The “Extra” Benefits of Your Card

First, what can I say? It’s been forever since I posted something and I even have several post ideas. For the 1-2 people who may actually read this, I’m sorry. ;-) We’ve had our third baby and I’ve been busy (and lazy)!

On to the post! Did you know that in addition to the amazing rewards that made you apply for your card there are benefits that may come standard with your card? For example, I have a Chase Sapphire Preferred that I love for the miles. That card is a Signature Visa (as opposed to a Gold, Platinum or other type) and Visa actually provides several different benefits , such as trip protection insurance, baggage loss insurance, primary car insurance for rentals, and many other benefits that you can see if you look it up (here & here).

I actually had the opportunity to use one of these benefits earlier this year. I  used the price protection benefit. What is this, you ask? Well, let me tell you! :) Price protection allows you to get an amount back equal to the difference of what you paid compared to the price you found. Let me tell you about my experience.

Last spring, our dishwasher broke. Guess what I really hate? Doing dishes by hand! (Don’t judge!) Obviously, this was an “emergency” and had to be rectified immediately! I went out and found the “cheapest” dishwasher I could locally, which was still quite expensive. I used my Sapphire Preferred because I wanted to try this benefit. Once we had the dishwasher installed, I started searching online for the exact model we purchased. Lo and behold, Amazon had it for $102 cheaper. I printed out the webpage that had the price along with the exact model and called Sapphire Preferred customer service. I was put through to the card benefits specialist and they emailed me the form that I would fill out and send back to them along with my proof of purchase and the cheaper price. Viola! One week later, I received a $102 check in the mail!

Now, the Chase Sapphire Preferred has a $95 annual fee. I’ve previously written about how the benefits of your card can pay for the fee when travelling. This is yet another very real way that the card can pay for itself! Citibank even has a Price Rewind page where you can specifically look up what you purchased and compare prices. Certain American Express cards also have price protection.

AMEX also has AMEX Offers when you login that will give you statement credits off of purchases when you meet the requirements. For example, AMEX just had an offer that would give you $15 credit against a $60 purchase on Amazon! Perfect for the MANY birthday and Christmas presents we get to buy! :) I added that to 7 AMEX cards and have already used it on 3! And if you look on your Offers section, you will see a LOT of offers (usually). One of my cards has 82 different offers available!! Of course I can’t use most of them but it’s always worth looking at! The one AMEX card that I have an annual fee on offers wireless internet access for free (if you can find a network!).

Though I love the benefits provided by these “fancy” cards, I am limited in what I can afford. Using these “extra” benefits is another way to help me justify one or more of these cards to use for travel (and their many other benefits!). Let me know if you have any questions!

How have you used the “extra” benefits of your cards?

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Our FREE $1,700 Anniversary Trip to San Francisco :)

So my wife and I usually take an anniversary trip every year in June. This year, we decided to take it at the end of March because we’re having a baby in June. ;)  Somehow, travelling just didn’t sound like fun when your nine months pregnant-can’t imagine why… :P I know, I know, we’re posting in June! Needless to say, we’ve been somewhat busy the last few months.

Last year I surprised Sarah with a trip to Ft Bragg where she knew NONE of the details and it was amazing. This year, I decided to take advantage of all of the stuff I’ve learned about travel rewards from credit cards and stay at one of the Intercontinental hotels in San Francisco. Unfortunately, I couldn’t surprise Sarah with this one because “the city” is much more her thing than mine. So what did we do? Glad you asked! ;)

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Our once a year (FREE!) luxury ride! :)
We rented a car (that we used credit card rewards for a net of $0) and drove down to SF. Of course, we had to stop for coffee and lunch! This is a vacation, right? We safely got to the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel after about 5 hours or so (Thank you, Google Navigation!)–and circled the hotel 3 times trying to figure out how to get in! It was a really unique entry. The entry was a sidewalk corner–on a REALLY busy intersection! Once in, the valet very efficiently empties your car and takes it to parking ($54/night + 15% tax + tip). We checked into the hotel in a very nice lobby and got a room on the 14th floor with an amazing night view ($396/night + tax).

IMG_20150327_184051096_HDR[1]The Intercontinental Mark Hopkins has a lot of history and it was pretty neat to explore. I found the main areas to be decorated very nicely but thought the rooms were in need of a little renovation. That said, it was still very nice and the first “high class” hotel we’ve stayed at.IMG_20150327_175945447[1]

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Since it was our anniversary, I wanted to take Sarah to a romantic dinner (with good food for me!). I used Open Tables to reserve a table at Venticello, an Italian restaurant with really good food and amazing ambiance (according to my wife-SCORE!). We both had pasta with a red sauce and spicy sausage and it was sooo good! I had a flourless chocolate cake with sea salt on it that was amazing and Sarah had apple pie with homemade caramel ice cream.

The next day, we used Uber to get down to the Fisherman’s Wharf because we had a double bus city tour ($69 but I booked with miles!) that Sarah had researched to catch a fair amount of the city in a short time. We got to where our paperwork said to go and, of course, no tour that we could see. We had to do some walking but we did find it–right after Ghirardelli Square!

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Touring the city atop the double-decker bus!
The bus was actually a lot of fun. It was a double-decker and the top was open air. It just happened to be the most beautiful day I’ve ever seen in San Francisco. It was totally sunny and warm. The neat thing about this tour is that it has several stops across the city and a new bus comes every 20 minutes. The original plan had been to get off at several spots but our tour guide was so funny we decided to do the entire ride with her. Once we got back to the wharf, I hit In N Out for lunch (must go where ever I find them!) and Sarah had Chipotle. Then we went to a couple of stores to get our souvenirs and had dessert at Cold Stone. We took another Uber ride back to the hotel to rest a bit before dinner that night.

I decided to go on an adventure to find water because Sarah had ended up having to open a $6.95 bottle of Evian water because the tap water left something to be desired. I thought that was a little steep so I decided to go to the nearest grocery store to get some water. I looked up Safeway and they were “only 0.75 miles way.” Easy, right? I should have known when I realized that the walk to Safeway was all down that I was in trouble… Or when my bag ripped twice and everything fell on the ground. I eventually made it back with my $0.89 gallon of water though. :)

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The view outside our room.
For dinner, Sarah wanted Chinese. We looked up “the best Chinese in SF” and got a hit. We did another Uber ride out to the restaurant. By this time, it was about 8. We got out and saw a line–going back about a block! Though the restaurant promised on their website to get everyone in, our wait was going to be an hour and a half!! As Sarah was seven months pregnant and couldn’t stand for 1.5 hours, we decided to go to the Chinese restaurant across the street with NO wait. ;) We took another Uber ride back to our hotel and crashed after a very long, but very fun day.

The next day, we were off to home! Of course there was a little detour through Golden Gate park because of a marathon and a potential ran red light before we got out of SF but we made it back home safe and sound!

As I said, this trip totaled $1,691.98 and here is our list of expenses:

Trip Event Trip Value Our Cost
Car Rental $140.00 $0
Hotel $1,098.23 $0
Food $238.81 $0
Uber $29.70 $0
Gas $63.90 $0
Bus Tour $69.95 $0
Souvenirs $17.37 $0
Sunscreen, water, toothbrush $14.02 $0
Tips 20 $0
Totals $1,691.98 $0

Now, HOW did we manage to take this trip for free? Well, let me tell you! :)

I used three different credit cards: the Barclay’s Arrival Plus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, and the Chase IHG MasterCard. Each of these cards had a different function.

The Barclay’s Arrival Plus gives you 2 miles/dollar whenever you use it and is specifically used to reimburse travel expenses, such as a $140 car rental, 2x $54 car parking fee, and $200+ in “extra costs” at the hotel! Who knew that the breakfast buffet would be $40/person?? Luckily, you can bill it to your room so it’s a “travel expense!” :)

Breakfast for two-holy cow!!
Breakfast for two-holy cow!!

The Chase Sapphire Preferred gives you double miles for restaurants and travel expenses. These miles can be converted to several different hotels and airlines for free travel. You can also use the miles as a cash credit against your account and the rate is 1 mile = $0.01. This is actually the lowest value that you can get out of these points and it’s generally frowned upon by the more well known travel enthusiasts that are into this hobby but guess what? If you don’t make tons of money, you need to use whatever tools allow you to do something like this. In the long run, it’s what is most valuable to you and your family. I actually did take a cash credit to cash out the rest of the expenses that weren’t covered by travel, such as food, gas, and souvenirs. I also used the Chase Rewards travel site to book the bus tour because it gives you 25% off on whatever you book!

Last, but not least, we used the Chase IHG MasterCard to get our two free nights at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins. The card came with 80,000 bonus points that helped us to get the nights. I also used $140 on the Arrival Plus to get our other 20,000 points and that was reimbursed as a travel expense. The awesome thing about the IHG card is that you get a free night on the anniversary of every year of having the card. That free night is redeemable at any IHG hotel and there are a LOT of them!

Now, these cards do have an annual fee because of the rewards associated with them. I used to be totally against cards with a fee but I learned that you can redeem those rewards for so much more than the annual fee that they are worth it. The annual fees are as follows:

Barclay’s Arrival Plus: $89 but waived the first year.

Chase Sapphire Preferred: $95 but waived the first year.

Chase IHG MC: $49!! but waived the first year!

I have not paid for my second year yet but I’ve received so much value out of these cards that I’ve actually decided to keep most of them. Of course, that’s a decision that will be reviewed annually. :)

So in conclusion, we had an AMAZING trip–all because of credit card rewards!

Have you taken an amazing trip for free? I’d love to hear about it! If you have any questions, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Adventures in Credit

So before I start, apologies for how long it took to post. Life has been busy and my wife and I had an amazing (free!!) trip as well-but more on that later. :) Also, I’m told that the “pros” have lots of pictures to keep people interested and I don’t in this post. So don’t fall asleep–it’s important stuff!

I’ve worked in credit card processing for most of my life so perhaps I have a slightly different slant on the use of credit cards. I like to use them for the rewards I get but all too often it seems that we allow the banks to use us rather than the other way around.

I want to talk about many things related to credit cards and how I use them but thought I should start with a general overview. As most of us know, credit allows us to use a line of credit (loan) that a bank has established for us. All too often, people look at this as “free” money or “I think I’ll go to the mall” ie “SHOPPING SPREE!” Stop right there! If this is how you look at credit cards, then feel free to not use them. Believe me, this is for your own good! :)  Instead, wait for that eventual spouse to come along that will hopefully balance you in the area of finances if you are single or consider handing that portion of finances over to your spouse if they can handle it better than you.

The other side of this discussion is what I have to say I hear the most in our very far corner of California. And I quote, “I’m NEVER getting a credit card because they ALWAYS lead to debt!!! And believe me, the tone definitely indicates multiple exclamation points! ;)  The truth is, credit can be a tool if you are responsible with it.

My response to the (usually young) individual is this: “Oh, really? Do you ever plan on owning a house? If so, are you planning on buying it for cash?” Now, if you can save enough money to buy a house in cash, congratulations! Do it! However, most people that I know simply can’t afford to buy a house straight up like that.

Enter the mortgage! That’s right-30 years of debt slavery to a bank. That’s a long commitment of 360 payments to one financial institution. Probably one of the biggest financial commitments that you will ever make. Which is why the bank is going to thoroughly investigate your financial prowess. And how will they do that you may ask? I can tell you from personal experience: reams of paperwork: tax returns, pay stubs, etc. That paperwork will show what you can afford. You have amazing financials? Congratulations! You can afford a mortgage payment! Oh? You have no credit history? Mortgage denied!

Why would they deny your obvious potential? Because without credit they have no way of knowing that you WILL stick with them to the bitter end. Your credit history shows something very important to the bank. RESPONSIBILITY. That’s right. I did say the “R” word. The bank wants to know that you will keep a commitment (like a 30 year!! loan). No credit shows no financial responsibility.

So what do you do if you have no credit history? Get a credit card! :) Does this mean that you go on a shopping spree simply because you have a credit card? No! So how do you use credit wisely. Why, by buying only what you would already  buy! Do you still need groceries? Gas? Do you ever go out to eat? Buy what you would already normally buy. And then, and this is VERY IMPORTANT, pay the balance in full!! By doing this, you will build a credit history that will really help towards that eventual home purchase. And if you get rewarded for your purchases using your credit card, well do you have a problem with that? I sure don’t! More on that to come!

Are you a credit card user? Do you use it wisely? Have you considered the impact your credit has on purchasing a home?

Catching the Travel Bug

I have to admit, up until recently, I didn’t care too much about travelling. That changed in 2014 when I surprised my wife with a trip to Mendicino. It was our 4th anniversary and I had been planning the trip for over 10 months and not giving her any real details. She didn’t even know what direction we were going until we started driving! :) The theme of the trip was celebrating what we both love. For her, that would be forest and green. For me that would be ocean, sunsets, and blue. Our drive to Ft Bragg satisfied both of us with a beautiful drive through forest and then down the California coast line right next to the ocean on HWY 1.

Room at the North Cliff Hotel
Room at the North Cliff Hotel

We stayed at an amazing place called the North Cliff Hotel, which is set on a cliff above the ocean and had amazing sunsets. The real fun was watching my wife’s expression when I opened the door to the top story room. I wish I had thought to have my phone ready because her look was priceless! The room had vaulted ceilings, a balcony, and a jet pool tub! For some, this may not be much but we had never stayed at a nice place before. ;)

The sunset was amazing!
The sunset view from the balcony was amazing!

We went to the botanical gardens along the ocean (in keeping with our theme) and took a ride on the Skunk Train in the redwoods while we were there. All in all, it was an amazing getaway for us and our first time in 3 years to get away since having kids! NowIMG_20140620_151620817_HDR why did I tell you about this trip? Because it was what got me interested in using credit cards for free travel. Unfortunately, I got interested AFTER the trip rather than before, but hey, better late than never, right? ;) What do I mean by using credit cards for free travel? I’ll be talking about it in detail in future posts but briefly, there are credit cards that generate miles or points that can be used to either credit your travel expenses or used in loyalty programs such as airline miles or hotel points. These points get you free hotel stays and free flights! When you are on a budget, free travel can really expand your horizons! Of course, I will also discuss cash back cards and cards that help you pay down debt. I know, that doesn’t sound right but there actually is a card or two that will do that, if used correctly. Do you have an amazing trip that changed your opinion of travel? Have you ever surprised your spouse with a trip? I’d love to hear about it!

Latest in the Savings Adventure

Graphic credit: Hello Digit, Inc.

Maybe you’ve heard that you’re supposed to be saving a portion of your income into emergency savings, retirement, towards a new house, and that amazing trip to Ireland? ;)

Savings are an important thing! Before I had kids, it was a pretty easy thing to do. But then I had kids and found out that they take a lot of clothes. And their room has to be decorated. And they have a lot of furniture. And toys (don’t even get me started on noisy toys!!). And mountains of diapers! So yeah, a lot of expenses there. Thank goodness they’re so cute it’s totally worth it! :)

That being said, it’s hard to save when you are on a low income! We were saving money every month until September, 2014 when suddenly it seemed like we needed every penny for our expenses! This sad pattern continued until January, 2015.

Enter Hello Digit, Inc! So I was reading J$’s blog (Rockstar Finance) and came across a review of this company. I linked through and took a look. Here’s what Digit does. They have an algorithm that reviews your checking account and they transfer small amounts of money that are not supposed to have any impact to your day to day spending. And though they have a website you can log in and see your account, the day to day interaction is actually happening by text! Digit texts you your checking account balance everyday around 9 AM and has a list of commands that you can text for different responses. For example, you can text “Recent” to find out what your three most recent transactions were in your checking account. You can also text “Savings” to see what your Digit savings balance is.

I decided to give it a try. :) I signed up on 1/13/15 and my balance is over $700 now! YES!! My experience so far has been great! Most of the transfers are between $4-$19 dollars. I had a tax refund that inflated some transfers but I did not find the money they have withdrawn to cause cash flow problems except for two instances (see below for that).

I love that you can interact by text. You can withdraw $ by sending “Withdraw” with an amount. If you aren’t comfortable with money getting transferred, you can temporarily stop transactions by texting “Pause” with a number of days. They do have a guarantee that they’ll cover a NSF if their withdrawal causes one. Now that’s confidence! I have paused twice and it worked perfectly. And, when you pause the savings, Digit will text you the day before to remind you that transfers are going to resume the next day-AWESOME!! I also did one withdrawal and it showed up within two business days back in my checking account.

Another thing I really like about the company is that they’re very responsive by email, phone, & Twitter. I know because I’ve used all three! :) One suggestion I’ve made by phone is that they take minimum balances into consideration as well as some banks have a minimum balance you have to maintain. That is actually the reason I’ve paused twice!

Now ideally, this company would be used in conjunction with an active savings plan. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world! So far, I’ve been allowing Digit to do my savings for me and it has worked. I’m hoping to get to a place where I’ll be actively saving as well.

You should check them out! Here’s a link to Digit that will give you and me a $5 bonus if you decide to try it!

What do you think? Is automated savings out of your checking account scary or an awesome way to save? How do you save if you don’t feel like you can afford it? Let me know!

Hello world!

It  has been suggested to me that I should post online for my friends to see the things that I so often tell them about. The reason for this blog is for me to share our family’s adventure in not just surviving, but living and travelling (hopefully) on what is, for now, a low income.

At this time, we are a family of four with an addition coming in another four months. We (and the bank!) own our house. I was not a fan of home ownership but it has worked out well in that our monthly cost for a roof over our heads is quite low. I have my wife to thank for convincing me of that…

The other thing that we have recently come to enjoy is travel. Luckily, I learned about how you can use credit card rewards to minimize the costs of hotels, flights, etc., though the cost of food and any extras is definitely still there! ;)

I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned about budgeting, saving, investing, and travelling. Thanks for reading! It should be a fun adventure!

-David