Middle Age Miles

What’s In Our Wallet 2020? Part 3: Our “Spend Matrix” – How We Use Bonus Categories to Maximize Our Points-and-Miles Earning and Travel for Less

what's in our wallet 2020 spend matrix bonus categories credit cards maximize points miles earning travel for less
What’s in our wallet this year?

This article is Part 3 of our “What’s In Our Wallet 2020?” series. Here are links to Parts 1 and 2, and once published, we’ll add a link to the Epilogue.

* Part 1 – What’s In Our Wallet 2020? – Our Cards and Breakdowns by Annual Fee and Date Acquired

* Part 2 – What’s In Our Wallet 2020? – Why We Acquired and Hold Each Card

* Epilogue – What’s In Our Wallet 2020? – Where Do We Go From Here? Our Credit Card Strategies for 2020

Introduction

This article is Part 3 of our “What’s In Our Wallet 2020?” series. In this series, we’ve gone through all of the cards we hold at Middle Age Miles, when and in what order we acquired them along with the annual fees for each card, and why we acquired and hold each card. In this next article, we present our “Spend Matrix” – that is, what card do we use for each category of expenses, and how much do we earn. Yes, it’s a lot to keep up with, but we enjoy the hobby of earning as many points and miles as we can.

All of these cards, efforts and points-and-miles earning activities, though, are just the means to a fun end goal – traveling to incredible places in the world for less!

Our “Spend Matrix” Explained

We’ll start this article by presenting our “Spend Matrix.” The Spend Matrix lists more than two dozen categories of expenses, or spend. It tells you which of our cards we use for each category, how many points and what type we earn in the category, and what’s our % return on spend, based on our baseline values for the various types of points and miles plus any other return for that category.

Many of the categories are worthy of additional explanation. So, for each category of spend, we’ll have a “Notes” section that may provide more explanation, detail or nuance to each category. We didn’t want to leave those in the Spend Matrix itself, as the Notes would have cluttered it up and made it even harder to read and follow.

Here are a few initial notes that will help you understand the chart:

  • We give Amex Membership Rewards (MR) points a baseline value of 1.5 cents per MR point. That said, for our own purposes, we usually get a slightly higher value of 1.6 cents per MR point by using pay-with-points for airfare with the 35% Business Platinum rebate, plus using Insider Fares or International Airline Program discounts. Because our higher use case impacts the value of MR points to us and it’s our own spend matrix that’s being presented, we’ll present returns involving MR points at 1.5-1.6 cents per point.
  • We’ve given Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) points and Citi ThankYou Points (TYPs) their usual baseline values of 1.5 cents per UR point and 1.25 cents per TYP.
  • One card we hold that’s unusual is a legacy Chase Ink card, which dates back to around 2009. This card earns 3x UR points at gas stations, restaurants, hardware/home improvement stores, and office supply stores. It’s not available for new applications or product change, and it hasn’t been for some time. Thus, when this Chase Ink legacy card is the card of choice in our Spend Matrix, we’ll include a further discussion in the Notes about what we’d use if we didn’t have this legacy card.
  • In some of places, we reference the Visa SavingsEdge (VSE) program. VSE allows you to enroll certain Visa business cards, and in turn you’ll receive modest statement credits when you spend on your enrolled cards with certain participating merchants. The program is small – less than 60 merchants by my count – and the credits are modest, generally 5% or less. But when it applies, it sometimes tips the balance on what card to use.
  • Sometimes the result in our Spend Matrix will be trumped by a special offer that gives a better return, such as an Amex Offer, Chase Offer or BankAmeriDeal. We’ll talk about this a bit more in Note 26.
  • Cashback portals also sometimes impact what card we use. Those offers come and go, so it’s hard to incorporate them into a long-term spend matrix. You’ll notice that we’ve incorporated Payce in-store cashback offers in some places where they’ve been stable for several months. But by and large, we haven’t blended cashback portal offers into our matrix because they’re inconsistent and merchant-specific.

Our Spend Matrix

Here is our Spend Matrix, showing which of our cards we use in the many various bonus categories:

The Middle Age Miles Spend Matrix – Category by Category

1. Airfare

In last year’s version of this article, airfare was more complicated. The Amex personal Platinum card had best-in-class points-earning, but it didn’t come with trip delay or cancellation coverage. In addition, the Ritz Carlton Visa was valuable for domestic travel for 2 with its $100 discount. But some important things have changed:

  • Amex introduced trip delay & cancellation coverages for the Platinum card as of 1/1/2020, while Citi removed these coverages as of Sept 2019
  • The Ritz Carlton Visa’s $100 discount went away as of Jan 2020

As a result, the spend matrix for paid airfare is much simpler this year – use the Amex personal Platinum card, earn a very solid 5x MR / 7.5-8.0% return, and get the trip delay & cancellation coverage that now comes with the card.

Beyond that, note that all decisions about airfare are heavily overlaid with whether to pay outright for the flight, versus book through the Amex/Chase/Citi travel portal and use their points, versus making award bookings using airline miles, versus using gift cards, versus using a companion certificate, etc. That decision-making process is fascinating, but it’s also complex beyond the scope of this article.

It’s good to maximize points-earning when we have to purchase air tickets
– but it’s more fun to fly on points and miles!

2. Travel Agencies

Travel agencies are a new category for our Spend Matrix this year. Fortunately, the answer for us is simple for now – use Citi Prestige to earn 5x TYPs. We wrote about this unheralded Citi Prestige benefit here:

If we didn’t have a Citi Prestige card, the next best cards would be the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Chase Ink Preferred, both of which earn 3x UR points (4.5%) on a broad range of travel charges. On the Citi side, a back-up would be the Citi Premier card with 3x TYP earning (3.75%).

3. Restaurants

For restaurants in the US, we split our spend between the Amex Gold for 4x MR earning and the Citi Prestige for 5x TYPs. We tend to default to the Amex Gold and use Citi Prestige in situations where we’re not confident that the Amex Gold will code as 4x, such as when the merchant is using a Square or Toast payment system.

When a restaurant is available through the MileagePlus X app (MPX), we usually use Citi Prestige in connection with MPX to purchase a gift card to pay. By doing this, we can really ramp up our returns. The bonus category “passes through” for Citi cards when using MPX, so the MPX GCs earn 5x TYPs when purchased with a Prestige card (it’s also been our experience that the same thing happens with Chase cards, but not Amex; so, for instance, you could earn 3x UR if you purchase a restaurant GC through MPX using a CSR or CIP card). In addition, a lot of the restaurants on MPX earn 5x United miles (6.25% miles rebate at our baseline value of 1.25 cents per UA mile), so if you stack with Citi Prestige, you can earn a total 12.5% points-and-miles rebate. One quick trick here – at a sit-down restaurant, you can order a GC for an amount just less than your tab and then put the small balance on a CC where you can leave your tip. For example, on a $73 tab, we might purchase a GC through MPX for $70 and put the other $3 + our added tip on Amex Gold or Citi Prestige.

There are a few restaurants that regularly appear on Payce in-store offers where you can earn 5% cash back (Chuck E Cheese, Jimmy John’s and Pei Wei) or 10% (Starbucks). At these places, we’d use our Citi Prestige that’s linked to our Payce account to ramp up our earnings.

In addition, a few restaurants participate in Uber Visa Local Offers, so when we know we’re at such a restaurant, we’ll use our Chase Sapphire Reserve card to earn 3x UR points (4.5%) plus the Uber credits (generally 5% but sometimes more).

Finally, if we thought about it, we might use a Chase Ink Preferred card if we dined at one of the few restaurants that participates in Visa SavingsEdge but isn’t on MPX (currently: Godiva 8%; Corner Bakery 2%; Red Robin 1%). But this is very limited, so we don’t typically worry about it (and Red Robin at 1% wouldn’t be worth it anyway).

Chez Ly in Paris is a great place to maximize your points-earning in the Restaurants category!

4. Groceries & Supermarkets

The Amex Gold is best-in-class in our wallet for groceries and supermarkets in the US, earning 4x MR points (6.0-6.4% return) up to an annual cap of $25k.

That said, we don’t have in our portfolio the technically best-in-class card for the supermarket category, the Amex EveryDay Preferred card. The EveryDay Preferred can earn 4.5x MR points up to an annual cap of $6k, if you have at least 30 transactions on the card in the month.

The other card we use for US supermarket spend is our Amex Hilton Surpass card, which earns 6x Hilton Honors points per dollar there. At our baseline value of 0.45 cents per HH point, that’s only a return of 2.7%. But you can earn a Hilton Free Weekend Night Certificate with $15k of spend in a calendar year on the Surpass card. If you’ll get $300 in value from the Certificate, that adds an extra 2% to your $15k of spend, taking the return on the Surpass card up to 4.7%. Last year in 2019, we earned 2 Certificates from Surpass cards plus came within a few hundred dollars of maxing out our Amex Gold cap.

The Amex Gold and Hilton Surpass bonus categories are good in the US only. For international grocery purchases, our experience has been that they generally accept mobile payments, so we use our US Bank Altitude Reserve card through Apple Pay to earn 3x USB points (4.5%).

5. Hotels

Hotels mostly break down by brand. We have several brand-specific cards, and the co-branded cards are often (but not always) the correct cards to use at their specific chain.

For stays of 4 nights or more, it’s important to check the 4th-night-free (4NF) benefit of the Citi Prestige card. At its best, 4NF can provide savings of up to 20% or more (remember that taxes and fees are not free on the 4th night). But you still need to make sure you can access a rate that makes 4NF the best deal. (This will become substantially harder after 9/1/2019 when we lose the ability to book 4NF reservations through the Citi Aspire Concierge.)

Ritz-Carlton bookings have another nuance. When we book using our RC Visa card at an “eligible” rate (basically, a “member rate”; discounted rates such as AAA, corporate rates, and even advance pay rates do not qualify), we can use one of our 3 annual certificates to upgrade to a club-access room, and we’ll receive a $100 property credit for your stay.

The VSE program includes most or all Wyndham family properties and many of the MGM/MLife hotels in Las Vegas, so if we’re staying at one of these (and there’s not an applicable Amex Offer), we use our Chase Ink Preferred card to capture the 4% VSE discount.

There are also often Amex Offers at hotels that can provide discounts of 20% or so. If there’s an Amex Offer available, that will almost certainly be the best deal, at least for paying up to the threshold to trigger the offer. Fortunately, most hotels allow for split payment, so you can spend enough on the Amex card to trigger the Amex Offer and then put the rest on the best points-maximizing card.

The Citi Prestige 4th-night-free (4NF) benefit used to be a very important factor in our hotel payment decisions. But with the Citi changes from September 2019 restricting the benefit (max 2 uses/year; can only use the ThankYou Portal for bookings, so no discounted rates and no points or elite night credits), it’s now very limited. The only situation where it would apply is to a non-chain hotel (or a chain where we don’t care about elite benefits) for a 4-night or longer stay where we can’t find a better discount deal. That’s a very narrow situation.

Back in the good ol’ days of the Citi Prestige 4th-night-free benefit, we saved a lot of money and earned rewards at the Covo Dei Saraceni hotel on the Amalfi Coast (Positano, Italy)

6. Rental Cars

We always use our Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR) card for rentals. It earns 3x UR points, and we don’t know of any better return. Plus, it provides best-in-class primary Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) protection in the US and most foreign countries. The CSR card’s benefit saved our bacon last summer when we had a problem with a car rental in Europe!

7. Office Supply Stores

Office supply stores are easy – use the Chase Ink Cash for 5x UR points-earning up to the $25k cap.

Remember that Staples and Office Depot/Office Max (ODOM) sell Visa gift cards, Mastercard gift cards and many third party gift cards. So, this can be a way to expand your 5x UR earning far beyond the four walls of the office supply store itself.

8. Hardware & Home Improvement Stores

In this category, our old Chase Ink legacy card is the only one we know of that earns bonus points (3x UR on that card). Thus, spend at Hardware & Home Improvement Stores will be general unbonused spend for most people (see note #26 below).

Aside from that, we’ve occasionally seen Amex Offers for Lowe’s that give up to a 10% statement credit. Our most recent offer was for 10% credit up to a cap of $100 in credit (that is, up to $1,000 in spend). We added the Offer to Amex Blue Business Plus (BB+) cards that earn 2x MR on all purchases (up to its $50k cap), for a total return at Lowe’s of at least 13%. Our local Lowe’s also sells a good selection of third party gift cards.

9. Gas Stations

Our legacy Chase Ink card also earns 3x UR points at gas stations, which is best-in-class in this category among cards in our wallet.

Looking past this card (which most people won’t have), the next choice for gas in our wallet would be the Citi Premier card, which earns 3x TYP on gas (3.75%). If we needed to go beyond that, we might turn to the 2x MR general earning on our Amex BB+ cards (3.0-3.2% to us). Another possibility would be to get 3% cash back with Philly’s Bank of America Cash Rewards card (we currently have gas selected as our 3% category by default). The Cash Rewards would be higher for B of A Preferred Rewards clients.

In some quarters gas stations are a 5%/5x bonus category for the rotating-category cards such as Chase Freedom. During those quarters, this generally becomes best-in-class for gas.

In addition, there are extra earning possibilities with ExxonMobil and Chevron/Texaco. Paying through the ExxonMobil Rewards+ app gives additional rewards of 3 points per gallon (and higher during promotions). Points are worth a cent each, so that’s an additional return of 1-1.5% depending on the price of gas. For Chevron/Texaco, you can earn an extra 2% statement credit if you pay with a Chase business card enrolled in Visa SavingsEdge. We tend to get our gas from ExxonMobil as Middle Age Miles son Andrew works for them and it’s also convenient and price-competitive when using our strategies. We stack whatever card has the best earning at the time with earning ExxonMobil Rewards+ points.

There are also some valuable Amex Offers for gas at times, so keep an eye out for these too.

10. Tolls & Other Travel (parking, trains, ferries, etc.)

In this category, we use a Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Ink Preferred card for 3x UR earning. This strategy works very well given Chase’s broad definition of travel.

Philly and I earned 3x UR points with our Chase Sapphire Reserve when we paid for our train tickets from London to see the Leicester City Foxes play a Premier League match!

11. Uber

With Uber, the long-term play for us would be to use a CSR or CIP card, as it’s yet another travel expense that qualifies for 3x UR earning with those cards.

In practice, though, we usually go with one of these other shorter-term solutions:

  • First, we use the Uber Cash from our Amex personal Platinum card for our first $15 in charges each month ($35 in December)
  • Second, when paying for Uber with a credit card, we often pay through Apple Pay using our US Bank Altitude Reserve card
    • This earns 3x USB points (4.5%) in the mobile payments bonus category
    • In addition, we can get the charges reimbursed through Real-Time Rewards (RTR) if it’s at least $10, plus sometimes we get double-credit by using RTR plus our $325 annual travel credit
  • Third, we typically do better with Uber by purchasing Uber gift cards on sale or at a discount, or at least at an office supply store to earn 5x. It’s very easy to load Uber GCs into our account and use the credits.

12. Lyft

With Lyft, the new 10x UR benefit (15%) on the Chase Sapphire Reserve card makes it a hands-down best-in-class winner for Lyft.

13. Entertainment

In the Entertainment category, our best bonus-earning card is the Citi Premier, at 2x TYP (2.5%). Given that, Entertainment becomes general unbonused spend for us, since we can earn 2x MR (3.0-3.2% to us) with our Amex BB+ card. However, the BB+ has foreign transaction fees, so for Entertainment purchased outside the US, the Premier is the best choice unless a mobile payment option is available.

We earned 2x ThankYou Points in the Entertainment category by purchasing tickets to see the excellent production of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London

14. Online Retail

For online retail, we love our Citi AT&T Access More card (ATTAM), which earns 3x TYP (3.75%). This card and its online retail/travel bonus category give a nice earnings boost to purchases which would otherwise be unbonused spend. A year ago, we wrote an extensive article about what merchants and types of purchases earn 3x TYPs as online retail/travel, which was very well-received. We’re hoping to publish an updated version of that article soon.

Another card in our portfolio that could be useful for online purchases is the Bank of America Cash Rewards card. With this card, you can select a bonus category that earns 3% cash back up to a cap of $2,500 per quarter, and one of the categories is online retail. (Note that B of A seems to define online retail more broadly than Citi does for the ATTAM card.) For us, this wouldn’t generally supplant the ATTAM as our online retail card of choice, but (a) there are some merchants that would qualify for B of A 3% that don’t code as 3x TYP for ATTAM; and (b) for those who are B of A Preferred Rewards members with at least $100k in assets of B of A/Merrill, they may earn up to 5.25% with the Cash Rewards card.

15. Merchants that Take Mobile Payments

The US Bank Altitude Reserve (USB AR) card has a unique bonus category, earning 3x USB points (4.5%) on all purchases made using a mobile wallet (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, Microsoft Wallet). When you can turn an otherwise unbonused purchase into a 4.5% bonus category return by using a mobile wallet with the USB AR card, that’s a great bump up.

We most often use Apple Pay, which requires the merchant to have a compatible payment terminal. We’re seeing these terminals more and more in the US – but they are ubiquitous in Europe. Before the Apple Pay/USB AR combination came along, the best we could do for unbonused spend in Europe with no foreign transaction fees was something like 1x MR with an Amex Platinum (1.5-1.6% to us) or 1x UR with a Chase Sapphire Reserve (1.5%). Given that we’ve been traveling to Europe about 3 times a year lately, increasing the earning on that spend to 4.5% is very nice.

Last year I also picked up a Samsung watch that can use Samsung Pay’s swipe-emulation technology (using Dell credits from Amex Business Platinum cards to pay for the watch). In theory, I’d be able to make mobile wallet payments almost anywhere with the watch. In practice, it hasn’t always worked correctly. It’s gotten the most use at WalMart, where it has been reliable.

We used Apple Pay with our US Bank Altitude Reserve card to earn 3x USB points while shopping for Philly in Prague!

16. Shipping

Not much to say here – our best card for Shipping in general is the Chase Ink Preferred, with 3x UR earning.

That said, we’ve regularly had Amex Offers on BB+ cards for statement credits at FedEx Shipping. Sometimes the Offer has been for 10% statement credit; once it’s been as high as 50%. Any time we have one of those Offers, the Amex card with the offer becomes our card of choice for FedEx Shipping.

17. Cell Phone

Cell phone payments have presented us with a bit of a dilemma – earn 5x UR points with the Chase Ink Cash, or earn 3x UR points with the Chase Ink Preferred but also get cell phone protection coverage.

In last year’s version of this article, we said that we tend to favor CIC for the extra points earning because (a) the coverage has a deductible; (2) the coverage may or may not cover whatever happened to our phone; and (3) we don’t like dealing with claims administrators in general.

During the year 2019, we changed course. We’re now using CIP to pay our cell phone bills, and it has paid off for us. Two of the Middle Age Miles kids have submitted cell phone damage claims within the past year, on which we collected $400+ from this benefit.

That puts us ahead for the year, but it’s not as clear-cut as you might think. Our cell phone bills run about $400 a month, or $4,800 for a year. An extra 2x points/$ would be 9,600 UR points, worth about $144. Add to that the time and effort spent dealing with the claims and the decision becomes a closer call. With 2 claims in a year, we still come out ahead. But how many years do you have 2 cell phone total losses in the family in a year?

18. Internet/Cable/Satellite Service

This category is easy – 5x UR using the Chase Ink Cash (CIC) card. Unlike with cell phone service, we don’t have to worry about insurance issues.

Sometimes, though, we’ve had Amex Offers that can give us an even better return than the baseline 5x UR (7.5%) on the CIC, and in those cases we haven’t hesitated to use an Amex card enrolled in the Offer to maximize our returns.

19. Online Advertising

At this time, we’re not doing any online advertising, but if we did, our card of choice would be Chase Ink Preferred for 3x UR earning (4.5%) (up to a combined-category cap of $150,000 in annual spend).

20. Merchants on the MileagePlus X (MPX) App

United Airlines’ MileagePlus X (MPX) app allows you to buy electronic gift cards (GC) for various participating merchants. A full explanation of MPX is beyond the scope of this article, but the gist of it is that you can buy a GC using a credit card, and by doing so, you can earn miles in United’s MileagePlus frequent flyer program, plus points on your credit card.

For example, we often shop at Bath & Body Works (BBW). If we buy $60 worth of candles, once I see the total at the register I can purchase a BBW GC for the exact amount we need, in this case $60, and use it to pay. By doing so, we can earn 5x United miles, for a total of 300 miles (the multipliers are different for different merchants), plus if I’ve designated my Citi AT&T Access More card as the payment method, I can also earn 3x TYPs, for a total of 180 TYPs. In this example, we’re getting a 6.25% rebate in United miles (using our baseline value of 1.25 cents per mile) plus a 3.75% rebate in TYPs, for a total 10% return. That’s great.

In our experiments over the past 2 years, the Citi AT&T Access more card consistently earns 3x TYPs on all MPX purchases, regardless of what merchant’s gift card you’re buying. The combination of United miles plus TYPs generally makes purchasing a GC through the MPX app the highest points-earning play for merchants that participate in MPX.

That said, if you’re buying something for which you might need the extended credit card warranty, you probably don’t want to pay with a GC and lose the protection. This obviously isn’t a concern for our candles from BBW or restaurant purchases.

In recent months (for at least a year consecutively, we believe), the merchant’s category has passed through when using a Citi or Chase card on MPX. Thus, as we mentioned earlier in the Restaurants section, we can use Citi Prestige to earn 5x TYPs plus UA miles when purchasing a restaurant GC. Another potential application would be to use a Chase Ink Cash card to earn 5x UR when purchasing a GC for to buy actual merchandise from an office supply store.

21. Rotating Quarterly Categories on Chase Freedom

The Chase Freedom card has rotating quarterly bonus categories where you can earn 5x UR for purchases within those categories during their designated quarter. For the first quarter of 2019 (Jan 1 through Mar 31), the 5x bonus categories are Gas Stations, Internet/Cable/Cell Phone, and select Streaming Services. Bonus categories for the rest of 2020 have not yet been announced.

When a category is 5x on the Chase Freedom, that’s generally best-in-class. We’re using Freedom with our ExxonMobil Rewards+ app for gas during this quarter. Beyond that, we haven’t really bothered with the other categories as the bonus doesn’t improve our situation with respect to Internet/Cable/Cell Phone, and we don’t spend enough on the Streaming Services to make it worth our time to switch to Freedom and then remember to switch back on April 1.

22. Amazon

For Amazon purchases, our default payment method has been to use our Chase Ink Cash to purchase Amazon gift cards at Office Depot/Office Max (ODOM), and load the GCs onto our Amazon account. That gives us a base return of 5x UR (7.5%) on our Amazon spend.

Beyond that, there are sometimes other deals or promotions that can help us even more with Amazon spending. In the past, we’ve used a 10%-back Amex Offer at Lowe’s to purchase Amazon GCs using an Amex BB+ card. That combo pushes our total rebate on Amazon spend up to at least 13%.

We also wrote about a clever strategy to purchase Amazon GCs at our local JCPenney store, stacking credit card rewards (then 5x using a 4Q19 Chase Freedom bonus category) with a Rakuten in-store cash back offer and a Dosh in-store cash back offer:

It turns out that this deal got even better, as our purchase of Amazon Kindle GCs at JCPenney also earned JCPenney Rewards. On their face, the Rewards are $10 for each $200 in JCP spend, which would be a 5% return. In practice, the way JCP handles discounts, the Rewards end up being worth about $7 rather than $10 – but that’s still a 3.5% return on JCP spend.

We did this deal again last weekend in light of some bonus earning on Rakuten and Dosh, and the returns were:

  • Credit card return = 2.5%
  • Rakuten in-store offer return = 6% (4x MR)
  • Dosh in-store offer return = 5% (with a cap of $10)
  • JCP Rewards = 3.5%
  • Total points/cashback rebate on Amazon GC at JCP = 17%
We didn’t buy anything there, but Philly, Maria & I have visited the Amazon Spheres in Seattle!

23. Costco

All Costco stores now accept mobile wallet payments using Visa cards. Thus, we can now get a return of 4.5% on our Costco spend by using Apple Pay with our US Bank Altitude Reserve (3x USB points).

24. WalMart

As we mentioned earlier in note #15, we’re able to use Samsung Pay on my Gear S3 watch, funded with my US Bank Altitude Reserve card, to earn 3x USB points (4.5%) at WalMart.

As alternatives, we’ve found 2 useful WalMart payment methods using our Citi AT&T Access More (ATTAM) card:

  • First, we can purchase a WalMart GC at checkout through the MPX app. This earns 0.5x UA miles through MPX plus 3x TYPs on the ATTAM card, for a total return of 4.37%
    • We would only use this method to purchase things that we won’t need to return and that don’t need an extended warranty
  • Second, we can use WalMart Pay at checkout with the ATTAM card and earn 3x TYP, for a return of 3.75%
    • Last year, we reported that using WalMart Pay with ATTAM at self-checkout earns 3x TYP; we’ve confirmed several times during 2019 that using WalMart Pay with ATTAM at regular checkout also earns 3x TYP

At the moment, we’re actually using ATTAM (with MPX or WalMart Pay) exclusively at WalMart. This is because we’re in the midst of capitalizing on our awesome retention offer on our ATTAM card where we’re earning an extra 2x TYP per dollar up to $17.5k in spend. The extra TYPs push our points earning higher for ATTAM than with our USB AR card using a mobile payment method. (We’d still use the USB AR through Samsung Pay if we were purchasing an item where we needed extended warranty coverage.)

25. General Unbonused Spend

As we’ve alluded to several times during this article, our default card for general unbonused spend is the Amex BB+ card (2x MR / 3.0-3.2% to us).

There are 2 other cards in our portfolio that get significant use for general unbonused spend as well:

  • One, with the terrific recent changes to the Citi Double Cash card, we can now earn 2x TYP (2.5% return) on all unbonused spend with that card
    • This is particularly useful in situations where using an Amex card is impossible or potentially risky
  • Two, Philly still uses her Chase Freedom Unlimited card at 1.5x UR (2.25% return) for a fair amount of unbonused spend
    • She likes simplicity, she still has a full-time job, and she doesn’t want to fool around with a bunch of cards
    • Her personal Spend Matrix looks something like this:
      • Dining and Travel – Chase Sapphire Reserve (3x UR / 4.5%)
      • Everything Else – Chase Freedom Unlimited (1.5x UR / 2.25%)

Beyond using those cards as a default, there are lots of situations where some other factor will override where we put our unbonused spend:

  • Sign-up bonuses for new cards
  • Upgrade bonuses
  • Retention offers that require spend
  • Big-spend thresholds that we want to hit
  • Special offers and promotions that require spend

When we have these offers (which is fairly often), we’ll divert our general unbonused spend to the applicable card in order to collect the bonuses. Oftentimes, these offers earn us 10% or more on our spend.

26. Merchants with Other Offers such as Amex Offers, BankAmeriDeals, or Chase Offers

We’ve talked about Amex Offers several times throughout this post. These usually come in the form of $X statement credit for $Y spend, where X is about 20% back if you spend Y (or alternatively, earn MR points based on your spend). If an Amex Offer is available, it will almost always be the best play to use it.

We also receive Chase Offers and BankAmeriDeals that usually give somewhere in the range of 5-15% statement credit back on our spend with specified merchants. Most of the time, a deal at 10% or higher will trump any other earning, whereas a 5% deal may or may not. In addition, these types of offers also have caps to consider. You have to evaluate each individual deal and whether it makes sense.

In December 2018, we used an Amex Offer for MGM Resorts to save money
on birthday celebration stays at the Bellagio in Las Vegas!

We hope you’ve enjoyed seeing our Spend Matrix in all its detail, along with our thinking on how to get the most out of our spend in a plethora of bonus categories. We recognize that this can be overwhelming – but hopefully it can give you some ideas that you can use to earn boatloads of points and miles – and most importantly, to help you live your own travel dreams!

What do you think of our Spend Matrix? What techniques do you use to maximize your return on spend? Please share with us and other Middle Age Miles readers in the Comments!


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2 thoughts on “What’s In Our Wallet 2020? Part 3: Our “Spend Matrix” – How We Use Bonus Categories to Maximize Our Points-and-Miles Earning and Travel for Less

  1. Sue

    As usual, another great analysis. Although it hurt my head a bit, it was ridiculously informative. I’m a visual person, so this helps so much. I just recently got under 5/24 and have been researching the Chase Biz cards, so this helps me narrow it down. I wanted to add that I have an Amex Gold Biz card which gives you 4x on your top two spend categories. We put our gas and shipping on this one as our top 2. Thanks again for a great write up.

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi Sue – Many thanks for the kind words. I can definitely see the appeal of an Amex Gold biz card. I’ve hesitated because I don’t think I’m eligible for a sign-up bonus, given that I held the predecessor card, Business Gold Rewards. I guess I could try and see if I get the pop-up. Philly is eligible for the bonus, so we might try to cherry-pick for her if there’s a good SUB available.

      Glad you enjoyed the article, and have a great weekend! ~Craig

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