Some premium cards now require an 'extreme couponing' mindset
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An up to $50 Saks Fifth Avenue statement credit every six months (January-June and July-December). A $20 monthly statement credit toward Peacock or The New York Times. A $25 monthly Equinox statement credit. Also, $15 in monthly Uber Cash towards U.S. purchases (but remember the extra $20 bonus in December). An up to $200 statement credit each calendar year toward airline incidental fees -- but not airfare. An up to $200 statement credit each calendar year for a stay booked via the Amex Fine Hotels + Resorts program. Enrollment required for select benefits.
And all of that is just the beginning.
Although my brain is hard-wired almost to love finding and tracking deals and travel perks, even I feel like it's bordering on mental fatigue to keep up with all of the different small-to-medium-sized credits offered by a growing list of cards.
While once upon a time premium cards offered a shorter list of mostly substantial perks, now they have gone down a road where the list of perks is longer, the annual fee is higher and to come out ahead, you almost need to have the mindset of a luxury-focused extreme couponer.
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The list of perks gets longer -- and more confusing
An issuer adding more card perks and benefits is generally a good thing. However, when you reach a stage where a spreadsheet is needed to keep up with all the different benefits and whether you have used them each month, that could be a sign things have gone too far.
The Amex Platinum card by itself now has at least eight different built-in credits that are divvied out in time frames that range from monthly to semiannually, annually and every four years. And that doesn't even begin to touch the different category bonuses and the benefits and protections for putting different types of charges on the card, or the variety of ways you can use the welcome bonus and ongoing points earned by the card.
These built-in statement credits alone have the ability to total over $1,500 in one year, which is way more than required to offset the current $695 annual fee. But they are only valuable if you use them — will you go through a $15 monthly Uber Cash credit, a $20 monthly credit toward (limited) eligible digital entertainment services and that $50 Saks credit every six months?
The Chase Sapphire Reserve has fewer periodic statement credits and categories. Still, if you want to make the most of it, you'll need to move your Peloton monthly subscription over to that card -- at least until you spend $120 before the end of 2021. And you'll want to do the same with your DoorDash orders, at least until you spend at least $60 to use up that credit in 2021.
Then there's the $300 annual travel credit, which is thankfully pretty easy to use.
But wait -- there's more. Those with cobranded American Express Hilton, Marriott and Delta cards got temporary built-in credits in 2021 for expenses such as U.S. restaurants and U.S. wireless services. I'm absolutely coming out ahead financially with these temporary pandemic perks. Still, it requires tracking monthly use at restaurants and toward cellphone bills in amounts that range from $5-$20 per month per card.
Simpler could be better
Personally, I come out way ahead when card issuers implement all these different credits and perks. But I know I'm not a normal card user in that regard.
Less obsessed people I know, such as my husband, parents and most friends, are not about to start switching up which card they use for this, that and the other simply to chase a few dollars of an available statement credit here and there.
Related: I have 22 credit cards -- here's why
It might be "easy," but it still takes up brain space and that can be in short supply in an already stressful reality.
While not every single card perk can be of the $300-annual-travel-credit variety, there is something to learn from the simplicity of that credit on the Sapphire Reserve. You can use it as quickly or as slowly as you want in that year and you can use it for a wide number of charges that fall under "travel."
The Amex Platinum's new up to $240 annual digital entertainment statement credit is a good example of the opposite side of the simplicity fence. This credit is doled out in monthly installments of $20. It isn't good on any old type of digital entertainment but is only good on charges from four retailers: Peacock, Audible, Sirius XM, and The New York Times.
It could be a much more user-friendly benefit if it were valid at a wider grouping of providers -- such as toward any streaming service, for example. Alternatively, even if the list of providers was kept short, if the credit were simply available to use on a yearly basis instead of in monthly chunks, it could be easier to leverage since most subscriptions are cheaper when paid annually instead of monthly or quarterly.
The American Express® Gold Card offers up to $20 in monthly benefits that can be used toward dining each calendar year, but one of the $10 credits is only valid at Uber and Uber Eats in the U.S. while the other $10 is valid at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. You'll receive up to $120 annually in dining credits and up to $120 in Uber Cash per year (card must be added in Uber account to receive Uber Cash benefit). Enrollment required for select benefits.
I like the occasional "free" Shake Shack burger or piece of cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory as much as the next person, but the card wants to train its users to select it for most dining charges by default. It would be significantly easier if it offered a monthly dining credit that was valid at all dining locations.
How to come out ahead
I get more value in points, perks and credits from every single card in my wallet than I pay in annual fees. If I didn't, I would dump that card in a hurry. But I'm willing to put some mental energy into maximizing most -- though not all -- of the perks my specific cards offer.
You need to be very honest with yourself about what you're willing and able to do to squeeze value out of your premium cards. Sure, the high-end Amex Platinum offers $1,500-plus in credits, but which ones will you really use?
I'm unlikely to use the up to $300 Equinox credit and haven't yet figured out how I want to use the up to $240 digital entertainment credit.
You may have no interest in an up to $50 Saks credit every six months or perhaps won't utilize the monthly Uber/Uber Eats credits. That's OK -- you can skip some perks and still be in the black with that card, but do the real-world math for your situation from the beginning and at least before every account anniversary when you will owe that annual fee again.
But after you've done the math on what you will and won't actually benefit from, it can be useful to have a tool that reminds you of the different perks. This is especially true if you have more than one or two cards in your wallet.
Maybe it's a Google Sheet you set up that lists all your card credits that you check on monthly, or a sticky note on your computer, or labels on the physical cards in your wallet. Whatever you need to do to remember to pay $20 per month toward your wireless phone bill with your Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, spend $10 at restaurants with your Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card (through the end of the year) and $15 per month toward Uber or Uber Eats (in the U.S.) with your Amex Platinum Card (with an extra $20 in December), though, having a tracking system of some sort is the only way to really keep up with it all.
TPG built a free spreadsheet you can use to track your Amex credits, but that by itself won't solve for all the various card credits out there. Pick the ones you care about the most and at least have a type of list that you refer to monthly if you want to be sure you aren't leaving valuable statement credits on the table.
It's great that rewards credit cards have evolved with new lifestyle and everyday benefits that help them stay relevant in a world where travel isn't always at the top of everyone's to-do list.
However, the approach to this evolution has left us in a situation where you have to take on a couponer's mindset to get the true value out of the cards that charge $500 or more in annual fees.
The new benefits weren't added in $200-$300 annual chunks the way the cards' core travel-related benefits are offered. Instead, many new benefits require a nickel-and-dime approach to use up those $5, $10 and $20 statement credits that are often only applicable at a niche list of retailers.
You shouldn't need to use a monthly tracking spreadsheet to get a fair amount of value from a high-end premium card. There are plenty of ways to make high-end cards relevant to daily life without overly complicating the situation.
Namely, this could be done with permanent annual credits and bonus points that are valid at a wider list of retailers. Additionally, a monthly or annual tracker that lists your account's progress toward utilizing the credits could display when you log in to pay your bill and be a convenient golf reminder tool.
But until one or both of those things happen, we now live in a world where you need a coupon-clipper mentality to get the full value out of many premium rewards cards.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, click here.