With a new academic year nearly upon us, Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen discusses strategies for back to school shopping to help you save money and maximize points & miles earning for your expenses.
It’s hard to believe, but back-to-school season has arrived again. For some, classes have already begun, while others have just a few days or weeks of summer vacation remaining. I always encourage people to take advantage of opportunities to earn additional points & miles, and back-to-school sales offer great ways to do that while saving money, even if you’re not in school yourself. In this post I’ll take a look at how to maximize your rewards (and minimize your costs!) for the upcoming academic year.
Maximize Credit Card Bonus Categories
For starters, when it comes to purchasing school supplies, there’s a clear winner in the credit card arena: the Chase Ink cards (including the Ink Plus, Ink Bold, and even the less-discussed Ink Cash). All three of these cards offer 5x points at office supply stores, including Staples, Office Max, and Office Depot. These bonuses are automatic when you use your cards on eligible purchases at these locations. However, it’s important to remember that the Ink Plus and Ink Bold only offer this bonus for the first $50,000 spent annually, while the Ink Cash limits the bonus to the first $25,000 of eligible spend.
As a reminder, there’s currently a 70,000 point signup bonus offer for the Ink Plus when you spend $5,000 within the first 3 months of cardmembership. The $95 annual fee is not waived for this offer, and you must apply in a Chase branch.
If you’ve already surpassed the bonus spending thresholds on your Ink cards, you could consider the American Express Simply Cash, which also offers 5% back at office supply stores in the form of statement credits, or you may be better off using a card that offers everyday value like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express. You can also use your back to school shopping expenses as a good opportunity to meet minimum spend requirements on other cards.
In addition, it’s important to realize that these large stores don’t limit you to just office supplies. They also offer you the ability to purchase gift cards for a variety of other retailers (like Amazon, Target, and others), and you’ll still earn the same 5 points/$ spent. As a road warrior, I find myself visiting office supply stores in many cities when I travel, and I’ve found that the actual in-store selection varies significantly. The best bet is to check out your local store to see their inventory (see this link to get an idea for which cards you might find at Staples, or this link for OfficeMax). Just be sure to check the price before you buy, as gift cards online often include a shipping fee. If you plan to spend money at a retailer that doesn’t usually offer a bonus on regular spend, it can pay to purchase a gift card first to earn the 5x points per dollar spent.
These purchases aren’t limited to physical gift cards; Staples (for example) lets you purchase eGift cards that are e-mailed to the purchaser (or designated recipient) immediately after purchase. Many of these retailers are ones you may need to visit during back-to-school season, including clothing stores (like Belk, Sears, Gap, etc.) or technology vendors (like iTunes, Windows Store, and Skype). You can even stock up on gift cards for your children’s teachers as holiday/end of the year gifts. As a former teacher, I assure you that those little gestures are much appreciated.
Whatever gift cards you choose to purchase, this can be a simple and easy way to leverage the 5 points/$ bonus offered on the Chase Ink cards at office supply stores without having to actually visit a physical location. It also offers you the ability to go through an online shopping portal (see below for more details).
Another angle to play at these stores is to utilize their own loyalty programs that allow you to earn points for making purchases. While these programs aren’t as rewarding as they’re marketed to be, they can still be a worthwhile part of your maximizing strategy.
Use Online Shopping Portals
As mentioned previously, online shopping portals take points earning to the next level. Shopping portals basically work as middlemen, incentivizing customers to shop at specific retailers by offering a “kickback” of points, miles, or cold hard cash. There are numerous options out there, but to make your life easier, I suggest starting at EVReward.com. Think of EVReward as the Kayak of online shopping portals, as it aggregates searches from various portals to make it easier for you to choose the best option. Simply type in the store where you want to shop and browse through the different bonus rates. Then, be sure to click on the specific store to “activate” the tracking on your purchase.
Here’s a quick overview of SOME of the current offers:
Ebates: This site offers cash back for purchases made at a variety of retailers. It’s completely free, and you’ll receive a check (or PayPal deposit) every quarter. You can also donate your cash back to your favorite charity. Ebates is currently running a “Double cash back to school” promotion, with stores such as Old Navy (7%), Office Depot (4%), JC Penney (6%) and even the Apple Store (3%) offering significantly higher cash back rates than usual.
Mr. Rebates: Another cash back site, Mr. Rebates is also running a back to school promotion this summer, offering not just extra cash back, but also a chance to win an iPad Mini every day until August 24th. Interesting bonuses include New Balance (10%), Nautica (10%), and Dockers (10%).
Both of these sites appear on EVReward.com, and while the cash back rates are normally similar, there will be times where one is better than the other. For example, Old Navy is usually 2% cash back at Ebates but 3% cash back at Mr. Rebates. However, their back-to-school promotions jump these rates to 7% and 6%, respectively, making Ebates the preferred site for now, but Mr. Rebates the best option once the bonus wraps up.
Ultimate Rewards: This shopping portal allows you to accrue additional Ultimate Rewards points for purchases made online. To see which retailers are currently offering bonus points, log into your Chase account, go into Ultimate Rewards, and click on “Shop and Earn Extra Points” on the right-hand side. Some top current offers include Staples (4 extra points/$), Dell (5 extra points/$), and JC Penney (10 extra points/$). Point earnings in all of these cases are in addition to the regular 1 point/$ spent earned on everyday purchases.
Delta: The Delta SkyMiles shopping portal allows you to accrue Delta miles for online purchases, and is also having a back to school promotion, albeit without nearly as many retailers as others. Intriguing earning levels include Nordstrom (6 miles/$), Macy’s (4 miles/$), and Office Depot (2 miles/$).
American: Like Delta, American’s portal allows you to earn additional AAdvantage miles for your online shopping. Current offers include Target.com (4 miles/$), OfficeMax (6 miles/$), and Sears (6 miles/$).
United: The MileagePlus online shopping portal not only enables you to earn additional United miles on your purchases, but also is currently offering a sign-up bonus of up to 2,000 miles for new members (essentially 500 miles for every $125 spent). Unfortunately, their earning rates appear to be lower than both Delta and American.
Hilton: The Hilton HHonors program allows you to earn HHonors points for your online shopping activity. Like United, their back-to-school promotion doesn’t cover many other retailers. The only “special” earning opportunity I see is at Levi’s (12 points/$).
Marriott: Like Hilton, Marriott Rewards members can supplement their account by purchasing through Marriott’s“Shop My Way” online platform. Current offers that jump out include Old Navy (4 points/$), Macy’s (5 points/$), and Ralph Lauren (5 points/$).
Remember, though, that this list is not comprehensive, nor is it an attempt to suggest that one shopping portal is superior to another. Everyone has a different valuation of the various points & mileage currencies out there, so it’s important to do your own research. My recommendation is to start with EVReward.com to figure out which type of bonus (cash-back, transfer, points, miles, etc.) works best for you.
One retailer that I didn’t mention yet bears special consideration: Kohl’s. You may have already seen Kohl’s jump up on the aforementioned links (like Staples eGift cards, Ebates, etc.). However, in addition to showing up in these programs, Kohl’s also happens to be one of the 5% bonus categories on the Chase Freedom card this quarter. From now through September 30th, cardholders can earn 5% cash back on their purchases at Kohl’s (up to $1500). Remember, though, that if you have the Chase Freedom in conjunction with another Chase card that accrues Ultimate Rewards, this 5% cash back can actually be converted to those more valuable points.
Even better, you can still get an even greater discount by using a shopping portal as well. Both Ebates and Mr. Rebates currently offer 6% cash back, while most of the airline & hotel portals are less lucrative.
(Note that at the time of writing, EVReward claims that Ultimate Rewards members can earn 10 points/$ at Kohl’s, but I haven’t found that to be the case. Don’t rely solely on EVReward for cash back information; be sure to verify the earning once you click through to the actual retailer.)
Track Down Coupons
These strategies will all help you earn the most points for all of your back-to-school purchases. However, many will also help keep your out-of-pocket expenditures quite low as well. EVReward.com, for example, also lists current coupon codes that can lower your purchase prices online. Here’s what the site currently lists for Kohl’s:
I also use the tried and true method of a Google search for something like “_________ coupon code” (where _________ is the name of the retailer). One of my favorite sites for this is www.retailmenot.com. Some codes are expired or invalid, but it never hurts to try! If you’re successful, these codes will (ideally) drop your final prices at check-out, and for many retailers, adding the coupons won’t impact your ability to earn points or miles through the previously selected online shopping portal.
Take Advantage of Tax Holidays
One final money-saving tip is to take advantage of statewide tax holidays. This site does a great job at compiling a list of these breaks. Many states will waive their sales taxes during a limited period of time to encourage consumers to use their disposable income, and these tax holidays often coincide with the start of the school year. Unfortunately, some have already taken place (in Alabama, Texas, and my home state of Florida). However, for Connecticut residents, your holiday runs from August 17th through 23rd, offering you a tax exemption for clothing and footwear below $300. Maryland’s holiday wraps up on Saturday August 16th and applies to clothing and footwear under $100.
Leveraging all of these offers with the point & mileage earning potential of the cards and portals above will help you make the most of your summer shopping. Back-to-school shopping can be a challenge, both to your routine and your finances. Hopefully these strategies will help minimize the pain by cutting down how much you spend out of pocket while simultaneously maximizing your earning potential across numerous loyalty programs.
What are your strategies for maximizing back-to-school shopping? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!
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