Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Saving Money with Amex Offers

Most Novembers, my father is planning for the American Express promotion known as Small Business Saturday (where we can get free/discounted items bought from small merchants). Here's a recap on the past few years:

- 2014 - 3 x $10 per card
- 2013 - $10 per card
- 2012 - $25 per card

In years past, we were able to save or donate hundreds of dollars each Saturday after Thanksgiving.

This year, however, the promotion is severely limited.

But when God closes a door, He opens a window. As such, the powers-that-be at American Express have increased promotions under their Amex Offers program which are very compelling for people willing to pre-pay for services/goods they will need later on.

After clicking on our AmericanExpress.com accounts and scrolling down to the Amex Offers section, we found some great deals, including $15 off $60 at Amazon (saving 25%) and $10 of $20 at Uber (saving 50%).

My parents were lucky enough to receive the Amex Offer on all 21 of the cards they manage. However, we didn't have anything specific we needed to purchase. Nor did we have any $20 Uber rides in our immediate future.

But we were pretty confident that over the course of the next few months, we'd buy something from Amazon and take Uber rides, so we purchased some gift cards to lock in the savings now.

Of course, the major risk is that we would not buy anything from Amazon or take an Uber in the future, essentially throwing away $60 to save $15 (or $20 to save $10), but we didn't think those downside scenarios were likely. Plus, by having "store credit," we could use it for purchases or rides that were below the respective $60 and $20 spending thresholds.

Per usual, as soon as the purchase is made, American Express sends a confirmation email so you know they're tracking the transaction.

However, it seems that Uber is no longer offering Gift Cards/Certificates, so more to come if this plan is viable or not. They may have disabled this feature so that it actually encourages Uber ride activity instead of people like my father hording Uber credits.

Well, now I'm going to go audit all our past Uber routes to make sure the drivers didn't take the long way to overcharge us.

Monday, November 16, 2015

New Cards - Citi Thank You Prestige and Chase Ink Plus

This month, we decided to open up a few more credit cards as our rewards balances started running low.

Citi Thank You Prestige
First, my father signed up for the Citi Thank You Prestige Mastercard. The regular offer is as follows:

A. 50,000 Thank You points after spending $3,000 in 3 months.
B. $450 annual fee (not waived)

However, instead of applying online, my father went to a physical Citi branch office and applied with a real life banker. Why? Because the sign up offer he was given was as follows:

A. 30,000 Thank You points after spending $3,000 in 3 months.
B. Additional 30,000 Thank You points after spending a total of $15,000 in 12 months (so $12k more after spending the first $3k)
C. $350 annual fee (forever)

But even $350 just to have the card in our wallet is a lot of money. There's been tons of other websites that sell explain the benefits, but here's why my father signed up.
  • $250 each calendar year of Airline Reimbursement. So for 2015 and 2016, we can get back $500 of total airfare spend (which in my family, is as good as cash) before our first card member year comes.
  • $100 Global Entry Application reimbursement. My parents and I already have Global Entry, but my grandmother does not. Since Citi doesn't really know or care WHO specifically applied for Global Entry, we can use our Prestige card to pay for my grandmother's application fee. 
  • 4th Night Free Hotel Benefit. We haven't yet used this feature, but given how much we travel, it's a safe bet that we'll have an opportunity over the next 12 months. But even if all of 2016 comes and goes without us using this perk, we'll still have done better than the $350 fee.
  • Free American Airlines Club Lounge Access. We don't often fly American Airlines, but if we ever did, I'm sure we'd prefer stopping at the lounge before our flight.
Chase Ink Plus
The second card we opened was the Chase Ink Plus card which comes with $95 annual fee, but also with a 60,000 Ultimate Rewards point bonus (after spending $5,000 in 3 months).

This card, however, is for small businesses. Luckily for us, my father had an eligible small business that needed a new business card. 

While this offer did not waive the $95 annual fee the first year, it did come with an extra 10,000 bonus points more than the standard 50k offer, which we value at $200 (2 cents/pt). 

So it was a good trade off, especially since we just redeemed 150,000 Chase UR points for 2 rooms at the Andaz Papagayo for 5 nights each at our upcoming Costa Rica vacation. That redemption gave us a value of 2.4 cents/point.

So now, we have to spend approximately $8,000 in November, December and January and another $12,000 through October 2016. Of course, the entire point of this game is to NOT spend more than we would otherwise in our regular lives, so it will be a matter of shifting our everyday spend onto these cards (groceries, gas, bills, restaurants, etc).

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Poconos Weekend Getaway

My father's side of the family had a summer home in the Poconos (a mountain region of Eastern Pennsylvania 75 miles from New York along I-80).

They used to frequent the home a lot during the 1980's and 1990's. Given the region was more rural than their suburban NJ hometown, they enjoyed the rustic nature of existence - swimming in a lake, walking through the woods, horseback riding.

So with my maternal grandmother visiting, we all decided to take a weekend trip to the Poconos all together to share a bit of nostalgia with my mother's side of the family.

My aunt went on VRBO.com (Vacation Rental By Owner) and found us a great 3 bedroom home to rent for the weekend. While my parents normally frequent hotels, a house with a full kitchen and multiple bathrooms was a much better choice for 5 adults (including 4 women) and an adorable toddler. Especially when the outside mountain weather peaked at 35 degrees during the day!

The house was owned by a very thoughtful couple who took care of all your needs, fully stocking the renovated kitchen with all the dishes, cooking utensils and even basics like salt, pepper and sugar.

In fact, they even had a full shed of firewood for use in their beautiful backyard patio by the lake.

Our family had a great time together. It was a good weekend to remember how precious your loved ones are and to hold them a little tighter.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Friday the 13th

On a day when so many people are suffering all across the world, my father asked me to keep my 4 year old mind focused on happier times.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Unauthorized ATM Withdrawal

"It wasn't me, Dad."

Now, my parents and I do travel quite a lot, so I can see how this transaction might look "normal." But we haven't been to South Florida in years, so this $500 withdrawal from our Charles Schwab checking account at a Miami ATM was a complete surprise to us.

Fortunately, my father watches our personal finances like a hawk using our favorite app from Mint.com. So when he scanned our transactions this morning, the random withdrawal was spotted immediately.

He then went online to Charles Schwab and logged into our account, confirming Mint.com was accurate. Despite keeping only $492 in the account, someone withdrew $500, forcing an overdraft.

Being a customer of a very reputable bank, our call to the Charles Schwab customer service was met with genuine concern and immediate action. They quickly cancelled all our linked ATM cards (the two we knew about we still had in our possession) and changed them so further withdrawals could not be made.

Apart from the transaction happening in Miami, Florida, the transaction didn't make sense for many reasons. My parents would never (A) withdraw more than the balance and (B) use the Schwab account when Miami has Chase Bank ATMs readily available. We only use Schwab ATMs when we're traveling internationally to avoid ATM fees.

And about 10 minutes after hanging up with the Charles Schwab representative, my father received an automated call from them trying to confirm if two additional denied transactions were authorized (more ATM withdrawal attempts of $500 and $300, respectively). Thankfully, those were denied so the loss was limited just to the initial $500, instead of $1,300.

I suppose that's one of the dangers of having so many accounts open. There's that many more of them to stay on top of.

Thank you Mint.com and Charles Schwab!

Friday, November 6, 2015

High Spend Targets

As you know, we accumulate a lot of our frequent flyer miles, hotel points and bank reward points through credit cards.

Most of the benefit, however, comes from initially signing up and reaching the minimum spend (which ranges from $1,000-5,000 within 3 months most of the time).

Some also offer perks just for having the card (priority hotel elite status, priority boarding on airlines).

Then there's the spending bonuses for using your card at certain merchant types (2-5x at groceries, office supply stores, hotels).

The fourth type of benefit is for reaching high levels of spend in a given year. These targets have rewards that are very attractive to people like my father who enjoy gaming the system. There are several cards that have these high spend targets, but we'll only discuss the ones my parents have actively. You can research the rest on your own.

Chase Select Visa - $25,000
For example, for spending $25,000 a year on our Chase United Select Visa allows United MileagePlus members to avoid the Premier Qualifying Dollar (PQD) threshold for earning elite status. Normally to hit United Silver, you'd have to fly 25,000 miles AND spend at least $3,000 in base fares.

Given we take advantage of super cheap fares (such as the $815 fare to NYC from Tel Aviv or the $266 flights to Costa Rica), we hardly ever reached the PQD minimums for United Silver or Gold status.

Citi Hilton Reserve Visa - $10,000
Another example is the $10,000 spend on the Citi Hilton Reserve Visa. For doing so, we get a free Hilton Weekend Night Certificate good for just about ANY Hilton property in the world.

Last year, we used it for my grandmother's stay at the Conrad Hong Kong). Normally, the Conrad Hong Kong would cost 80,000 Hilton HHonors points, so this certificate was a great value for my family. And since we hit $10,000 this year as well, we'll get another free weekend night certificate to use in 2016.

And if we ever hit $40,000 in a year, we'd get upgraded to top tier Hilton Diamond status. That sounds pretty amazing, but we question if the incremental benefits of being Diamond (vs. a mid-tier Gold which already gets you free breakfasts) is worth it. After all, that's an extra $30k of spend we'd have to forego on our other cards.

Starwood SPG American Express - $30,000
Our Starwood SPG American Express also offers mid-tier SPG Gold status if you spend $30,000 in a year. For late checkout and a modest room upgrade to a better view, it's a nice mid-tier status to have.

But since my father has Platinum status, we don't go out of our way to hit this SPG Amex high spend goal -- though admittedly, some years we hit it without actively trying to do so.

Citi Thank You Prestige Mastercard - $15,000
This card doesn't really fall into the same category as the others. Rather than being a recurring high spend benefit, the Citi Thank You Prestige card offer we received when we signed up was as follows: 30,000 Thank You points after spending $3,000 in 3 months PLUS another 30,000 TY points for spending $15,000 in the first 12 months.

The "regular" offer is 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 with a $450 annual fee, but my father wanted the special $350 annual fee offer which happened to be the 60k points for $15k spend in the first year offer.

Having been fortunate enough to hit both the United Visa and Hilton Reserve Visa targets earlier this 2015 year, now we can focus our extra spend on the $15,000 target for the Citi Thank You Prestige Mastercard over the next 11 months, having already hit the $3,000 first target in Month 1.

But as soon as January 1, 2016 comes around, we're back to the races with the United and Hilton Reserve Visa cards. Thank goodness for being able to use our 5 Nationwide Buxx cards to load/unload $5,000 each month.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Halloween Weekend in Chicago

Since we live in the urban jungle of New York City, I never get to enjoy the "traditional" Halloween trick-or-treating that many other American kids do.

So now that I'm old enough to understand and appreciate Halloween, my parents decided to visit our friends Jack & Connor in the Chicago suburbs where we could trick-or-treat in their residential neighborhood.

Of course, we flew out on an early Friday afternoon fight United Airlines from LaGuardia after stopping by the American Express Centurion Lounge for a complimentary lunch (juicy fried chicken and buttery mashed potatoes).

The flight board took off on time and arrived a bit early. Aside from the gate lice at the LGA boarding gate, we had no complaints on our flight. I took my nap during the flight

After landing at Chicago O'Hare, we took the complimentary hotel shuttle to the Holiday Inn Express. Normally, we'd opt for a Starwood property, but IHG was running an Accelerate Promotion where we'd earn 43,200 IHG points.

That Friday evening, my parents and I went over to our friends house where we kids made our own personal pizzas. It's not exactly Chicago Deep Dish, but hey, we're only children!

Then after our pizza dinner, my parents and friends surprised me with an early birthday party. They even got me my favorite My Little Pony on the birthday cake.

The next day was Halloween. Unfortunately, there was a huge thunderstorm for most of the day, putting our trick-or-treating at risk. But thankfully, by 6PM, the rain passed, and it ended up being a cool autunm night - perfect for house hopping.

I was supposed to be dressed up as a princess, but it was too cold for me. My mother insisted I wear sweatpants, a jacket, gloves and a hat. So my outfit wasn't really screaming royalty. But I was just happy we were able to trick-or-treat!