How I Earn at Least 3.4% Back on All My Purchases

Strategic Spending

I have quite a few credit cards in my collection. I use some of them on a daily basis, but I also have other cards just for the travel benefits they provide. While a lot of people think that having a lot of credit cards can hurt your credit score, the truth is it can actually help your credit score.

Since I started this blog, a number of people have asked me what card I use to earn my free flights and hotel points. The answer is, well, somewhat complicated. I do not use one card, but instead maximize my earnings by using different cards on different merchants. I have a comprehensive strategy that allows me to earn at least 3.4% back on almost all my purchases!

Before I delve into my strategy, I want to let you know that it does take planning, effort and some work to maximize your spending. In the beginning, it will be difficult to remember exactly what card to use in the grocery store vs your hip neighborhood coffee shop. But everyone needs time to learn a new skill, and this particular skill pays off very well in the long run.

Sunsets over Mt. Fuji are more enjoyable when they are free! (Tokyo, 2014  ©  JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Sunsets over Mt. Fuji are more enjoyable when they are free! (Tokyo, 2014 © JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Five Key Players

There are five credit cards which I use regularly - three personal cards and two business credit cards. I’ll talk about the personal cards first, then talk a little about the business credit cards.

Personal Cards

Chase Freedom

I have had this card for a long time, and this is the card I recommend everyone interested in travel hacking should start with. There is no annual fee, and the card earns 5% back for up to $1,500 in spend for specific “bonus” categories. If you spend more than $1,500, you will only get 1% back in those categories. Importantly, these categories change every three months.

Let’s walk through my strategy with this card in 2018. Below is the Chase Freedom cash back calendar from last year.


From January to March, I put all my gas purchases and internet and phone bills on my Freedom card. By doing so, I earned 5% of my spending back. You will also notice that Apple Pay was also part of the bonus category, so I used my Freedom with Apple Pay every time I went grocery shopping or when there was a merchant who would take Apple Pay.

If you read about my grocery spending habits, you will know that I spend about $700 a month. So hitting $1,500 in three months was not an issue at all. For April to June, grocery stores were featured again, so I earned all the bonus points at that time as well.

Grocery shopping in tokyo (Tokyo, 2014  ©  JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Grocery shopping in tokyo (Tokyo, 2014 © JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Hitting the minimum from July to September was a little more challenging since I do not spend $1,500 on gas and pharmacy products. But guess what? Walgreens also sells a whole host of gift cards. Netflix, Whole Foods, Delta, Amazon - the list goes on. So to reach the spending limit, I just bought Amazon gift cards, which essentially means I get 5% off all my Amazon purchases.

I think you get the picture here. By hitting the $1,500 minimum every quarter, I theoretically get $75 in cash back. But in reality, you earn Ultimate Reward points with the Chase Freedom. So I really earned 7,500 points, which I can transfer to my Chase Sapphire card. By doing so, my 7,500 points end up being worth $112.50 towards travel.

If you were to maximize the bonus categories every quarter like I do, you would earn $450 a year. That’s pretty good for a no annual fee card! My wife and I both have this card, so we get $900 towards travel a year.

Credit cards enable worldwide travel (Acadia National Park, 2014  ©  JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Credit cards enable worldwide travel (Acadia National Park, 2014 © JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Chase Sapphire Reserve

This card gives me the ability to transfer my points to Chase partners, and to redeem my Ultimate Rewards points for at least 1.5 cents each. This is an incredibly valuable perk. Yes, the card does have an annual fee of $450. However, it does give you $300 travel credit in every year. If you use the Sapphire Reserve to make a travel purchase, you will be refunded until you use up your $300. Keep in mind that travel is a broad category. Uber, Lyft, hotels, train and plane tickets, parking - all of it counts. So mathematically, the card’s annual fee is really only $150.

Taking the train qualifies for your $300 annual credit (Frankfurt, 2011  ©  JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Taking the train qualifies for your $300 annual credit (Frankfurt, 2011 © JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Yes, $150 is still a fair amount of money. But let’s go back to the Chase Freedom for a second. To recap, if I only had the Freedom, my quarterly cash back would be worth $75. However, with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, my quarterly cash back is actually worth $112.50. This is a difference of $37.50. Multiply that by four, and you get $150! You can see that by having the Sapphire Reserve, I gain $150 in value for the Ultimate Rewards points I earned with the Freedom card. In my mind, this cancels out the annual fee.

Of course, the Sapphire Reserve also has value on its own. I earn 3x points on travel and dining purchases anywhere in the world. So if I spend $10 at a restaurant, I earn 30 points. Since I value my Ultimate Reward points at 1.7 cents each, these 30 points are worth $0.51. In simpler terms, I get 5.1% back on all my travel and dining spend.

Amex Gold

Last year, American Express revamped their Gold card and really changed my spending habits. The card earns 4x points at grocery stores and restaurants, so I now use this card as my primary grocery store card. This allows me to get 8% back on my Trader Joe’s purchases. The only time I would not use this card for groceries is when there is a 5% bonus with the Chase Freedom, because then I would get a total of 10% back. The math calculations can be found in the Trader Joe’s post.

I used to put all my restaurant spend on the Chase Sapphire, but now it all goes on the Amex Gold since it gives me 4x points instead of 3x points. One important distinction though is that the Amex Gold earns 4x points only in restaurants within the United States. If I travel anywhere internationally, I still use my Chase Sapphire Reserve Card for eating out.

4x Points at a recent visit to Drifter’s Wife (Portland, Maine, 2018  ©  JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

4x Points at a recent visit to Drifter’s Wife (Portland, Maine, 2018 © JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Business Cards

I have some business credit cards that I use for my photography business. You may think that you do not have a business that would qualify you for a business card, but you may be surprised. Do you sell stuff on eBay or Etsy? That counts as a business. What about wedding cakes? Yup, a business. Are you an independent musician or artist that gets hired hourly? You can get a business credit card too. If you are interested in finding out more about business cards, send me an email!

Chase Ink Cash

This no annual fee business card gives me 5% back a year on internet, cable, and phone services each year. It also gives me 5% back on all purchases at office supply stores, up to $25,000 a year. Honestly, my photography business is on the back-burner right now so I am not spending even a tenth of that maximum a year. But guess what office supply stores sell? Gift cards!

Yes, I buy a lot of gift cards every year. It sounds crazy, but why not earn money for buying things I would buy anyway? I recently bought some Airbnb gift cards for my upcoming round-the-world trip (stay tuned for information on that amazing redemption). If I paid for the Airbnb with my Chase Sapphire card, I still could have earned 3x points. But by going to the office store and buying a gift card, I earned 5x points instead, which is clearly better!

Wedding favors? Bought them on amazon

Wedding favors? Bought them on amazon

Amex Blue Business Plus

This is another no annual fee business card that I have. This is an extremely valuable card as it gives me 2x points on all purchases. I reserve this card for all spending categories that do not have extra points on other cards, which is a lot of purchases . For example, my wife and I recently had to pay for new brake pads on her car. That was a hefty payment, and unfortunately no card that I know of has the auto shop as a bonus points category. So we used this card to pay for the brakes, and earned 2x points. Since each American Express point is worth 1.7 cents to me, that effectively gave us 3.4% back on that purchase. Certainly better than 1% back!

Definitely need brakes for the snow….

Definitely need brakes for the snow….

In Summary

Putting it all together, here is how I currently maximize my spending with my credit cards.

Amazon Purchases - Chase Ink to purchase Amazon gift cards and get 5x points, or at least 7.5% cash back
Phone and Internet Bills - Chase Ink for 5x points, or at least 7.5% cash back
Rotating Categories - Chase Freedom for 5x points, or at least 7.5% cash back
Grocery Stores and Eating Out - Amex Gold for 4x points, or at least 6.8% cash back
International Dining, Travel Purchases - Chase Sapphire for 3x points, or at least 4.5% cash back
Non-bonus categories - Amex Blue for 2x points, or at least 3.4% cash back

There you have it! Yes, I do admit my strategy is rather complex. But I have been doing this for years and years. Not everyone needs to have such a difficult framework, but hopefully this helps you understand how much you can strategize your spending habits. Just remember to create a budget and always pay off all your cards!

Fly to my favorite place in the world, San sebastian, for free! (San Sebastian, Spain, 2017  ©  JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Fly to my favorite place in the world, San sebastian, for free! (San Sebastian, Spain, 2017 © JOEL ANG PHOTOGRAPHY)

Free Consulting

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As a special bonus, I will schedule a personalized session for the first 15 subscribers to help maximize your credit card and cash back strategy. You will not want to miss out!