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Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen offers suggestions for how to get the most out return from a new computer purchase, including how to find the best price, maximize rewards, and protect your investment.
This week, students and teachers across their country are begrudgingly setting their alarms, sharpening pencils, and preparing for a new school year. With more and more resources available online or in digital formats, computers are playing an increasingly important role in education, and tend to be among the biggest expenses on back to school shopping lists. To help you save money and get the most from your computer purchases, in this post I’ll discuss ways to maximize points earnings and protect yourself if (or when) things go wrong.
For starters, one of the easiest methods to increase the points you can earn on a computer purchase is to use a Chase Ink card at an office supply store like Staples, Office Depot, or OfficeMax. The Ink Plus and Ink Bold cards offer 5x points at these locations (on up to $50,000 of spending every calendar year), and each store has a wide variety of computer (and accessory) options to choose from, including laptops, desktops, tablets, monitors, and more. You can earn points for shopping online, and choose either free shipping or free in-store pick-up depending on your local store’s inventory. You can also visit the store in person if you want to be able to lay your eyes on a computer before you commit to it.
If you do wind up purchasing online, make sure to go through an online shopping portal. The best site to begin this process is EVReward, which lists the bonuses offered by various online shopping portals for a given retailer. While EVReward isn’t always 100% accurate (e.g., right now it claims that the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal offers only 2 points per dollar at Staples, when it’s actually 4), the site will give you an idea of what your best options are. Just search for your online retailer and see what bonuses are currently available. In essence, online portals are a free and easy way to increase your haul of points (or put some cash back into your pocket).
The Ultimate Rewards portal is among the more popular options; you can access it when you log in to your Chase account, open up Ultimate Rewards, and click on “Shop and Earn Extra Points” on the left:
I personally like cash back options; Ebates, Mr. Rebates, and Big Crumbs are all listed on EVReward, but you can also check Fat Wallet. EVReward lists other travel providers, including American, Delta, Hilton, Marriott, and United, among others. Remember to check these individual sites for updated earning rates in case EVReward has inaccurate information.
The other big benefit of EVReward is that it can help you choose the best retailer from which to purchase your computer; one might provide a bigger “kickback” through one of these portals than the others. For example, let’s say that you were set on purchasing the Samsung Chromebook with an 11.6” monitor. The price of this item is virtually identical online at Staples, Office Depot, and OfficeMax ($229). However, each site has slightly different earning rates through the various shopping portals, as shown by EVReward:
Office Depot: 3.6%
Office Depot: 2%
Office Depot: 2%
Staples: 2 points per $
Office Depot: 1 point per $
OfficeMax: 3 points per $
Staples: 2 AA/Delta/SW miles per $
Office Depot: 2 AA/SW miles per $
OfficeMax: 3 AA miles per $, 2 Delta/SW/US/United miles per $
Staples: 2 Marriott/Hilton points per $
Office Depot: 2 Marriott/Hilton points per $
OfficeMax: 2 Marriott points per $, 1 Hilton point per $
EVReward also highlights great deals on other retailers’ sites. Even if there isn’t a spending category bonus like the aforementioned ones on the Chase Ink cards, it might make sense to consider other options if there is a significant bonus through one of these portals. For example, Dell is currently offering 4% cash back through Mr. Rebates and 4 Marriott Rewards points per dollar spent. Best Buy doesn’t have any bonuses higher than those listed above, but their Samsung Chromebook is actually $20 cheaper than on the other sites. If you don’t have a card that offers spending bonuses at office supply stores, be sure to consider your other options. In fact, there’s a “Computers & Electronics” tab at the top of EVReward, so you can browse through relevant merchants to find the best price and cash/points bonus.
Hitting Spend Thresholds
Depending on the brand and model of computer you’re interested in, it may wind up being very pricey. The MacBook Pro, for example, starts at $1,100 at the Apple Store online, but models with larger screens and faster processors can fetch up to $2,500. If you’re planning on incurring a large expense, opening a new credit card and meeting some (or all) of the spending threshold for a big sign-up bonus can help defray the cost. Just be sure to pay the balance off in full to avoid interest/finance charges that could negate the value of the sign-up bonus.
The TPG Hot Deals page highlights many of the top current offers out there. In addition to the aforementioned Ink Plus and Ink Bold cards, a $2,500 computer purchase would cover almost the entire initial spend required by the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Barclaycard Arrival Plus, both of which would net you a 40,000-point sign-up bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months (and have their annual fees waived for the first year). That same purchase would cover the entire required spending to earn the sign-up bonus on either the Citi Hilton Reserve (2 free weekend nights at almost any Hilton property worldwide after spending $2,500 in 4 months) or the British Airways Visa (50,000 Avios after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months).
Your computer purchase can also cover a large chunk of an annual spend threshold. While some cards require very high spending levels to earn a full bonus (like the Delta Reserve American Express, which offers 15,000 MQM’s at $30,000 and $60,000 of spending annually), others are much more manageable. One of my favorites is the Citi Hilton Reserve, which provides another free weekend night certificate (in addition to the 2 earned as a sign-up bonus) when you spend $10,000 in a card membership year. A new $2,500 MacBook pro would get you over 25% of the way there. This post provides a good overview of currently available spending bonuses, so consider your yearly spend patterns when deciding which card to use for your new computer. Remember too that the shopping portals referenced above don’t care which card you use for your purchase; all they want is for you to start from their site.
Since a new computer can be a sizeable expense, it’s important to shop around for the best price. Apart from scouring the Internet and print advertisements, many locations still have Labor Day or back-to-school specials, so if you’re flexible about which make and model of computer you want, there are plenty of bargains to be found. In addition, sites like RetailMeNot and Tech Bargains often have working discounts or coupon codes for various retailers; you can also find a lot of these at cash back sites like Ebates and Fat Wallet.
Another method to lower your price is to sign up for specials and promotions from various retailers. I hate having my inbox filled with useless promotional e-mails, but every once in a while I get a good one that makes the hassle worthwhile, so consider setting up a separate email account that you can check periodically to keep your everyday inbox free of clutter. Promotional emails are generally included with store loyalty programs like Staples Rewards or Office Depot Rewards, but most retailers allow you to sign up to receive notifications of sales or other special events. You can also subscribe to a regular newsletter like Brad’s Deals; I (personally) have found some incredible deals there. If your new computer purchase isn’t urgent and you can afford to price shop, these methods could save you some cash.
One final way to save money is with a program known as “Price Rewind” provided by Citi credit cards like the Citi Prestige or Citi ThankYou Preferred. Once you purchase an eligible product (like a computer), you can submit that purchase to be “tracked” in your account. If the program finds a lower price advertised online within 60 days, you can request a refund of the difference in price (up to $300 per item and $1200 per calendar year). Keep in mind that this may not be 100% accurate, as the program cannot search every possible retailer or website for a lower price. Still, it’s nice to know that you could take advantage of unexpected price drops after you buy.
A new computer isn’t just a regular purchase; in most cases it’s a significant investment, and you should take steps to ensure that it’s protected from loss or damage. The vast majority of retailers (including those mentioned above) will offer you some kind of protection plan at check-out when you purchase a new computer, like AppleCare or Best Buy’s Geek Squad. These plans offer technical support, global hardware repair coverage, and software support beyond the standard warranty and support window. Keep in mind that protection plans are designed to be profitable for the retailer, so statistically speaking their not in your best interest, but if you’re a cautious person and want to avoid the need to replace a computer 366 days after you purchased it, these plans can be invaluable.
Aside from paid coverage options, be sure to purchase your computer with a credit card that provides its own protection. Many cards will cover loss, damage, or theft of purchased items within a certain time frame, and others will extend a manufacturer’s warranty for an additional year. I addressed this as part of my post on premium credit cards last week; for example, the American Express Platinum card includes secondary coverage for loss, damage, or theft (up to $10,000 per occurrence).
Many cards that don’t carry a high annual fee include purchase protection as well (though at a lower rate). For example, the Hilton HHonors American Express card covers up to $1000 per occurrence. The Amex website has a page devoted to specific policy coverage on various cards. Remember that you need to charge the purchase on the card to take advantage of this benefit, and the coverage is secondary, meaning that it will only pay out after any reimbursement from a primary provider (such as homeowner’s insurance).
Hopefully these tips will help you not only maximize your points earnings, but also keep cash in your pocket and protect your investment.
How do you maximize computer purchases? Please share your tips in the comments below!