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Middle Age Miles

What’s In Our Wallet? 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?

This article is Part 3 of our “What’s In Our Wallet” series. You can read Parts 1 and 2 at these links:

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

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

This article is Part 3, the third and final installment of our “What’s In Our Wallet?” 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, and why we acquired and hold each card. In this conclusion to the series, 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 and effort and points-and-miles earning activity, though, is just a means to the end goal – traveling to incredible places in the world for less money!

Our “Spend Matrix” Explained

We’ll start off 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:

  • For purposes of this chart, we’ve given Amex Membership Rewards (MR) points a value of 1.6 cents per MR point. You may recall that we typically assign MR points a baseline value of 1.5 cents per MR point. Here, though, we’re talking more about our specific decisions and the value of the various points currencies to us. Given that we hold both the business and personal Amex Platinum cards, we’re easily able to get at least 1.6 cents per MR point by using pay-with-points through the Amex travel portal.
  • 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 stores, 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 the legacy card.
  • In some of the spend categories, 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 or a BankAmeriDeal. We’ll talk about this a bit more in Note 25.

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

As you can see, we break airfare down into several sub-categories, depending on where we’re traveling, how many people are traveling, and whether we have connecting flights. The Amex personal Platinum card is our highest-earning card here, with a very solid 5x MR / 8.0% earning rate.

But there are situations and reasons why we wouldn’t always go with our highest-earning card here. First, Amex cards do not provide any sort of travel delay protection, whereas the Citi Prestige card has best-in-class travel protections. Thus, on itineraries where we’re more likely to encounter a problem, like international itineraries and connecting domestic itineraries, we’re usually willing to forego 1.75% in additional earning in order to get the Citi Prestige card’s travel protections.

And second, the Chase Ritz-Carlton Visa (RC Visa) card has the excellent benefit of a booking portal that offers a $100 discount when 2 or more people are traveling together on a round-trip US domestic itinerary in economy class. Most major US airlines are available through the portal, including Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue and United (but not Southwest or Frontier). The RC Visa card also has decent travel protections, and the $100 discount outweighs the additional points earning on any reasonable domestic itinerary. Thus, when Philly and I are traveling together domestically, using the RC Visa card through its booking portal is the best choice.

Finally, and quite importantly, all decisions about purchasing airfare are heavily overlaid with whether to pay 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. Restaurants

Restaurants are mostly simple – use the Amex Gold for 4x MR in the US and use the Citi Prestige for 5x TYP internationally.

There’s a little more nuance, though. Amex Gold is imperfect when it comes to coding restaurants as 4x. So, if we have any inkling that there might be a problem with the coding, like when the merchant is using a Square or Toast system, we’ll switch over to the Citi Prestige.

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).

And finally, if we think about it, we’ll use our Chase Ink Preferred card if we’re at one of the few restaurants that participates in Visa SavingsEdge. But the VSE discounts are only 2% at those places, and the overall return is so close to the Amex Gold we don’t typically worry about it.

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

3. Groceries & Supermarkets

The Amex Gold is best-in-class at groceries and supermarkets in the US, earning 4x MR points, up to an annual cap of $25k.

Our organic grocery spend wouldn’t exceed the cap in a year. But if for some reason we did cap out, we’d probably turn to our Amex EveryDay card to earn 2x MR points for our next $6k of spend, with the possibility to earn a 20% bonus for 2.4 MR points total (3.8% return) if we put 20 transactions on the card during the statement cycle.

The Amex Gold’s 4x benefit is good in the US only. For international grocery purchases, our experience has been that they generally accept mobile payments, so we’re able to use our US Bank Altitude Reserve card through Apple Pay to earn 3x USB points (4.5%).

4. Hotels

Hotels mostly break down by brand. We have a lot of brand-specific cards, and the co-branded cards generally are 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, we use our Chase Ink Preferred card to capture the 4% VSE discount.

And finally, there are 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 Offer and then put the rest on the best points-maximizing card.

We saved a lot of money and earned ThankYou Points and iPrefer rewards by booking 4th-night-free at the Covo Dei Saraceni hotel on the Amalfi Coast (Positano, Italy)

5. Rental Cars

We always use our Chase Sapphire Reserve 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.

If you’re renting from National or Alamo, you might use the Chase Ink Preferred (CIP) card, which also earns 3x UR points, so you can also capture the 4% VSE credit. The CIP also provides primary CDW protection, but its terms and conditions say that you must be using the rental for business purposes in order for the CDW insurance to apply. I haven’t seen data points on how strictly the claims administrator enforces the “business purposes” condition. But it might not be worth an extra 4% statement credit to find out. We have had one experience where the claims administrator was very difficult on other issues related to a rental car damage claim and ultimately denied it, and we’re not anxious to fight with them again.

6. 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 many third party gift cards, so this can be a way to expand your 5x UR earning beyond the four walls of the office supply store itself.

We also stack 5x earning at ODOM with Ebates’ in-store offers. The standard Ebates in-store offer for ODOM seems to be 3% cash back, with a $5 cap per transaction. So, for example, if you buy a $100 Amazon gift card at ODOM, using your Chase Ink Cash card, you’ll get 500 UR points (baseline value $7.50) plus $3.00 Ebates in-store cash back, for a total rebate of 10.5% on your purchase. That’s a very solid discount for Amazon purchases!

7. 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.

However, from now through 6/30/2019, we have Amex Offers on our Blue Business Plus (BB+) cards that give a 10% statement credit, up to a cap of $100 in credit (that is, up to $1,000 in spend). Combine that with the normal 2x MR earning on BB+ cards (value to us of 3.2%), and we’re looking at a 13.2% return at Lowe’s for a couple thousand dollars in spend. And remember, Lowe’s also sells a good selection of third party gift cards.

8. Gas Stations

Our Chase Ink legacy card earns 3x UR points at gas stations, which is best-in-class in this category among cards in our wallet. We also could have chosen gas stations as our 3x MR earning category on our legacy Amex Business Rewards Gold card – but there was no need to “burn” our 3x category selection on gas since we could earn 3x UR with the Ink legacy card.

Looking past those cards (which most people won’t have), in our wallet our next choice for gas 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 (3.2% 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.

For this quarter (1st quarter 2019), gas stations are a rotating 5x UR-earning category on the Chase Freedom.

In addition, there are extra earning possibilities with ExxonMobil and Chevron/Texaco. Paying through the ExxonMobil Speedpass app gives additional rewards of 3 points per gallon. 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 at ExxonMobil, stacking 3x UR earning on the Chase Ink legacy card with ExxonMobil Speedpass points, as it’s convenient to our house and price-competitive.

There were also some valuable Amex Offers for gas during the last few months of 2018, which we used extensively. We’re not sure if those will ever return, but be on the lookout.

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

Here, we use our Chase Sapphire Reserve cards for 3x UR earning, which works very well given Chase’s broad definition of travel. Alternatively, we could use our Chase Ink Preferred cards to get the same result.

For this quarter (1st quarter 2019), tolls are a rotating 5x UR-earning category on the Chase Freedom.

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 game!

10. Uber

Uber is yet another travel expense that qualifies for 3x earning with the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Ink Preferred. (Lyft would be the same.)

With Uber, another alternative would be to pay through Apple Pay using the US Bank Altitude Reserve card, to get 3x USB points in the mobile payments bonus category.

That said, 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 gift cards into our account and use the credits.

We also get $15/month in Uber credits with our Amex personal Platinum card ($35 in December).

11. 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 (3.2% 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

12. Online Retail

For online retail, we love our Citi AT&T Access More card, 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. We’ve recently written an extensive article about what merchants and types of purchases earn 3x TYPs as online retail/travel, which has been very well-received.

13. 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 use Apple Pay, which requires the merchant to have a specific type of payment terminal. We’re seeing these terminals more and more in the US – but they are ubiquitous in Europe. Previously for us, the best we could do for unbonused spend in Europe was something like 1x MR with an Amex Platinum (1.6% to us) or 1x UR with a Chase Sapphire Reserve (1.5%) (since our normal cards for unbonused spend like Amex BB+ and Chase Freedom Unlimited have foreign transaction fees). 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.

I’m envious, though, of people who have Samsung devices that can use Samsung Pay’s swipe-emulation technology to make mobile wallet payments almost anywhere. I’ve actually contemplated getting a Samsung Pay-capable device solely for this purpose.

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

14. 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 currently have an Amex Offer on BB+ cards for 25% statement credit on FedEx Shipping through 5/31/2019, up to a cap of $1,000 credit (that is, a cap of $4,000 in spend). That’s more than enough for us, so for now the BB+ is our card of choice for FedEx Shipping. We also had a similar Amex Offer for FedEx for the last few months of 2018.

15. Cell Phone

With our cell phone payments we have 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. I tend to favor the extra points earning because the coverage has a deductible and may or may not cover whatever happened to my phone, and because I don’t like dealing with claims administrators in general.

It’s also worth noting that we use AT&T as our cell provider, and Amex Offers for AT&T service are fairly common. So, we often switch out to an Amex card to take advantage of these Offers.

16. 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. Although, as with cell phone service, we sometimes get Amex Offers that can give us an even better return than the baseline 5x UR (7.5%) on the CIC.

17. Person-to-Person Payments

We use the Chase Ink Preferred to earn 3x UR points (4.5%) on person-to-person payments through Venmo (which has a 3% fee). (See our article here).

And we use our Citi AT&T Access More card to earn 3x TYPs (3.75%) on person-to-person payments through Bravo (which has a 2% fee). (See our article here).

18. 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). Alternatively, we could have chose Advertising as our 3x MR bonus category on our legacy Amex Business Rewards Gold card.

19. Merchants on the MileagePlus X (MPX) App

United Airlines’ MileagePlus X (MPX) app allows you to buy electronic gift cards (eGC) 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 an eGC 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 eGC 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 my payment method, I can also earn 3x TYPs, for a total of 180 TYPs. In this example, we’re getting a 7.0% rebate in United miles (using a baseline value of 1.4 cents per mile) plus a 3.75% rebate in TYPs, for a total of 10.75% return. That’s great.

In our experiments over the past year-plus, 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.

At times, the merchant’s category has passed through when using a Chase card on MPX. Thus, sometimes it has been possible to use a Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3x UR when purchasing a restaurant GC, or to use a Chase Ink Cash card to earn 5x UR when purchasing a GC for an office supply store. This has been inconsistent, though, so we generally just set our Citi AT&T Access More as our default payment for all MPX purchases.

20. 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, Tolls & Drugstores. Bonus categories for the rest of 2019 have not yet been announced.

When a category is 5x on the Chase Freedom, that’s generally best-in-class. We’ve set our toll accounts and our ExxonMobil Speedpass app to default to Chase Freedom for this quarter, and we’re trying to remember to use the Freedom card for other gas station expenses and drug stores.

21. Amazon

For Amazon purchases, our default is 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. Plus, we’re currently using the Ebates in-store cash-back program to earn an additional 3% back at ODOM (up to a cap of $5 per transaction; sometimes the percentage back is higher during promotions). That gives us a total return of 10.5% when spending on Amazon.

Beyond that, there are sometimes other deals or promotions that can help us even more with Amazon spending. For instance, right now we can use our 10%-back Amex Offer at Lowe’s to purchase Amazon GCs (up to the spend cap of $1,000). We’ve loaded that offer onto Amex BB+ cards, so our spend also earns 2x MR points (value to us of 3.2%). Thus, with that deal, we can push our total return on Amazon spend up to 13.2%.

We didn’t buy anything there, but Philly, Maria and I visited the Amazon Spheres in Seattle last summer!

22. 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).

23. WalMart

In our experiments with the Citi AT&T Access More (ATTAM) card, we learned that paying with WalMart Pay at self-checkout with the ATTAM card earns 3x TYPs, for a return of 3.75%.

In addition, paying with WalMart Pay also allows us to submit our receipt easily to the WalMart Savings Catcher. The Savings Catcher price-matches the products you purchased and gives you WalMart credit in the amount of the difference if it finds the same product for a lower price at a competing merchant. For us, using the Savings Catcher has resulted in average credits in the 2-3% range, which takes our return on WalMart spend to roughly 6%.

For the last few months of 2018, the Dosh app offered cash back for WalMart spend, usually 6%. When that deal was alive, we had to forego WalMart Pay for the cash back to work correctly with Dosh. That meant giving up 3x TYP earning and the Savings Catcher credits. But for 6% cash back, we were happy to use a card for general unbonused spend like the Amex BB+ (2x MR / 3.2% to us) to achieve a return of 9.2% at WalMart.

24. General Unbonused Spend

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

We also use the Chase Freedom Unlimited card, though, for a good bit of unbonused spend (1.5 UR / 2.25%). Why? For starters, Philly likes simplicity and she has a full-time job. She doesn’t want to fool around with a bunch of cards or think much about what card to use for what purpose. And Amex isn’t accepted everywhere, so it works best for the cards in her wallet to be Visa. So for Philly, her 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 that, we use the Freedom Unlimited in other situations where Amex isn’t accepted, such as for our electricity bill. For those things, 2.25% is a decent return.

That said, there are lots of situations where some other factor will override where we put our unbonused spend. If we have sign-up bonuses for new cards, big-spend bonuses that we want to hit, or other bonuses such as retention offers, upgrade offers, or special offers and promotions, we’ll divert our general unbonused spend to those cards in order to collect the bonuses. These offers will usually be earning us 10% or more on our spend.

25. 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 BankAmeriDeals and Chase Offers to get 5-10% statement credit back on our spend with specified merchants. Most of the time, a 10% deal will trump any other earning, whereas a 5% deal may or may not. These types of offers also have caps to consider. You have to evaluate each individual deal and whether it makes sense.

We recently used an Amex Offer for MGM Resorts to save money on 21st birthday celebration stays at the Bellagio in Las Vegas!
(the 21st birthday people are the 3 in the middle – KB is a little older, and I’m older by a lot!)

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!

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