There are many opportunities and techniques with personal spending and promotional offers that can allow you to save or receive credit or money. I am always surprised at how many people do not take advantage of these opportunities despite having sufficient free time and technical ability. One of the most obvious is buying gift cards at a discount from personal resellers or intermediaries. While there are varying degrees of risk doing this, if you use a credit card you can always request a chargeback, and for discounts of over 10% at stores you were going to shop at anyway, they are often worthwhile. For example, Gift Card Mall on eBay used to commonly offer OfficeMax gift cards at 20% off (a $50.00 card for $40.00), which I purchased and used at OfficeMax to buy U.S. postage “forever” stamps at 46¢ each, just days before the increase to 49¢. With the 20% gift card discount, I was effectively saving 25% and the stamps were costing me about 37¢ each.
Using cash is anathema to me. Besides avoiding being tracked, there are no hard advantages to using cash for the buyer. The buyer is at the mercy of the seller’s refund policy if sold a defective item, yet is usually paying the same amount that a credit card user who is receiving 1-2% or more cashback, buyer protection, extended warranties and insurance, and an interest-free loan from the lender. Except in the cases of receiving cash discounts, avoiding credit surcharges, or haggling, any benefits the buyer receives by using cash where credit is accepted are purely psychological—such as spending less and avoiding high interest rates due to poor repayment habits. People who are able to pay their statement balances in full before the due date 100% of the time are better off using credit. Of course, with a typical interest rate of 18%, carrying a balance even one month costs 1.5% of the principal, which immediately negates the cashback earned. Every month after that is a loss.
Many credit cards and bank accounts offer financial incentives for opening accounts and using them. These are primarily one-time bonuses but there are also some continuing bonuses that you can receive every month or quarter. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card typically offers a waived annual fee and 40,000 point bonus after spending $2000.00 in the first three months, and the points can be worth $400.00 cash or up to about $600.00 if transferred to Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Amtrak, etc. for traveling. $2000.00 in spending can be “manufactured” by loading money to your American Express Serve account, sending money to your spouse or a family member using Amazon Payments, or it can simply be reached by buying things you would have bought anyway. [2014-09-11 Update: Amazon Payments is ending person-to-person payments on 2014-10-13.] In March 2014, First Niagara bank of Buffalo, NY was offering a $250.00 bonus to new checking account holders after they received $250.00 in direct deposits, made five bill payments, and used their debit cards 10 times. These were easy requirements to meet even for people who are unemployed and not receiving pensions or social security, because transfers from PayPal or other services and banks were counted as direct deposits. Accounts can be opened by customers residing anywhere in the United States through correspondence—which requires providing information online and mailing a copy of your signature. While Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bank typically offer modest bonuses that require jumping through more hoops, Chase Bank and Citibank commonly offer a $200.00 bonus for opening a checking account with easy requirements, albeit redeeming the Citibank reward points at face value requires redeeming them for a check to your mortgage or student loan issuer (they send the check to you, written to the lender, but do not verify the existence of the loan—so you can deposit the check to your account with the institution it is written to, such as another bank).
Examples of continuing bonuses on credit cards include the Bank of America Better Balance card and Discover It card. The BoA BB card pays you $30.00 every quarter provided you have a statement balance greater than $0.00 every month and pay more than the minimum payment each month (or only the minimum payment if the statement balance is below ~$25.00 and is equal to the minimum payment). I have had this card over a year and have received $120.00 in bonuses. While this pales in comparison to many credit cards which offer $500.00 or more, hopefully the Better Balance card will continue for years, and the card has the added bonus of typically coming with a 0.00% promotional interest rate for 12 months. The Discover It card offers 5% cashback on up to $1500.00 in purchases in rotating categories each quarter. The current quarter offers 5% back on purchases at gas stations, and I was able to find a gas station that allowed me to buy $500.00 OneVanilla Visa prepaid cards using credit. These prepaid cards have only a $4.95 fee and can be used to purchase money orders at Walmart or Winn-Dixie, or loaded to an American Express Bluebird account and used to pay bills such as credit cards and mortgage payments, thus reducing their opportunity cost. Thus you can make $60.15, or more if redeeming your Discover cashback for gift cards that offer a 20% redemption discount (i.e. a $25.00 Staples gift card for $20.00 in Discover cashback rewards). ShopDiscover also offers cashback for online purchases at participating retailers that is often higher than other cashback sites, such as 5% at Target.com, TigerDirect.com, and Staples.com.
Examples of continuing bonuses on bank accounts include the Extra20 Checking account by Santander Bank of Boston, MA (formerly Sovereign Bank) and the Discover Bank Cashback Checking account. The former bank offers a $20.00 monthly bonus when you have both a checking and savings account with them, receive $1500.00 or more in direct deposits to the checking account per statement cycle, and pay two or more bills per statement. The bonus is deposited to your savings account each month. Accounts can be opened through correspondence (mail/web) nationwide and Santander is liberal in what they count as direct deposits (transfers from PayPal, Amazon Payments, and other banks currently work). As with the bill payment requirement for the First Niagara bonus, the bill payments could just be a couple dollars toward your credit card bills—you do not have to pay an entire bill. The Discover Cashback Checking account offers 10¢ back on every debit card purchase, bill payment, and check written per month, up to a maximum of 100 items ($10.00 back), though prior to July 1, 2014, the bonus was unlimited. Before August 1, 2013, the Chase Freedom credit card offered 10 extra points back on every purchase, which was then eliminated. The Discover offering is a suitable (though less potent) replacement, and I typically use it for purchases below $7.00 that would only earn 1 point per dollar on my credit cards. You can also pay a couple dollars to all of your credit cards several times per month to get closer to the $10.00 monthly maximum.
There are many offers which I would like to take advantage of but don’t have the equipment for or am unable to be approved for. Isis Mobile Wallet (which is soon to be renamed) offers $1.00 back on up to 50 purchases of $1.00 or more per month and many other significant offers that can be used to make hundreds of dollars, but is not compatible with my smartphone or carrier (Metro PCS). I would love to get the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express credit card which offers 2% cashback on all purchases, but it is too difficult to get approved for. The Chase Ink Plus and Ink Bold credit and charge cards offer opening bonuses of $700.00 and $500.00 with $5000.00 spending and 5% back on utility bills and office stores, but I have had no luck being approved for them by claiming my photography or reselling hobbies as businesses. There are also many bank account bonuses that are regional and unavailable to Florida residents.
While bank account bonuses in the United States are considered income by the Internal Revenue Service and you will usually receive a 1099-INT or 1099-MISC form in the mail in January of the following year, credit card rewards and bonuses typically require spending a certain amount. Thus, the IRS considers them a discount on purchases made, which is not income. Thus, no income tax must be paid on most credit card bonuses.
Credit card and bank account bonuses require successfully opening the accounts you are applying for. Many bonuses are unavailable to people who have poor credit or banking histories, because credit card issuers and banks will not even allow such individuals to open the accounts the bonuses are offered on, if any accounts at all. Obviously, many damaged credit histories and permanently overdrawn bank accounts result from poor decisions and negligence by the account holders, institutional errors, and disgust with penalty APRs and cascading overdraft fees which result in borrowers giving up completely. It is best to avoid these issues completely by never missing a payment or overdrawing a bank account. However, you should also regularly check your Experian, TransUnion, Equifax, ChexSystems, and Early Warning Services reports for incorrect data, and even correct negative information can sometimes be disputed. The burden of proof may be on the institution rather than you, and the negative information could be removed if your creditor fails to produce supporting documentation. This is particularly true with fraudulent medical bills (hospitals are notorious for over- and double-billing).
Next month, I am becoming a graduate student at University of Central Florida and am taking some face-to-face classes which will require me to drive from the Daytona Beach, FL area to the Orlando campus approximately 25 times next semester. This will require 2800 miles of driving, and I drive a van which only gets 18 miles per gallon of gas on the highway. This means I will use about 156 gallons of gas to commute next semester, at a cost of about $545 at $3.50 per gallon. Even a used, modestly-priced, fuel-efficient car would probably use half as much fuel at best, which would save me only $272.50 on gas for my classes next semester. I considered buying a car, and some friends say they would to avoid wasting so much gas, but it would actually be more expensive to replace the van with a car, especially considering the van has low mileage, has been very reliable, and lacks resale value due to nonfunctional air conditioning and cosmetic problems. Plus, I am safer in a van and can carry up to eight passengers or 1536 lbs. of cargo if needed. It would be financially unwise to replace the van, but many people would make this decision with a flawed mathematical analysis, or none at all. Basic arithmetic skills are essential to effective personal finance.
I am using a service called Savings2Go which provides gift cards at 20% off for Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, Applebee’s, and other stores and restaurants. You can buy up to $75.00 in gift cards per store per quarter, and they offer a $15.00 rebate on grocery purchases each quarter, for a $14.95 monthly fee. When I called to cancel after the end of my 30-day trial, they offered to reduce the fee to $29.95 per year and to increase the grocery rebate to $25.00 per quarter. Having agreed, I have already received $50.00 in checks which exceeds the $29.95 fee I paid. I enjoy using the Applebee’s gift cards to eat out with friends, and have bought other gift cards for personal use or to share at-cost with family and friends. Another service called LeisurePlus, also administered by Stonebridge Benefit Services, offers 20% off on restaurant gift cards and gas gift cards for BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil, for up to $75.00 in gift cards per store per quarter. They charge $9.95 per month and have a 30-day money-back guarantee, so I signed up in mid-June and bought a total of $450.00 of gas gift cards in June (2nd quarter) and early July (3rd quarter), paying only $360.00. Then, I canceled before the 30 days ended and got my $9.95 monthly fee back. I found out about these services through telemarketing calls, and while there was a class action lawsuit against Stonebridge in 2011 and there are numerous complaints against them, I have only saved money with them. I am also in a trial period with Everyday Bargains to get 20% off on up to $75.00 of Walmart, Publix, and Winn-Dixie gift cards. However, I cannot recommend Savings Galore, Advantage Plus Legal, Family Saver, or Magazine Rewards Plus, since they never sent the membership packets or gifts and I ended up having to complain or request chargebacks against them with my credit card issuer.
One cool fact about credit cards is they can actually be leveraged to provide an indefinite, interest-free loan to the cardholder. Consider that Amazon Payments allows anyone to send $1000.00 per month to another person on credit with no fees—and the recipient can be a spouse, significant other, family member, or friend who could remit the balance and also send $1000.00 with his or her credit card, or even as an authorized user on the initiator’s credit card. [2014-09-11 Update: Amazon Payments is ending person-to-person payments on 2014-10-13.] The “Serve” prepaid card by American Express also allows anyone to load up to $1000.00 per month from a credit card to their Serve card (as $200.00 per day) and immediately withdraw it to their bank account, with no fees. Credit cards provide grace periods of at least 21 days after the statement ends to pay the statement balance without incurring interest, and to avoid interest, only the balance accrued during the previous statement must be paid before the due date. For example, if your statement ends on July 18 and payment is due on August 12, you could have charged $4000.00 from June 19 to July 17, and subsequently charge $3000.00 more between July 18 and August 12, yet only pay $4000.00 before August 12. In this example, the $3000.00 charged between July 18 and August 12 would post to the August 18 statement and not have to be paid until September 12. Thus, you could always owe $2000.00 or more yet never pay interest, and additionally be earning 1-2% in cashback every time you borrow more. Some new credit cards offer a 0.00% promotional APR for up to 24 months, so you can just max them out and make the minimum payment every month until the promotional rate ends, while leveraging the interest-free credit line into low-risk investments or no-risk certificates of deposit and Kasasa checking and savings accounts. While this practice may increase your credit utilization above 30% and negatively impact your credit score, the impact is far less than a delinquent account and disappears when you pay the balance.
I definitely recommend the “Hot Deals” forums on Slickdeals.net and FatWallet.com for finding good deals on many items. They are particularly good for electronics. There are other forums for finance, coupons, and drugstores which can also be helpful. It is easy to end up buying things you don’t need, so it is important to only search for things you actually need, but it is also important to recognize opportunities that are too good to pass up, and to get in on them before they expire. Make sure to use cashback sites such as Ebates, FatWallet, BeFrugal, Mr. Rebates, Plink, ShopDiscover, Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall, BankAmeriDeals, and American Express Offers to “click-through” and get money back, but also be careful to read the terms and confirm the items you are buying are not excluded. Also, many cashback sites have minimum thresholds to reach before you can cash out, and inactivity fees if you forget about your cashback balance. You should probably use LastPass, KeePass, or another password manager to keep track of all the email addresses, usernames, and passwords you are using for various websites.
If you do a lot of printing at home, one really basic thing you can do to improve your finances is to buy a Brother HL-2140 or HL-2240 black and white laser printer (which go on sale for $49.99 commonly). Particularly if you print a lot of documents that don’t require color, using re-manufactured toner cartridges in these printers can cost as little as $10.00 to print 2500 pages. When I see friends spending $50.00+ on ink cartridges that cost them upwards of 15¢ per page, I always try to convince them to make the switch.
Usually, banks and big businesses rape consumers with fees, high margins, and shady tactics. However, they use some of this money for marketing campaigns and loss leaders that you can actually make money on. It is very satisfying to be part of the small percentage of smart consumers who cost these institutions money through offers and mechanisms that they freely advertise.
While there are many avenues I did not touch on in this post, I find banks and credit cards exciting because they provide large rewards with less time and effort than more intensive practices such as rebates and coupons. However, that is not to say this should be an “either/or” proposition. Depending on the value of your time and what you like to do with it, it is possible for you to pursue all these avenues and more. Sometimes, you can even get back more than you paid for an item with a mail-in rebate. If an item is offered for free after rebate at Newegg or Staples, and you have a 10% or 20% off coupon, you can get back 10% or 20% more than you paid. Usually, even rebates that say “rebate value must not exceed purchase price” do not enforce this stipulation. There is always a difference between the terms in writing and in practice, which can be more lenient rather than strict. You can always argue against interpretations that are overly strict, while quietly accepting grace periods, courtesy offers, and other gifts without complaint. If this bothers you, just think of all the other people who have no issue with it.
Financial literacy is barely taught in grade-school or college, yet people who lack it have a lower quality of life and squander much of their labors. The unidirectional nature of time means you cannot give advice to your younger self or modify the past in any way. Like any area of life, if you want to improve your finances, accepting and making peace with your prior mistakes and ignorance is an unavoidable step. It is always better to make a positive change now than later or never. There are many notions, beliefs, and myths you will have to dispel, replace, and overcome on this path. I can promise you it will be worth it.