There’s been a lot of buzz in the personal finance community lately about credit card churning: getting free trips by applying for credit cards in order to get insane points via sign-up bonuses. I love the idea, but I have a slightly different take on things.
I absolutely love travel. I’ve had wanderlust since I was a child. My parents moved around the country with their kids in tow. New experiences, cultures, and people make me feel alive. But that’s not why I signed up for my first credit card with travel rewards.
About a year ago, a family member of ours became severely ill. The whole family was going up to see them. Except our branch. None of us were in a situation at that exact moment where we could pump money into an airline ticket. It was devastating. It wasn’t a family reunion we were missing; it was a potential goodbye.
And then a miracle happened. One of my mother’s friends offered to donate her frequent flier miles to her. The ticket wouldn’t be free, but suddenly it was affordable. My mother was able to fly up and spend precious time that was slipping to the bottom of the hourglass. I literally cried night after night that we couldn’t be there, but there were also tears of immense gratitude and joy that my mother could, all because of one woman’s complete selflessness.
Another miracle happened. That family member held on. We were able to save up and fly my family, kids and all, up to see them. My mom even got to come again. But I knew that this could never happen again. The fact of the matter is, families are so spread out nowadays. Friends are so spread out nowadays. We’re just one emergency and empty savings account away from missing some of the most crucial moments in each other’s life. And that wasn’t okay with me.
So I signed up for a credit card. I had dodged them for years, my fear of debt paralyzing me. But I’m at a point in my life where I can trust myself. I’ve spent my entire adult life without debt (aside from the occasional car loan,) and I knew I would pay my balance in full every month.
I now have two of them, and over 100,000 points across the two programs. One of them I had to pay a totally worth it $85 annual fee to get the points, and the other I had to spend a minimum of $3,000 in three months (which we achieved by simply using the card only for our regular expenses, and immediately paying off.) But those points aren’t really there for me to haul off to Europe or the Caribbean any time I please. They’re there as a type of emergency fund. The next time someone’s sick, the next time someone’s getting married (I missed out on my best friend’s wedding because of airfare costs,) I won’t have to give it a second thought. Our family will hop on that plane and go. Because the people in my life are important. And knowing I can be there for the best and worst days of their lives wins out over even the strongest pangs of my wanderlust.
Unless, of course, something crazy happens with one of the programs and I have to spend the points before they get devalued and absorbed into another program. But that’s a whole other post.
If you’re interested in accruing points, too, there’s a few things you must consider first:
- Can you realistically meet the minimum spend requirement to get the sign-up bonus points, and can you do so while paying off your balance in full every month? If not, then don’t do it. The idea is to get the points for free, not to pay insane interest rates on them.
- Will you be spending more than you normally would just to meet the minimum spend requirement? If so don’t do it.
- Have you had trouble with spending responsibly in the past? If so, it’s probably not a good idea.
- Do you know which card is offering the best deal? Some websites have tools to compare card offers, like this one. You don’t want to end up with points in a program whose future is in question, like I did. (My other points are 100% safe, though.) You also want to make sure you know how much the points will be worth.
So spend responsibly. Pay off your debts immediately. Read the fine print. Save up rewards. And have an unconventional travel fund ready to go should the worst (or best) happen.