Maximizing points and miles on back-to-school shopping

Aug 6, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest offers.

There are still many unknowns about what the 2020-21 school year will look like. But one thing is for sure, and that’s that classes are resuming.

Whether your child’s school will be conducting classes in-person or online, you’ll need to shop for supplies and other essentials to ensure your kiddos are fully equipped on day one. Fortunately, there is no shortage of ways to make the most of this from a points and miles standpoint.

Continue reading for a look at our favorite strategies for maximizing your back-to-school purchases.

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Factors to consider

A couple of quick disclaimers before diving in: While some of the tips below are universally available, others are targeted or may vary depending on where you live, what cards you have or other factors. Keep in mind that some are stackable but others aren’t. 

For example, you may not earn bonus miles through an airline shopping portal if you use a discount code not listed on the portal itself (additional details below). It’s important to do your research to determine which of them applies to each purchase you make.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the best ways to maximize your back-to-school purchases.

Credit card welcome bonuses

One of the quickest ways to boost your balance of points and miles is by applying for a new travel rewards credit card. While travel might be on pause for now, there is still a lot of value to get. Many of these cards offer significant welcome bonuses after spending a certain amount of money in a given timeframe, so if you’re expecting a decent chunk of purchases in the next few weeks, you might as well earn a big haul of points or miles. 

We’ve even published a guide to the best travel rewards cards for families, and here are a few top options:

You could also look to pick up a card with a limited-time welcome offer or one offering a 100,000-point bonus. Just be sure that you understand the various application restrictions for the major card issuers before applying, especially Chase’s notorious 5/24 rule.

Targeted: Earn up to 100,000 points via the CardMatch Tool

One final suggestion: If you apply and are immediately approved, you may want to call the issuer and see if they’d be willing to expedite the delivery of the card. Some issuers do this automatically for premium cards, but many will simply mail the new card via standard mail in a plain white envelope, which generally takes 7-10 days. 

Alternatively, if you need to shop ASAP, you could focus on cards that display your new account number upon approval.

Getting a new card for back-to-school purchases doesn’t help much if it doesn’t actually arrive until after school begins.

Related: Should you be applying for credit cards right now?

Credit card bonus categories

When you really think about how many everyday items can be considered office supplies, you realize the spending potential you need to maximize. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Need some office supplies? There’s a card for that. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Another great strategy for maximizing your back-to-school purchases is to ensure you’re utilizing bonus categories on cards currently in your wallet. There are a couple of cards that immediately come to mind along these lines:

Ink Business Cash Credit Card

This card offers 5% cash back on up to $25,000 of combined purchases at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services each account anniversary year. If your kids need pencils, crayons, markers or anything else in the “office supplies” category, visit your nearest Staples or Office Depot and pull this card out of your wallet. 

Keep in mind that the cash-back points you earn can be combined with points earned from cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve to boost their value and enable them to be transferred to partners like Hyatt and United.

American Express® Gold Card

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael)
The Amex Gold card is great for turning your dining expenses into travel rewards. (Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

If you’re all about efficiency, consider picking up some school supplies on your next trip to the store. The Amex Gold Card offers 4x Membership Rewards points on your first $25,000 of purchases at U.S. supermarkets each calendar year (then 1x). Based on TPG’s valuations, that’s a solid return of 8% — or even higher if you can leverage a sweet spot in the program.

Best cards for Amazon purchases

(Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Let’s be real, we know how families really shop. If it’s on Amazon, that’s an easy way to check it off the list. In that case, the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature is great for 5% back at Amazon. But there are other great choices, too, such as the Chase Freedom Unlimited which earns 1.5% cash back on spending regarding of where you shop.

The information for the Amazon Visa card  has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Unfortunately, many stores (especially clothing retailers) don’t typically fall into the common bonus categories, so your best bet is to either use a new card to work toward a welcome bonus or use a card that offers a solid return on everyday (non-bonus) spending.

However, maximizing your earnings may not always be the best bet …

Credit card protection

Cards like the Amex Platinum offer an array of protection for your large purchases.

If you’re looking to make a large purchase like a computer or tablet for your kid(s), you may want to consider using a sub-optimal card from an earning perspective that offers stronger protections for those purchases. There are four major perks that would apply to these purchases:

  • Purchase protection: This covers eligible purchases against loss, damage and/or theft within the first few months. Many cards offer this particular benefit automatically, so check out our guide on the best cards for purchase protection for additional details.
  • Extended warranty: Many products come with a published manufacturer’s warranty, but it seems like things always go wrong right after they expire. However, if you use the right credit card for purchasing these products, you’ll typically get an extra year or two of coverage for no charge. Once again, we have a guide for cards with extended warranties, so check that out for more information.
  • Return protection: While hopefully a rare occurrence, there may be times when a merchant doesn’t allow you to return an item, at which point this coverage will kick in, typically covering claims up to 90 or even 120 days after purchase.
  • Price protection: This allows you to obtain a refund for eligible items if you find a lower price within a certain time window after purchase. Many restrictions apply, though, and this benefit is being scaled back (or even ended) by issuers like Chase and Citi due to huge increases in claim numbers.

With each of these perks, the details vary from card to card and issuer to issuer, including how long you have to submit claims, the amount of coverage provided and excluded items. Be sure to carefully check your policy to make sure you’re protected.

Related: Best credit cards for purchase protection

Online shopping portals

Getting back to the earning side of the equation, another way to make the most of your purchases is by going through an online shopping portal. By starting at these sites and then clicking through to a specific store (rather than visiting the store directly), you’ll be eligible for bonus earnings on top of the regular credit card points or miles you’d earn for the purchase. These portals fit into a few different categories:

  • Cash back: Sites like Rakuten and Top Cashback give you cash back for shopping at hundreds of retailers.
  • Airline miles: Many large carriers (including Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest and United) partner with popular retailers to offer bonus miles on purchases. You may even find a specific back-to-school bonus on certain sites.
  • Hotel points: Choice Privileges and Wyndham Rewards are two major hotel programs with their own online shopping portals.
  • Credit card points: You can earn bonus points with Chase, Barclaycard and Wells Fargo while shopping at many popular sites.

Our recommendation is to start with an online shopping portal aggregator like CashBackMonitor to compare the various earning rates across the different sites before choosing which would be best.

Keep in mind that going through an online shopping portal can be stacked with category bonuses that you’d receive on the card anyway. For example, at the time of writing, Staples is offering up to 4x Ultimate Rewards points (8% return based on TPG valuations) when you click through via the Shop through Chase page on the Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card:

(Photo by Chase)

This is in addition to the 1.5x points you’d normally earn with this card, or 5% cash back you’d earn on office supply purchases with the Ink Business Cash Credit Card. And as noted earlier, if you also have the Sapphire Reserve or Sapphire Preferred Card, this is the equivalent of earning 5.5 or 9 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent. Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, that’s a return of up to 18% on your back-to-school purchases.

Related: Maximizing shopping portals for your online purchases

Amex Offers

Another option for discounts or enhanced bonuses is the Amex Offers program. This is available to virtually all personal and small business Amex cards, including The Platinum Card® from American Express and Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. Unlike the strategies mentioned above, Amex Offers tend to be targeted, so you probably have a unique set of offers in your account. In addition, if you have more than one American Express card, you’re virtually guaranteed to have varied offers among those different accounts. The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Here are some of the offers we’re currently seeing across various Amex cards that could help with your back-to-school purchases:

  • Dell: Spend $100 or more, get $100 back
  • Dell: Get 1 additional Membership Reward point per dollar spent
  • Dropbox: Get 40% back, up to $40
  • Spend $100 or more, get $20 back
  • Rockets of Awesome – Kid’s Clothing: Spend $100 or more, get $50 back
  • Select superstores (U.S. Target and Walmart locations) – Spend $50 or more, get $50 back, up to 2 times

For any offers that apply to online purchases, you can normally still click through a shopping portal and earn bonus points, since the credit or bonus points are typically given directly to you by American Express. The portal won’t have any idea that there’s an Amex Offer associated with your purchase — just make sure to read and understand the full terms of the offer to make sure it applies.

Related: Your ultimate guide to Amex Offers

Discount codes and offers

A final simple way to save this back-to-school season is through the old-fashioned coupon. You may see some mailers come to your house with these offers, but it’s even easier online, as chances are quite good that there is some type of promo code out there for you to find. Some may be advertised right on the retailer’s homepage, while others might be listed on the shopping portal merchant page. For instance, you’ll find this one for Staples through the American AAdvantage eShopping site:

(Photo by AAdvantage eShopping)

Some stores may give you a one-time discount code for signing up for email updates, like Bed Bath & Beyond:

Finally, a quick Google search for “(Insert store name here) promo code” will bring up results on sites like Coupon Cabin or RetailMeNot.

The big disclaimer here is that most shopping portals include exclusions like this when you click through to a retailer’s site:

“Not eligible on purchases made with coupon or discount codes that are not found on this site.”

Despite this clear, unambiguous language, you may find the actual enforcement of this restriction to be hit or miss and may still earn bonus points or miles. Just be prepared to miss out if you use a code not listed on the shopping portal.

Related: Food delivery promo codes to save you money

Bottom line

Getting your kids ready to go back to school can be a stressful and expensive proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. By carefully strategizing with credit cards, online shopping portals and other methods for discounts or bonuses, you may find yourself closer to your post-pandemic vacation than you thought. The TPG team already uses these strategies to maximize our everyday purchases, so there’s no reason you can’t use them to make the most of your back-to-school shopping.

Additional reporting by Nick Ewen.

Featured photo by asiseeit/Getty Images.

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