How to Choose the Smartest Credit Cards to Use for Your Spending Habits

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Do you spend a lot of money? If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Westerner, and you’re probably a big spender (at least compared to your ancestors—and the rest of the world).

Have you ever had the nagging thought that maybe you could be earning more points, more rewards, even cash back on your credit card? I know I did. So, I did some research. And I learned that I had left a boatload of rewards on the table. For years. Decades.

I fixed it, and I am writing this to help you avoid my previous fate—and to help you get what you deserve when you spend your hard-earned money.

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Did You Know You Could Use Your Purchases to Travel the World Super-Cheap?

This is not a scam or some bait and switch. There’s intense competition for your credit card purchase dollars, and you are the target. And the beneficiary.

Recently, Cory Binsfield wrote that Dave Ramsey is Wrong: You Don’t Need to be Debt-Free to Hit Financial Freedom. I would add that Dave Ramsey is wrong about credit cards, too. Well, sort of.

Credit cards don’t have to be scary, evil devices that lead everyone into a quagmire of debt.

That said, if you have trouble controlling your spending, please don’t get a credit card. See “The 5 Dangers of Applying for Credit Cards.”

I don’t want to be the source of you stumbling. And a lot of people do stumble.

Collecting miles and points may not be for you if you don’t:

  • Pay your bills on time
  • Live within your means
  • Have a credit score of 700 or more
  • Pay attention to detail
  • Track your credit card balances

But that’s not you, right? You’re a responsible spender, and you’re brimming with self-control, right? If so, read on.

Who remembers life before the Internet? How did we get access to information? How did we find our way around town? How did we learn the truth about semi-boneless ham?

Related: 7 Novel Ways to Use Credit Cards for Real Estate Investing

Like with everything else you ever needed answers for, there are lots of websites and forums about where and how to squeeze the most points, miles, and rewards out of your credit card purchases. This article is only a brief introduction to some of these websites. Check these out:

There are many others, but these should get you pointed in the right direction.

Anyone with a business—and most real estate investors in particular—tend to have a lot of expenses. Many of these expenses can be charged on credit cards that produce valuable rewards. We might as well make our spending work for us.

I made this mistake for years and lost an untold amount of rewards. I’ve been using Google AdWords since its inception well over a decade ago. I advertise residential real estate at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. I pay the Big G anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 per month.

Until this past year, I put all of these expenses on a debit card that obviously drew the funds straight out of my bank account. I never got into debt. But I never got any points, either.


Then my chiropractor told me how he racked up hundreds of thousands of miles on his card because he plunks down the vast majority of his expenses there.

That made me jealous. I had to learn more. That sent me down this road, and I now put all my Google, Bing, and Facebook ads (and much more) on my American Express Business Gold Rewards Card.

There are at least three ways to earn rewards with credit cards:

  1. Points for travel
  2. Points to buy other merchandise
  3. Cash back from your purchases

Generally speaking, cash back and using points for merchandise are the least lucrative ways to make credit cards work for you.

Two Avenues to Your Rewards

You can earn credit card points through two avenues: everyday spending or bonus offers. Bonus offers are the fastest and most lucrative way to earn points.

Like I mentioned, I spend thousands per month on online advertising with Google, Bing, and Facebook. I chose online ads as a “bonus category,” so I earn 3x points per dollar of advertising with my American Express Business Gold Rewards card.

My project manager, Ben Kahle, has a card called the Chase Sapphire Reserve. It is known as one of the very best travel credit cards on the market. This card offered a bonus of 100,000 points by the holder spending $4,000 in the first three months. Those 100,000 points are worth $1,500 toward flights, hotels, or car rentals! In addition, the Reserve offers 3x points on all dining and travel purchases, which is great for continuing to earn points after the bonus.

His annual fee is $450, but it gives him a $300 per year travel credit. This means that any travel-related purchases like flights, hotels, rental cars, tolls, parking, or taxis get instantly reimbursed up to $300 annually. So the net annual fee is $150, which isn’t bad considering the array of other benefits included.

Related: How to Be Smart About Credit Card Debt When You Have Student Loans

Ben has another card called the Chase Freedom, which offers 5x points on rotating categories. For the second quarter of 2017, the category is grocery stores and pharmacies. It has a zero annual fee.


Analyze Your Lifestyle

The process to select your card starts by analyzing your lifestyle and spending habits.

  • Do you enjoy traveling? If so, focus on credit cards that offer travel benefits. Some cards offer free checked bags, priority boarding, airport lounge access, free hotel breakfasts (even continental!), and rental car status.
  • What categories do you perpetually spend the most money on?
  • Does your business incur regular expenses? Where do you spend most and can you turn this into points and rewards?
  • What are your goals with credit card spending and rewards? Begin with the end in mind.
  • Find the credit cards that have purchase bonuses in your category of spending and begin making your purchases work for you!


If you’re not putting a large portion of your regular purchases on a high-rewards card, you may be leaving thousands of dollars on the table each year. This post is meant as a teaser to motivate you to learn more about credit cards, miles, and points.

There is no way to quickly cover all of the issues and information you need to make a good decision. There are literally dozens of blogs and websites devoted entirely to this subject. Some people make a living reviewing cards and writing about it!

So now I’m calling on BiggerPockets readers to share your stories and tips about using credit cards to earn rewards and travel.

We want to hear from you!

About Author

Paul Moore

Paul is author of The Perfect Investment - Create Enduring Wealth from the Historic Shift to Multifamily Housing, which you should probably get if you want to learn to invest in multifamily. He is a Managing Partner at Wellings Capital, a multifamily and self-storage investment firm, and hosts the How to Lose Money podcast. Paul was 2-time Finalist for MI Entrepreneur of the Year, has flipped 60 homes and 30 waterfront lots, developed a subdivision, and appeared on HGTV. Paul's firm invests heavily to fight human trafficking and rescue its victims.


  1. Andrew Leedom

    For those looking for cash back rewards, Bank of America has a good cash rewards with up to 3% cash back for specific categories and 1% across the board with an offer for $150 for spending $500 in the first 90 days.

    Wells Fargo also has a decent cash wise cash back rewards card that gives 1.5% cash back across the board with an additional offer of $200 for spending $1000 on the forest 90 days. This also includes up to $600 worth of insurance coverage for theft or damage to cell phones if your cell phone bill is paid with it.

    For more info check out the following link:

  2. Josh Day

    This is from a note I have saved on my phone. its long, but I think it could help someone who is interested. I just started looking into the idea of “travel hacking” and am excited to try that soon.

    * American Express Blue cash preferred card
    – Does not work at wholesale clubs like Costco
    – 6% on groceries up to $6,000 so $500 a month at Kroger
    – 3% gas and merchandise
    – 1% all other purchases
    – Get cashback as reward dollars for statement credits
    – Apply by Wednesday get 10% on amazon purchases for 6 months
    – $150 bonus reward when spend $1,000 in first 3 months
    – $95 annual fee = must spend $1,583 in groceries to break even for year
    – Max out groceries = $360 per year
    * Visa bankamericard cash rewards
    – Works at wholesale clubs
    – $2,500 limit per quarter (3 months) or $833 per month for rewards
    – 2% on groceries including Costco
    – 3% gas
    – 1% everything else
    – 10% extra when rewards redeemed into bank America account
    – $100 bonus reward when spend $500 in first 90 days
    * Citi Costco Card
    – 4% gas up to $7,000
    – 3% restaurant and eligible travel
    – 2% Costco
    – 1% everything else
    – Rewards annually and can only be redeemed at Costco
    * Citi Double Cash Card
    – Unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases and unlimited 1% cash back on all monthly payments, for total cash back rate of 2%.
    – No annual fee
    – Citi Price Rewind refunds up to $300 for each individual purchase, and up to $1,200 per year, if Citi finds a lower price on an item you purchased within 60 days of purchase
    – Use on any purchases not mentioned above
    * Chase freedom unlimited
    – You get a $150 cash bonus when you spend at least $500 within 3 months
    – Additional $25 bonus when you make your first purchase and add an authorized user to your account
    – 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate
    – Jan-mar gas
    – Apr-jun groceries
    – July-sep restaurants
    – Oct-dec holiday shopping
    – Unlimited 1% cash back on everything else
    – No annual fee

    * We would use blue cash preferred for
    – Groceries besides Costco until/if we spend $6,000
    – Department stores
    1. Bealls, Belk, Bloomingdale’s, Bon Ton Stores, Boscov’s, Century 21 Department Stores, Dillard’s, J.C. Penney (JCP), Kohl’s, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sears, and Stein Mart.
    – If don’t have Citi Costco use for gas if not Jan-Mar
    – Amazon for 6 months
    * We would use citi Costco card for
    – Gas if not Jan-Mar
    – Restaurants and travel
    – Costco
    * We would use bankamericard for
    – If don’t have Citi Costco use for Costco including gas if not Jan-Mar
    * We would use chase card for
    – Jan-mar gas
    – Apr-jun groceries
    – July-sep restaurants
    – Oct-dec holiday shopping
    * We would use citi card for
    – Use on any purchases not mentioned above

    • Cindy Larsen

      Great minds think alike: I have exactly the same set of cards in my wallet, and use them the same ways. thanks for saving me the trouble of pointingnthese great deals out to everyone.
      however, I would like to point out that all of these cards should only be used if you pay off your entire balance each month: they should basically be used as a cash substitute, not as credit. They all have horrible interest rates which will quickly outweigh any cashback benefits if you allow a balance to accumulate without paying it off within a month. THe credit card companies make their money off of high interest rates charged to customers. THey are not giving out these creat cash back (or miles) rewards just to be nice. THey are counting on most people using the card as credit, and paying them. And, sadly, most people do exactly that. credit cards are just like fire: they can keep you warm, or burn down the house. being careful to pay the cards off every single month, and not spend money you don’t have is the key. I run almost all of my spending through my credit cards, and get a lot of extra income, which is NOT taxed, as cash back. EVeryone should do this, but carefully to avoid getting burned. Don’t spend anything with a credit card that you wouldn’t spend with your debit card. Pay the card off every month with autopayment in full. Reap the rewards.

      • Paul Moore

        Cindy, thanks for your comment. A lot of good wisdom in there. It is true that if you carry a balance on any credit card, any benefits are immediately negated. Credit card companies definitely make a lot of money off interest, but they also make money every time a consumer swipes their credit card. Businesses pay the credit card company a fee of around 3% for every credit card transaction. Thanks again!

    • Paul Moore

      Josh, thanks so much for that detail. Travel hacking can be extremely lucrative. It seems like you have good attention to detail, so I’m sure you will be successful. Best of luck as you travel the world for free!

      • Katie Rogers

        Because if they were true rewards, they would come from the credit card companies’ profits rather than from the merchant who accepted your card. Because these programs are incentives for consumers to use their credit cards in lieu of cash or debit cards, they generate increased merchant fees for the credit card company. Merchants fight back by increasing the price of their goods and services.

        • Katie Rogers

          Then you won’t be blaming tenants when they take a similar personal profit approach in their relationship with you, right? I have found that an approach of mutual sincere gratitude is far more productive.

        • Jerome Kaidor

          Katie Rogers – I think my vendors are pretty happy with me. Because I pay fast. A lot of companies don’t. The day before yesterday a bill came in from my good AC repairman for some preventive maintenance & repairs. It was $5280.00. I databased the invoices and sent him a check for the entire amount with my bank’s billpay. Turnaround was less than a day.

          The people taking credit cards are mostly larger organizations – the garbage company – Amazon – Insurance companies… These have presumably built in the costs of taking CC into their rates. I don’t see Amazon complaining about their CC costs.

          So – since you don’t like paying the CC fees, why do you take credit cards? Could it be because the CC companies are giving you value for your money? Giving you access to customers you would not otherwise have access to? ( Note: you might want to investigate taking payment in Bitcoin – transaction costs are very low )

          I take good care of my tenants; when their AC dies, a professional AC repairman appears to make it good. When their toilet upchucks, a handyman or plumber appears to make it stop. If the upchuck ruins their carpet, they get a new carpet. One lady complained last week about bedbugs, and a bedbug professional appeared the VERY. NEXT. DAY. to eradicate them. ( BTW – he demanded credit card over the phone ).

          If their stove dies, an appliance repairman quickly appears to fix it – or replace it, if repair is not economically feasible. I recently had cause to review my transactions with the appliance guy – it was something like $70K over a period of 13 years.

          We lost several tenants in the housing crash of 2008. There was a glut of single family houses because house flippers got stuck with inventory. Some of my wayward tenants came back. Mostly, I think, because our apartments have actual functioning AC, whereas SFRs in the same price range tend to have swamp coolers.

          Now – let’s try a thought experiment: You have a deal with your credit card processor to pay them XX percent for each transaction. On my side, my CC provider pays me 1%. There are lots of different credit cards out there. Suppose I was using a card that paid me nothing. Do you think your processor would rebate you the 1%, because I didn’t get it? No? Didn’t think so.

  3. Scott McMillan

    @Paul just a correction, the Chase Sapphire Reserve was offering 100,000 chase points at its inception but is now only offering 50,000 making it a bit less lucrative. For those wanting to start accumulating Chase points I would recommend getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred card first which has many of the same benefits as the reserve but with only an annual fee of $95 per year and also has a 50,000 sign up bonus. If the Reserve card ever runs another 100,000 sign up bonus in the future the cardholder could then call Chase and downgrade the Preferred card to the no annual fee Freedom Unlimited card and then sign up for the Reserve at the higher bonus.

    • Paul Moore

      Scott, thanks for clarifying that. It sounds like you have been doing some homework on credit cards! Great info and great strategy. The Preferred doesn’t offer some of the travel perks such as lounge access, so everyone should check into the specific differences between the Reserve and the Preferred before making a final decision. After travel credit is applied, the annual fee for the Reserve is only $55 more than the Preferred.

  4. Letitia Harris

    An excellent article, thanks!

    Does anyone use the Venture card to accrue airline miles, and how difficult is it to use those miles?? I’ve always heard horror stories about it being virtually impossible to use airline miles. And buying miles?? That seems crazy!
    I’m seriously looking into a new card with excellent airline mile rewards, even if there’s an annual fee. If the savings are enough, it’s worth it for the perks.

    I use a BofA cashback, and am pleased with it. However, I don’t shop enough at the Bank Rewards merchants to make that worth my time. Example: I just looked at them today, and Starbucks is the only one I’d use. We rarely indulge there, to 10% off my 4.95 Vanilla frappuchino that I order maybe 4 times a year? Not worth the bother.

  5. Deanna Opgenort

    Regular Chase Sapphire (no fee), allows a 1-1 pts conversion to Southwest miles. Use those for business travel, since I can book multiple trip times & if I don’t use them the points just go right back into the points piggy bank, with no expiration date. Short trips seem to give the best value for points.

  6. Derrick W.

    Great read! I travel and fish the u.s. Using credit card points.

    Here is a neat trick. I pay my subs with credit cards. I have agreements with a few of them that i can pay 30 days after completion. Then I pay my card off in full 30 days later. That is a 60 day interest free loan. I don’t have to do this often but it’s a nice hack to know when shuffling money around.

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