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From no credit to free flights: An inside look at a 23-year-old's credit journey

April 29, 2020
13 min read
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Unless you're born into a family of credit card aficionados, I think it's safe to say that the average person doesn't have an innate knowledge of credit cards, points and miles.

It takes time, research and experience to fully grasp the value of these concepts, to become a "Points Guy/Gal" if you will.

For many, even the idea of a credit card can be quite daunting — at least that was the case for me.

To give you a little background, I grew up in the 2000's and my understanding of credit cards was based on celebrity reality shows — they were meant for the rich and famous, like Paris Hilton. It also didn't help that my parents weren't huge credit cards people themselves and viewed them as an excuse for frivolous spending. The recession didn't brighten my view of credit cards either. Collectively, I think my whole household's view of credit cards was, "why spend what you don't have?"

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I held that belief for a long time, but as I got older and started traveling more on my own, I found myself with very little rewards to show for it. That's when I started asking myself questions like: Why was I only able to book 1-2 flights a year complimentary of points collected from past flights? Why was I paying foreign transaction fees? And how do I fly in-style like Brian Kelly?

Answering those questions is what ultimately brought me to TPG, but before that, it was a learning process.

Today I'm sharing what my credit journey has been like so far, as a 23-year-old in hopes that maybe it can help someone else in a similar position.

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My intro to credit

When I was 17, I created and participated in the first ever Italian exchange program at my high school. This meant that I would be spending the summer of a lifetime abroad. There's a few things you need to do to prepare for an extended time abroad, but a big task for me was getting a credit card. A debit card and cash just simply weren't going to cut it, I needed a back-up payment option as well as a card that had no foreign transaction fee. At the time, I was too young to apply to any sort of travel rewards cards so my parents applied to the Barclays Arrival Plus card (no longer available to new applicants) and added me as an authorized user.

Related: How you can help your kids build credit history by adding them as an authorized user

Back in 2014, the welcome offer was 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months. Those 40,000 points were worth $400 when redeemed for travel, which we used towards my flight to Italy.

It's actually hilarious to look back on because I remember we paid a crazy $1,000 (not including the travel credit) for me to fly Icelandair economy from Washington-Dulles (IAD) with an extended layover in Reykjavik (KEF) to Milan (MXP) round-trip and I thought it was a good deal. Since then, I have yet to pay over $400 for an international flight and I've flown to some far places like Australia and Thailand. To be fair, it was (and still is) rare to score an international deal out of Washington, D.C. and flights generally were more expensive in 2014, but I still kick myself for ever paying that much.

Related: The cheapest (and most expensive) airports in the U.S.

Moving past my humble beginnings, I wanted to review the criteria for why we chose the Arrival Plus. For one, it charged no foreign transaction fees which was huge considering I was going to be gone for three months. Secondly, the card had chip and pin capabilities. This is also laughable considering nearly every debit and credit card has it now, but back then, it was new to cards in the U.S. but widely used across Europe.

I still remember how confused I was when the clerk had to show me how to use the chip at the Blue Lagoon during my Iceland layover ... so young, so naive.

This was the card that helped me build my credit as an authorized user. I didn't end up applying for a credit card of my own until I was 21 with nearly five years of credit history under my belt.

My first credit card mistake and what I wish I knew

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I learned absolutely nothing from being an authorized user (sorry mom and dad).

My parents didn't give me access to the account, so I never had any experience with managing my own credit. Instead, they would take money out of my bank account to pay off the charges. At the time, I didn't mind. But looking back, I wish they had given me more responsibility with the card so I had more experience early on.

Related: Here's how I'm teaching my kids about points and miles

Perhaps then I wouldn't have fallen victim to applying for a store credit card — the Nordstrom Visa Signature — as my first personal card. First let me preface it with this: I never thought I'd get accepted, but I felt pressured to apply because the cashier was really selling me on the discount I could get. The fact that I had no idea how a credit inquiry could affect me was the big warning sign that I shouldn't have applied. But of course, as a naive college student, I did.

Related: How credit scores work

To my surprise, I was accepted and got the discount. I was lucky in a way because had I been rejected, that hard credit pull could have temporarily impacted my credit score negatively, ultimately lowering my future credit card application odds. Not to mention, the Nordstrom card was the last credit card I needed as a college student — It didn't align with my spending habits or lifestyle, which are two important factors to consider when applying to new credit cards. It can be a rewarding card if you're a big Nordstrom shopper, but the point is, it wasn't the right card for me.

Further reading: 9 signs that a credit card isn't the right one for you

To this day, I still have yet to actually use the card but it's increased my credit available, which ultimately has led to me having a lower credit utilization.

How I got into travel rewards

Speaking of credit scores, having a "mix of credit" and managing it well makes up 10% of your FICO credit score. Prior to me taking it upon myself to learn more about credit cards, I unknowingly managed to have a good mix of credit throughout college between student loans (which are considered "good debt") and my two credit cards. I also worked throughout college and in the summers, so I had an income to report. I believe these factors are what ultimately led me to being accepted for my first travel rewards card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, when I was 22.

Related: Ten commandments for travel rewards credit cards

(Photo by Orli Friedman / The Points Guy)

But first, let's talk about how I went from blindly applying to a Nordstrom card to the CSP.

You see, I've always been a travel lover and luckily was able to keep up with my travels throughout college. I regularly took advantage of flight deals and the long holiday breaks to explore some place new. I loved the thrill and bragging rights of finding a good deal, so I never really messed around with points and miles too much because I saw them as cheating... (Note to younger self: uh duh, that's the whole point).

Anyways, I eventually got frustrated that I hadn't accumulated more points and miles so I started doing some research. That's when I came across The Points Guy. Well, sort of. Certain friends and family members had been forwarding me TPG articles for some time, but I had always stubbornly ignored them, convinced that I could figure things out on my own. And then I finally had a come to Jesus moment and started delving into all of the TPG guides.

Related: Chase Sapphire Preferred Review

That's what ultimately led me to apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. It offered me rewards on my highest spend categories (travel and dining), had a reasonable annual fee of $95 and the welcome bonus was appealing and the minimum spend was attainable since I managed my houses utilities among other shared expenses (read: bar tab minimums) I'd have my friends Venmo me for.

And now I've been working at TPG for nearly a year, funny how that worked out.

Becoming a Points Girl

Once I got comfortable with my CSP and redeeming my Ultimate Rewards, I was ready for the next step: finding the perfect pair. For CSP cardholders, getting the Chase Freedom Unlimited next is a no brainer. When used together, the two cards Ultimate Rewards earning cards become a powerful duo.

You see, with my CSP I earn 2x points on all travel and dining spend, but only 1x on all other miscellaneous spend like shopping. When you add the Freedom Unlimited to the mix, you can boost that 1x on miscellaneous spending to 1.5% cash back (1.5x) on everything. I applied for the Freedom Unlimited right before I was set to move into an unfurnished apartment and five months after getting my CSP. I knew I would have a lot of miscellaneous spending on furniture and household goods, so I wanted to increase my earnings. The card also comes with $150 cash back or 15,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $400, which I easily earned between a bed and desk among other things. Oh, and the CFU comes with no annual fee which is always nice.

Related: Chase Sapphire Preferred and Freedom Unlimited: A powerful duo

Besides being a killer partner to the CSP, I also wanted to ensure that I was maximizing Chase's 5/24 rule.

For my next card, I was on the fence about a lot of cards. For a while, I was tempted to delve into the world of Amex, but without any big spending coming up to help me reach the minimum on most of their premium rewards cards — I resisted. I was also considering another great pair to the CSP and CFU, the Chase Freedom (No longer open to new applicants), but I wasn't particularly intrigued by the bonus categories at the time.

Ultimately, a recent mileage redemption with American Airlines — 23,000 AA miles round-trip for New York (JFK) to Sydney (SYD) — inspired me to apply for the Barclay's AAdvantage Aviator Red Card. I applied and was accepted for this card five months after I got the Chase Freedom Unlimited. The Aviator Red card is attractive because it offers an easy 60,000 AAdvantage miles after making just one purchase and paying the $99 annual fee. After scoring such a great Australia deal, I wanted to take advantage of more Web Specials. However, that was pre-coronavirus when I thought I had the whole world ahead of me. Now it's a slightly different story and I'm not sure when I can redeem these miles, but when I can, I'm planning to use my miles to fly in-style.

Bottom line

Now at 23, I have almost seven years of credit history under my belt. There's certainly things I wish I had known earlier, like the value of earning rewards, but luckily things worked out pretty well despite my initial stubborn attitude and cluelessness. All together, I have four credit cards in my wallet:

I'm no longer an authorized user on my parents Barclay's Arrival Plus, but I do owe them a big thanks for helping me build my credit early on even though I didn't realize it at the time.

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I'm so glad that I finally saw the light and hey, look where it brought me — I'm an official Points Girl now. Getting into credit cards, point and miles can be overwhelming and even a bit daunting, but with a little patience and research, you'll find that they can take you far if managed responsibly. The moral of my story is to not let past mistakes and misunderstandings hold you back; there's clearly always room for improvement.

Take the time to understand the value of points and miles so that you can take that amazing vacation you've always been dreaming of. After all, if there's one thing we've learned from coronavirus, it's that life as we know it can turn upside down in the matter of days.

Stay tuned for a part two of where my points and miles have taken me.

Featured image by (Photo by Orli Friedman / The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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