRG card, to save on the annual fee. A few months later, we received an offer to upgrade the BRG card to Biz Platinum, wherein we would earn 50,000 MR points with $10k spend. We accepted this offer, and in April 2017 this card became Biz Platinum again. After the calendar turned to 2018, we used the $200 airline credits on the Biz Platinum and accepted a small retention offer (7,500 points). A few months later, we downgraded the card back to a BRG in order to save on the annual fee.
We’ve been hoping for another upgrade offer, but we haven’t received one since we downgraded to BRG in May 2018. So, as we mentioned above, the annual fee for the BRG card came due again in mid-December, and we had 30 days until mid-January to decide what to do with the card.
Benefits of the Amex Business Rewards Gold Card (legacy version)
The benefits of the legacy BRG card are actually pretty limited.
Perhaps the most relevant benefit of the Amex BRG card is its bonus points-earning in several categories. From each of 5 spend categories, you can pick one to earn 3x MR points per dollar of spend. The rest will earn 2x. And you’re subject to a cap of $100,000 per calendar year for all of the 3x and 2x bonus categories combined.
Here are the bonus categories:
- Airfare purchased directly from airlines
- Advertising in select media (online, television and radio advertising purchased in the US directly from media providers)
- Gas stations
- Computer hardware, software, and cloud computing purchases made directly from select providers
- The list of select providers is available here, and this webpage also provides additional details with respect to some of the other categories)
The Amex BRG card also gives access to Amex’s “The Hotel Collection” (THC) program (also available if you hold a personal or business Platinum card). We’ve never used this program. The key benefits of THC bookings are a room upgrade at check-in, subject to availability, and a $100-per-stay hotel credit on stays of 2 nights or longer, to spend on qualifying dining, spa and resort activities. The extremely important downside is that you won’t earn loyalty program points or night credits, and you won’t receive your elite benefits if you book through THC. I can see situations where THC might be of some use, if you have stays at independent hotels or in chains where you don’t have elite benefits and aren’t trying to earn them – but this seems to be pretty narrow.
The BRG card also earns 2x MR points at AmexTravel.com. And finally, the BRG card has some standard Amex charge card benefits such as purchase protection, no foreign transactions fees, and a complimentary Boingo WiFi membership (the Boingo service never seems to work for us, by the way). None of these are meaningful to us, as we have other cards that offer the same benefits or better.
Beyond that, there’s one other current feature of the BRG card that may be very useful – as of now, referrals made through the BRG card earn a bonus of 20,000 MR points to the person doing the referring. This is the most valuable referral bonus in our portfolio, and as far as we know, it’s the highest referral bonus on any Amex card at the moment. Note that this is not a documented benefit or feature of the BRG card, and as such, the 20k point referral bonus could drop or completely go away at any time.
Keep or Cancel? (or Product Change?)
Annual Fee vs. Value of Listed Benefits
As always, the “Keep or Cancel” analysis starts with the annual fee, which in this case is $175.
Did We Get a Retention Offer? Let’s address this issue now, as it’s important in the “Keep or Cancel?” analysis. The short answer is, No. This was not surprising in the least. We spent a little less than $1,000 on our BRG card during 2018.
It’s difficult – and for us, impossible – to justify the $175 BRG annual fee based on the direct, listed benefits of the card. We already identified that we have access to THC by virtue of holding Platinum cards, and in any event we’ve never used it. We already have all of the other listed benefits of the BRG card through other Amex cards.
Turning now to the bonus categories – These are also of limited value to us. 4 of the 5 categories are going to remain at 2x earning, and we can already get 2x on all US purchases by using our Amex Blue Business Plus (BB+) cards (noting that we did not hit the $50k cap for 2x earning on either of our BB+ cards during 2018). So, is there a category where 3x earning can make an impact for us? Let’s see:
- Airfare – No way. We can earn 5x MR points with our personal Platinum card if we want to pay with Amex. We also have the option of earning 5x ThankYou Points (TYPs) with our Citi Prestige.
- Advertising – We’ve spent exactly zero in this category in the past 3 years. I suppose there’s some chance we could purchase advertising for Middle Age Miles this year, but that’s not in the plans for now.
- Gas Stations – Minimal value, if any. We can earn 3x Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) points for gas by using our legacy Chase Ink card, which has no annual fee. We might prefer MR points very slightly over than UR, but we give them the same baseline value of 1.5 cents per point. In addition, even 3x hasn’t cut it for months – we had Amex Offers for 10% back on ExxonMobil (and later, Chevron Texaco) for at least the last 5 months of 2018, and this quarter, we’re earning 5x UR points on our Chase Freedom.
- Shipping – Right now we spend less than $500 a year on shipping, which isn’t going to make any material difference. We also have a current Amex Offer on our BB+ for 25% back at FedEx through 5/31/2019, so we wouldn’t be using the BRG for shipping for at least 5 months anyway.
- Computer Hardware, Software & Cloud Computing – Right now we’re not spending much on these categories, although I did find 3 recurring subscriptions we have that qualify for this category, totaling about $750. I also suppose there’s a possibility that we could spend in this category in the future – a new iPhone from Apple, a new laptop, maybe an order here or there from Newegg. On some of these, we might be able to earn 3x TYPs with our Citi AT&T Access More as online retail purchases. But 3x MR beats 3x TYP in our eyes. And some purchases in this category, like our recurring subscriptions, would be unbonused. So there’s at least a little incremental value available to us here.
For us, only Computer Hardware, Software & Cloud Computing holds any real value, and even that one’s not worth much. That said, there are certainly businesses with big computer, advertising or shipping spend that could get great value out of earning 3x one of those categories (although we’d add that a business in that situation should almost certainly be getting a “new” Biz Gold card to earn 4x up to $150k rather than only 3x up to $100k).
Considering Product Change Options
Next, we also need to consider our product change options. There are 3 product change options for the BRG card:
- A Business Platinum card. For a very short time, there would be a chance to product change into a Biz Platinum card with the annual fee still at $450. It’s going up to $595 soon, as of February 1. So, if we were going to upgrade to Biz Platinum, this might be a good time. We could also recoup part of the annual fee by getting the $200 airline credit. However, (a) we already have a Business Platinum card; and (b) there’s no points offer to upgrade now, whereas we might get one in the future (particularly once the new “enhanced” Biz Platinum card comes out).
- The “new” Business Gold card. This card has a $295 annual fee, but it has some benefits that are better than the legacy BRG card. Notably in the 5 bonus categories we discussed above, plus a 6th category, US restaurants, you can earn 4x MR points in the 2 categories where you spend the most each month, up to an annual cap of $150k. Other “new” Biz Gold benefits wouldn’t help us. So, the “new” card’s benefits aren’t good enough to persuade us to pay the additional annual fee and chance without a points bonus. I specifically asked the agent on my retention call if a points offer was available for us to switch to the “new” card, and she said there wasn’t.
- The Business Green card. This card has an annual fee of “only” $95, but it has no useful benefits whatsoever. The only argument for product changing to Business Green is to reduce the annual fee and hope for an upgrade offer, with the benefit of cultivating a friendly relationship with Amex by not canceling a card. We actually thought long and hard about downgrading to the Biz Green card and hoping for upgrade offers, but we ultimately decided against it.
Our Final Decision and Thought Process
Our final decision on the Amex BRG card was to keep the card and pay the $175 annual fee. As you’d expect, we chose Computer Hardware, Software and Cloud Computing as our 3x bonus category.
Let me say right away that our decision to keep the BRG card is not based on the straight-up fee-vs-benefits calculus, because this would never justify a “keep” decision. Even by choosing our “best” 3x earning category in computer hardware/software, we’re barely making a dent in recouping the annual fee. And even if our spend in that category increases, it’s very unlikely to earn us enough MR points to make up the full fee.
Rather, it’s based on an unlisted benefit, an indirect/intangible benefit, a little bit of hope, a potential upgrade/downgrade play, some gut instinct, and our acceptance that we’re ok if we pay a bit more than we get this time because Amex has been good to us.
The unlisted benefit – It’s the referral bonus of 20k MR points. I believe our best bonus from any other Amex card in our portfolio is 15k MR points. If we can get just one referral at 20k, that’s an extra 5k MR points, with a baseline value of $75 at 1.5 cents per MR point. And if we can get two, we’re recouping $150. In saying this, we understand that this referral bonus could decrease at any time.
The indirect/intangible benefit – I read the data points on when people get Amex sign-up bonuses and when they get denied, with great interest and attentiveness. I can’t entirely figure out the patterns. However, having closed one or more Amex cards and having low spend on Amex cards seem to be major contributing factors to denials – much more so than number of new accounts or number of inquiries.
Overall, we spend a lot with Amex, including a lot of organic spend. But there are some Amex cards in our portfolio that get little to no use. In addition, I have closed 2 Amex cards in my name in the last 2 years, one in 2017 (SPG Personal) and one in 2018 (Mercedes Benz Platinum). Amex has continued to approve me for new cards recently, even though I’ve been 10+/24. In just the last 6 months I’ve gotten the Business Green, SPG Luxury, personal Gold, and personal Platinum cards. These approvals have generated a lot of valuable points.
Now, we don’t know what would happen if I closed our BRG card. But I definitely want to keep getting approvals from Amex, and I don’t want to be disrupted because of a card closure I could have prevented.
A little bit of hope – I’m still holding out some hope for another points offer to upgrade this BRG card to a Business Platinum. Once each in 2016 and 2017, we received offers of 50k MR points for $10k spend, to upgrade a BRG card to Biz Platinum. I don’t seem to be reading about as many data points of such offers as in the past. And we haven’t received one in the 8 months since we downgraded this card back to BRG. And, the Amex systems may never extend us an offer since we already have a Business Platinum card in my name. But I’ll still hold out hope, for now. If we were to get an upgrade offer like the ones we’ve received before, we’d immediately come out way ahead against the $175 annual fee.
In addition, Amex sometimes extends one-off spend promotions during the year, which might help us slightly. During 2018, we received one small promotion to earn 5x MR points on restaurant spend up to $500. That promotion was worth about $12-15 to us, which isn’t a lot, but we’re still appreciative. Amex is generally the best of the card issuers about one-off promotions like this, so maybe we’ll get a couple of good ones in 2019.
A potential upgrade/downgrade play – Given that we also hold a Business Platinum card, we at least have the possibility of upgrading this BRG card at some point and downgrading our current Biz Platinum card at the same time. Even if we didn’t get a points bonus for the upgrade, we could at least capture a $200 airline credit on each card during 2019 without increasing our annual fee total for the two cards combined (slight nuance here because the downgrade would have to be to the “new” Biz Gold card (or to a Biz Green) rather than to the BRG, and because as of 2/1/2019 the “new” Biz Platinum will come online, but we’ll ignore that here). I’m not sure whether we’ll do this, but it’s an option to consider.
Some gut instinct – My intuition tells me that there’s an enhanced possibility of an upgrade or conversion offer in 2019. For one thing, we might get an offer of points to convert our BRG to the “new” Biz Gold card. It seems like Amex will want to get people out of the old legacy product and into the new product, especially since the new product comes with a higher annual fee. And reading between the lines, I think Amex may not have gotten as many new sign-ups for the “new” Biz Gold card as it hoped or expected.
In addition, it seems like Amex may have an incentive to get cardholders into the “new” Biz Platinum card when it comes online next month. I’m thinking we may have a much better chance of seeing a Gold-to-Platinum upgrade offer with a nice points bonus, once the “new” Biz Platinum card is released. Again, no hard data here, just some gut instinct.
And finally, if none of this works out and Amex gets more from me than it gives on the BRG card during 2019, I’m ok with that. Amex has been good to us, and we’ll be doing plenty well with earning points and utilizing benefits on other Amex cards in our portfolio.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this longer-and-more-detailed-than-usual “Keep or Cancel” article. I certainly wanted to explain in detail why we decided to keep the BRG card, despite it being highly likely that the annual fee will exceed the value of the listed/tangible benefits as we know them at this time.
I’m not sure I’d recommend our “Keep” decision to everyone, but I think it was the right call for us. And that’s the key, “for us.” As with every credit card and points-and-miles decision, the underlying factors are different for different people. You have to analyze the situation given your own personal circumstances, and come out with the decision that’s right for you.
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