Guide to Maximizing Bonus Categories – Office Supplies
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Every purchase is an opportunity to earn travel rewards, and in order to boost your loyalty account balances, it’s important to maximize your return on each dollar. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr explains how you can rack up points and miles on office expenses with credit card bonuses and more.
Whether you run your own small business, work at a Fortune 500 company or manage your household, office supplies are a part of everyday life. Toner, paper, pens, batteries, electronics, software — we use these items everyday. Office supplies aren’t cheap, which is all the more reason to have a good points and miles earning strategy in place.
In this post, I’ll carry on from recent guides to maximizing grocery store purchases and maximizing gas purchases and look at the different tools and strategies available to ensure you maximize every dollar you spend on office supplies.
The strategies for maximizing office supply purchases are similar to the tactics you use for other categories of spending:
1. Know the limits of your particular rewards, both in terms of earning and redeeming. For example, some credit card bonuses are capped, like the $1,500 quarterly limit for 5% bonus categories on the Chase Freedom card. Being aware of these limits will help you decide which rewards are most useful to you.
2. The merchant category code determines whether a particular purchase will earn you bonus points. If you’re uncertain how a given merchant is coded, I recommend testing it with a small purchase. You can then examine your card statement to see whether the merchant in question codes properly.
3. Don’t override common sense and the bottom line of your office supplies bill. If the money you save from buying toner through a cheap online site outweighs the rewards you earn from buying your toner at an office supply store, skip the extra rewards. Do the math and make sure that you’re not paying more than you should to earn points.
Credit Card Strategies
Ink Plus Business Card
The obvious front-runner for earning rewards when buying office supplies, Ink Plus earns 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on the first $50,000 spent annually at office supply stores, and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services. You also earn 2 points per dollar spent on gas and hotels (again on up to $50,000 annually), which makes this card a bit more versatile. Given that TPG values Ultimate Rewards points at 2.1 cents apiece, and that this card comes with a solid sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months, it’s an all-around excellent option for an annual fee of $95.
Ink Business Cash Credit Card
This card is similar to the Ink Plus, as it offers the same 5x and 2x bonuses, but only on the first $25,000 spent annually. The rewards you earn with Ink Cash are essentially like cash back unless you also have a premium Ultimate Rewards card like the Ink Plus or Chase Sapphire Preferred. Ink Cash comes with a more modest sign-up bonus of $200 cash back after you spend $3,000 in the first three months, but unlike the Ink Plus, it has no annual fee.
The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN
This card offers a complete package for those who spend a large amount on office supplies. You can earn 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on your choice from among 5 different categories, one of which is US computer hardware, software and cloud computing purchases made directly from select providers. The other options include shipping and advertising, so there’s a good opportunity to save on office-related expenses even if your business doesn’t involve much computing. You also earn 2 points per dollar on the remaining 4 categories, so the choice isn’t all or nothing.
In addition to bonus points, you get access to Amex Open Savings, which offers 5% savings on shipments through FedEx and purchases with FedEx Office, as well as other discounts. Also, Amex Sync offers target office supply stores from time to time, providing additional savings to most Amex cardholders.
United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card
Earn an uncapped 2 miles per dollar at office supply stores, restaurants and gas stations. You also receive 10,000 bonus miles when you spend $25,000 in a year. This card doesn’t offer as impressive of a return as the cards discussed above, but it does offer some useful perks like no foreign transaction fees, and flight benefits like the first checked bag fees waived for you and a traveling companion.
Even with United’s devaluation (which was particularly bad for premium-cabin awards on Star Alliance partners), I’m still a big fan of United miles. The MileagePlus program allows 2 open jaws and a stopover on round-trip awards, which allows you to fit a whole lot of sightseeing in on one award ticket. The ability to transfer Ultimate Rewards to United makes it easy to boost your frequent flyer account, too.
U.S. Bank FlexPerks Business Edge Travel Rewards Card
This card earns 2 FlexPoints per dollar in the category you spend the most on (gas, office supplies or airline) and most cell phone expenses during each billing cycle. FlexPoints are redeemable for airline tickets at a maximum rate of 2 cents per point. One attractive feature of the FlexPerks program is that awards count as revenue tickets, so you earn frequent flyer miles when you redeem your FlexPoints, and that boosts the overall value slightly.
Buying third-party gift cards with your rewards credit card should be a part of your strategy. You can buy office supplies from Target, Amazon and many other retailers, so if the office supply store doesn’t have the lowest price, check the gift card rack for other options. That way you can pay less and earn a category bonus for your spending. Similarly, if you have a credit card that earns a bonus at grocery stores, look for Staples, OfficeMax or other office supply store gift cards at your local supermarket.
Office Supply Store Loyalty Programs
These programs offer you savings in addition to the rewards you earn:
Staples Rewards — Members receive between 2-5% off all purchases in store and online (excluding postage, gift cards and savings passes). How much you save depends on how much spend with Staples in a 12-month period. In addition to savings, members get exclusive coupons online, $2 back for recycling toner cartridges (limited to 10 or 20 a month, depending on your annual Staples spend) and free shipping (excluding oversize and add-on items). Teachers receive an additional 5% back on teaching and art supplies.
OfficeMax/Office Depot rewards+ — Members receive 10% back on toner, ink, paper, shipping, copy and print purchases. You can become a Choice member by spending $200 on a product or service purchase made in store, online, by phone or fax (with some exclusions). Once you’re a Choice member, you can select five categories in which you’ll earn a 5% discount. Choice membership is only valid for one quarter, after which you must spend another $200 to re-qualify.
I believe shopping portals are the most underutilized tool available for earning points and miles. If you’re unfamiliar with the process or think it’s a hassle, know that when it comes to a few particular office supplies, your extra points will be worth the effort. Here are some of my favorite tips to earn more points on office supplies through shopping portals:
- Chase tends to offer 2 additional Ultimate Rewards points per dollar when shopping at Staples or OfficeMax/Office Depot online through the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal. This means paying with your Chase Ink Plus Business Card will earn you 7 points per dollar.
- Online toner shops frequently offer some of the highest shopping portal bonuses. Stores such as 123refills.com and 123inkjets.com earn between 7-23 points or miles per dollar. United MileagePlus Shopping is currently offering 11 miles per dollar, while the Chase Ultimate Rewards mall is offering 15 points per dollar. AAdvantage eShopping is offering 15 AAdvantage miles per dollar at 1ink.com.
Here are a few important shopping portal reminders from TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen:
- You must click through the link on the portal’s site and then make a purchase from the page that pops up. DO NOT navigate away and come back later; you may miss out on the bonus points/miles.
- You must make sure that you have cookies enabled in your browser for the retailer’s site. This is what allows the portal to “track” your purchases and award bonus points/miles accordingly.
- Only use promotions or promo codes found on the portal; if you use others, the purchase may become ineligible for bonus points/miles.
- Be sure to read the restrictions for each merchant. Many won’t count gift cards as eligible purchases for earning bonus points/miles, and others will exclude certain products.
- Consider using gift cards. While you generally can’t purchase gift cards through these portals, you can still use gift cards to pay for the purchase. This is really valuable for Chase Ink Plus cardholders at merchants like Target and Home Depot. You can buy gift cards from office supply stores (to earn 5x Ultimate Rewards points), and then use those cards to pay for purchases through an airline shopping portal, earning even more bonus points/miles in the process.
Cultivate Your Strategy
Using a shopping portal, the Staples Rewards program and paying with a rewards credit card is a great example of how you can earn points in multiple ways to maximize your earnings and savings on office supplies. Don’t forget that many office supply stores sell household items such as cleaners, paper goods, snacks and luggage, so you can earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on paper towels and peanut butter pretzels just as easily as you can on printer paper and notepads.
Whichever strategy you use, remember it should be centered around helping you achieve your next travel goal. Points and miles are a terrible long-term investment, so have a plan in mind.
What is your strategy for maximizing office supply purchases?