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amex-cash-back-sitting-there

It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at the credit card market. While I was never once the type to churn a bunch of credit cards, for a period of time during the college years – I was one of those guys that dabbled in 0% balance transfer cards. Thinking back, my time spent probably would have been more productive if I had applied it towards school or business – but alas, you have a different mindset when you’re in your late teens or early 20’s.

These days, because my credit cards are all essentially all on auto pilots, I hardly ever log-on to check the account unless I spot in my email an Amex offer I should add to the card, or a Chase reminder that a new 5% spending cycle is about to commence. After logging into American Express due to one such prompt, I was surprised when I was faced with a $1,600 cash-back balance.

Uhhh that’s a lot of cash back just sitting there.

Cash Back That’s No Longer “Cash”

Thinking I just found a big wad of cash under the proverbial sofa, I quickly went to claim my new found fortune.

Bad news: Blue Cash from American Express no longer lets you request a cash-back checks. All “cash-back” are now requested via a statement credit method only. And thus this $1,600 will simply  get stuffed back into the next billing cycle.

Of course, the idea is the same. There’s an extra $1,600 laying around that I didn’t factor into our budget. But there’s something different about having that cold hard cash (or uh, check) in you hands. Since my current balance with this credit card is zero, I’m not quite sure if American Express will wait for the balance to start incurring and then debit/credit accordingly. If I’m lucky, perhaps American Express will just refund the excessive credit in the account to me in the form of a check.

Points That Aren’t Worth Redeeming for Cash

Finding the “random” $1,600 got me thinking. Do I have a bunch of other points sitting at some other accounts doing absolutely nothing?

You betcha:

chase-combine-points

Over at Chase Freedom, I have a combined points of 41,985. That’s good for $419 in cash back! (Of course, redeeming Chase Freedom points for cash is apparently the stupid thing to do these days. They are apparently valued at less than a penny per point, whereas if you transfer to miles, they are worth around 1.6 cents per point).

There’s great guide here from Well Traveled Mile on transfer ratio, which card transfers to which partner airlines and all that jazz. Warning: it can be confusing as heck if you don’t care to dive into the world of rewards travel credit card. The essential gist is that if you simply request cash-back, you are losing out on maximizing your credit card points value.

When its Time for a New Credit Card

Its probably clear at this point that our household primarily use an American Express card and a Chase Freedom card for our spending needs. But with these points and cash back just sitting there building up without being utilized or maximized – I realized that it was probably a good time to shop for a new credit card. I don’t think we want to juggle 5 different cards in our wallet, but the Blue Cash has long lost its luster, and the Chase Freedom has plenty more competitors these days.

Here’s when you should look for a new credit card:

  • It’s been more two years since you last cashed out, used, or looked at your credit card rewards
  • Your spending pattern has increased significantly
  • Your spending pattern is catering more to a specific category: (e.g., dining, traveling, etc.)
  • Your card has been downgraded/converted from its original program

During the time frame since I’ve opened the Blue Cash card (probably 13 years ago?) – the card has consistently reduced its program benefits through the years. While I was grandfathered in for a period of time, it seems about 3-4 years ago American Express has significantly cut back on the cash-back % the card was offering. At a time, you can easily reach the 1.25% cash-back threshold, and these days there are now caps and limits to the cash-back.

For the Chase Freedom, the points are okay and the rotating 5% category is now an industry norm (there is a similar Discover product these days) – and the increased points/cash-back are nice – but with our spending pattern and threshold, we can easily earn more rewards if we simply shop for a card that fits our spending more closely.

Travel Card Probably a Good Idea

Now that our daughter is 4 years-old, we’re expecting more travel in the foreseeable future as we try to squeeze in a few family trip per year. Heck, we were probably traveling way too much with the toddler/baby in tow in the past few years. My daughter has already taken over half a dozen international flights in the past few years – and these were travels out of necessity – so they’re never as fun as traveling for leisure.

Because of this, I have been looking into travel cards a bit more – and it seems the de facto travel card to get these days is the Chase Sapphire Preferred (or Reserved if you’re baller enough). Everywhere you look, it is one of the top pick recommendations as the card can generously transfer earned points to many airline programs at generous ratio. While the card comes with fees, as long as you do the math – you should be able to easily reap many more benefits out of the card than the fees that comes with the card.

There’s a bit more work involved when you opt for a travel card, but like free food – a free trip or airline ticket is the next best thing.

Where to Look for New Credit Cards

So, where should you go hunting for a new card? There are a myriad amount of tools these days. A quick Google search will bring up walls of tools, comparison site, blogs, etc. (its good money to refer customers to the credit card company, after all). If you prefer, and this is often my preference – I enjoy reading about usage scenario straight from actual cardholders. A search on reddit’s personal finance subreddit will show you many opinion and helpful viewpoints.

Most of the sites and tools you’ll find online will be plenty helpful, but I would strongly suggest avoiding signing up for a credit card immediately from a written blog post, or tools with “editor picks” that may have ranking influenced by credit card commission payouts. Depending on the article you’re reading, some of the benefits/perks for the card written about may be long gone – and while card issuers are a lot more strict on partner sites promoting credit cards, people are only human and mistakes do happen.

Before you shop for a new card, sites such as Credit Karma and Credit Sesame are always helpful in determining where your credit stands before you apply. Many of the best reward cards are fairly stringent and credit score/history requirements are quite high.

Interestingly enough, FICO Score also appears to be free and in abundance these days, as its now offered as a free benefit to many major credit card, checking, or savings account. So you can always go that route too, to see where your score situates.

 

 

I’ve been getting gas at my local Costco ever since the wife and I moved in the area 8 months ago — its not always the cheapest in the area, but given Costco is only 5 minutes away from the house and the line isn’t too terribly crazy, its my usual prefer choice to get gas (I’m probably using it more to justify the Costco membership too).

Imagine my surprise today when I finally looked at my AmEx’s pending charges to find that Costco’s authorization hold at the gas pump is now at $150:

COSTCO GAS $150.00

Costco gas authorization hold $150

A quick Google search shows that the authorization amount of $150 has been around since mid-2012, so that added even more to my surprise and made me feel a little bit out-of-touch.

For those that aren’t aware, preauthorization hold at gas station is pretty much standard practice, but it doesn’t seem like it was too long ago when the holds were only $50 at most. Somewhere along the way, they have quickly eclipsed $100 and became $150.

Now, a temporary $150 hold isn’t a big deal, given after a day or two the actual amount you’ve pumped will quickly replace the pending transaction showing up in your online account (so don’t worry if you think you’re being scammed by Costco or some such). Unless you’re driving a gas guzzler and gasoline is ridiculously priced in your area, you’re most likely paying well under $80 per full tank of gas.

The problem with these high authorization hold though is that sooner or later, using gift cards at the gas pump will no longer be an option.   If your American Express gift card (or at other gas station, Visa/MasterCard) is under the authorization hold amount, the card will get a nice quick decline when you tried to swipe it at the pump.

Those with low credit limit on their credit card will have to also be mindful of their current available credit limit before they use their credit cards at the pump ($500 credit limit for students, those with no-credit aren’t too uncommon).

Hopefully the trend of high authorization hold will taper off, but given the ever rising cost of fuel prices, the outlook isn’t so good.

My Gasoline Spending Since April 2010

Here’s a random chart as an added tidbit to the post, showing my gasoline spending since April 2010. You can really see gasoline usage becoming more consistent after July of 2012 (no coincident that it was right after we bought our house). Based on what Mint.com is reporting, the average amount we spend on gasoline per month is $86 for the past 12 months:

Gasoline Spending Since 2010 from Mint.com

This is probably a lot lower than most household as I work from home (the lack of a commute can be a real money saver).  In comparison, for 2012 the average U.S. household was spending around $242 per month on gas, or $2,912 annually, according to latest report from the Energy Information Administration. At 4% of the mean household income (before taxes), its of little wonder we’re seeing more and more gas friendly vehicles on the market.

Chase Freedom rotating summer cash back category

If you have a Chase Freedom credit card (whether it’s a VISA or MasterCard), you’ve probably got a similar mailing in your mail box.  As you can tell above, I have too many Chase Freedom cards (although some of them are duplicate ones, I have a strange habit of keeping credit cards that are long-since expired).

Before you start thinking I went crazy with the credit card sign-ups, Chase basically converted all my credit cards to their “Freedom” lineup through out the years, as they consolidated their credit card program under their flagship card product and revamp their reward programs to the “Ultimate Reward” structure.

This is just a friendly reminder to anyone that may also have had their Chase credit card converted to a Chase Freedom card.  For the summer of 2010, you’ll get 5% cash back on travel related purchases, which in fact is a pretty sweet deal.

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Anyone that has been denied credit will remember the added-on fine print at the end of the denial letter telling you that you can receive a free credit report from a specific credit reporting agency.  Sometimes this will require you to mail in a written response to request the free credit report, sometimes it will be as simple as logging on to the reporting agency’s website and fill in a few information.

While it’s little solace to being denied credit (let’s face it, rejection blows), Federal law dictates that you should be given clear reason as to why you’ve been denied, and free access to your credit report so you better understand your credit history.

One problem in the previous solution is that by providing consumer with only their credit report, many people couldn’t make heads or tails on where they stand in terms of credit worthiness.  Unless you’ve read up on your credit report know-hows, it can be at times difficult to distinguish what’s positive or negative — if any — in your list of credit history.

Hot on the heels of numerous financial regulation reform and amendments, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado introduced the Fair Access to Credit Scores Act as an amendment to the hotly debated Wall Street Accountability legislation.  This amendment, which was approved by a voice vote by the Senate on Monday, will allow consumers to receive a free credit score whenever the score has negatively impacted the lending/approving decision process.

Here’s what you can expect if the amendment becomes part of law:

  • If you’re denied credit or approved for a more disadvantaged rate, then you’ll have free access to your credit score.
  • The credit score you’ll have access to is the specific score that impacted you in the decision making process, not some random score from an unknown company or credit reporting bureau, nor would it be a range of score.  Since most lenders are still using FICO scores, the leading credit scoring model, that means it would most likely be the credit score you’ll receive and not some “FAKO” score.
  • No maximum amount or limit to the amount of scores you can get for free.  If you’re denied credit by lenders fifteen times, you’ll get fifteen scores. Though one prudent move may be to closely examine why your credit isn’t up to par before you apply for further loans.
  • If credit score was one of the many factors in denying a potential employment, you will also receive a free credit score.  You should note however that credit report is but one of many hiring factors for many employers.
Related Links & Resources:

Despite the fact that FIA (formerly MBNA, now owned by Bank of America), told me to bend over as they slashed my credit limit on my Schwab credit card, I still prefer to use the Charles Schwab credit card as my primary transaction card.  It’s simply too hard to ignore the 2% cash back on any purchases, plus there’s the absolutely zilch foreign transaction fee when you use the card while traveling abroad.

While in Italy last month, I extensively used this credit card along with my Schwab debit card as my traveling pals and I roam around tourist traps in a decisively awesome country:

As you can see above, had the Schwab credit card emulated other Visa, MasterCard, and American Express credit card’s usual 3% foreign transaction fee,  my traveling cost would have went up by an additional $21 or so dollars.  Not a whole lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but that’s still three-and-a-quarter-less margherita pizza I’d be able to eat.

And that, my friends, is what personal finance should truly be about: how many slices of pizza you may be missing out on.

This guest post is brought to you by The Digerati Life, where you can read about all things financial. SVB from The Digerati Life particularly enjoys discussing investment topics and the latest financial tools that help make money management interesting and easier to do. Why not subscribe to her feed?

 
Clearly, the credit crisis has done a number to the credit card industry, making the competition become a little tougher among credit card companies. In the past, credit card holders could earn substantial rewards with the kind of programs available through companies like Visa, MasterCard, Discover Card and Citibank. Back then, you could receive significant savings from online purchases when you register your reward credit card to earn points or from a cash back credit card that credits you a cash bonus on a regular basis.

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How to Freeze Your Credit Report Some stuff are just better when served cold.  Ice cream. Sushi. Revenge.

There was a joke somewhere in there, linking cold stuff to freezing credit reports, but if you’re reading up on credit freeze because of identity theft problems, the last thing you’d probably want is a lame joke from an online financial nerd.

Fair enough. Here’s a complete breakdown on credit freeze, links to the major credit reporting agency (credit bureau) so you can request a freeze, and links to the fees for freezing your credit reports.

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Ever since Experian and Fair Isaac stopped offering an Experian based FICO score to consumers, I’ve had a large, unfulfilled hole in my life. The woe and despair that I felt was equivalent to having my dinner stolen from me after spending a good hour preparing and making omurice.

Thankfully, the good folks at Quizzle.com came to the rescue, pulling me from the depths of depression, providing me hope and courage to make another Japanese dish for dinner.

Quizzle.com is a free web service from Quicken Loans (formerly Rock Financial Corporation) that provides you with a free credit report, score, home value and budgeting tools.  I’ve wrote a review on Quizzle about 7 months ago, and in that review, I went over most aspect of the service.  If you’re interested, check the review out.

What I neglected to mention in the review was that Quizzle provides you with a free credit report and score every six months and that the credit report and credit score is based on your Experian report.  So for those of us that are looking for a free source to get an Experian-based credit score, Quizzle.com is the perfect place to visit.

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