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How to maximize points on first-year college essentials

June 26, 2020
9 min read
Students on campus of Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany, Europe
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As soon as I graduated from high school, I spent the entire summer preparing to leave for college. From googling packing lists to online shopping for dorm decor, I was both anxious and excited to start the next chapter of my life.

While I was coordinating with my roommate on how to furnish our room, I found that first-year college essentials can be costly and add up quickly. Fortunately, you can leverage these expenses to your advantage and earn points and miles. If you’ve been thinking about studying abroad or a future spring break trip, it’s never too early to start building your bank of points and miles to score some potentially free travel down the road.

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Before making any purchase, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking myself if there’s a way to maximize it, and how I would go about doing so. Granted, this takes more effort than mindlessly swiping your debit card, but the rewards you gain are well worth it in the end.

Having a travel rewards card is the easiest way to rack up some serious points and miles. Whether you’re the primary owner of the card or if you’re still an authorized user on your parent’s travel credit card, there are countless opportunities to maximize your purchases during your first year in college.

Related: Best credit cards for college students

Dorm essentials

If you’re shopping for dorm essentials, chances are you’ve been scouring Amazon. Throughout my four years in college, I was a Prime Student member. This exclusive membership just for college students offers a free six-month trial and 50% off Amazon prime thereafter. Having two-day shipping (or sometimes, even same-day shipping) was helpful during my college experience.

With every purchase, I used the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card, which offers a 5% return on Amazon and Whole Foods purchases. A popular card for Amazon lovers, it has helped me maximize my Amazon purchases for cash back or redeem points for future travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. The Discover It Student Cash Back Card is another popular option among college students and also offers 5% cash back at Amazon during select quarters.

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For dorm decor, I browsed websites ranging from Etsy to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Before you finish checking out on any websites, make sure that you are taking advantage of airline shopping portals. Each domestic airline has its own shopping portal and signing up is free. Just shop at your favorite merchant via a shopping portal link and you will earn miles.

Also, don’t forget to add the shopping portal’s extension to your browser. That way, even if you forget to check the portal first, it will automatically alert you if there are ways to earn points on your purchases. For example, the Delta SkyMiles Shopping portal is currently offering bonuses on websites such as Macy’s, The Container Store, and Overstock.

Related: Paying college tuition on a credit card: fees vs. rewards


Textbooks are admittedly one of the least glamorous purchases you’ll make throughout college. I wanted to save the most amount of money I could on textbooks, which meant that I was renting used books – I never purchased them from my school’s student stores.

Typically, Amazon had the best prices for rental textbooks. While it varied per semester, I could spend up to $500 on books alone. Again, by putting these purchases on my Amazon credit card, I was earning lots of points with little-to-no added effort.

Event tickets

(Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I attended a school that was well-known for its basketball team. While students had the privilege of entering a ticket lottery before each game, I spent a fair share of money on tickets when I wasn’t so lucky. And besides sporting events, there were plenty of opportunities to attend nearby concerts and plays in college. As a Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card cardholder, I redeemed several Amex offers that offered discounts for tickets to games and concerts on StubHub.

Event tickets are quite expensive, which is why it’s worth looking into a card that will reward you in the process. Cards like the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card and Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card offer at least 3x rewards on entertainment spending. You can then use these rewards for future travel.

The information for the Capital One Savor 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.

Storage units and moving trucks

If you’re an out-of-state student, moving in and out of college can be a major nuisance. As you go home for the summer, you’ll likely have many moving-related costs that can add up. From storage units and moving trucks, you can find yourself spending hundreds of dollars at the start and end of each year.

As a result, if you’re thinking about signing up for a new credit card, these moving costs can help you reach your spending requirement and lock in bonus points or miles. For example, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a great starter traveler’s card. It currently offers a sign-up bonus of 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. By strategically applying for this card around move-in or move-out day, these expenses will help you earn your sign-up bonus in no time.

Dining and take-out

(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

Living with college roommates is an experience you’ll only get once. I was fortunate enough to have my first-year roommates become my best friends, and I have lived with them every year since. From living in a communal dorm to moving into an off-campus house senior year, there were many expenses I had while living and hanging out constantly in a group setting.

This is where you can leverage Venmo to your advantage. Venmo has become a staple for people my age, as it’s a popular mobile payment app where you can instantly send or request money. But with your credit card, you can offer to pick up the tab at restaurants and bars and Venmo-request your friends the remainder of the bill.

For example, my roommates and I would always eat at this sushi restaurant downtown (for too many weekends to count). And after tax and tip, the bill could be upwards of $100. If you pick up the tab with a card that offers 3x back on restaurants, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, that’s an easy 300 points or miles. Of course, just make sure your friends actually Venmo you afterward.

Many airlines and hotels offer dining rewards programs, in which they partner with local restaurants and give you bonus points. Next time you’re going out to eat with friends, you can visit any of these participating restaurants. This is another great way to earn without necessarily needing a credit card. But if you do own a credit card, you’ll earn even more points and miles by picking up the tab.

Related: 10 ways you could be earning airline miles other than credit cards

Ridesharing services

Another idea is to pay for the group Uber or Lyft. For example, I linked my Delta SkyMiles with Lyft, so I earn 1 mile per $1 on most rides and 2x miles on rides to and from the airport.

Furthermore, credit cards offer bonus rewards on rideshare apps, which can help you earn even more. Especially if you attend college in a big city and use ridesharing services often, it might be worth it to get a credit card that offers bonus rewards on these apps. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card earns you 5x Ultimate Rewards points on Lyft and 2x points on general travel spending.

Bottom line

As you enter college in the fall, you’ll have to stock up on essentials that will get you through these next four years. Especially during a time when you’re making some big purchases, it’s the perfect time to enter the world of points and miles.

Doing a little bit of research now will pay off in the long run – you’ll be able to redeem the points and miles that you earn now to help you travel during holidays and breaks. Or even if you decide to study abroad later in college, nothing feels better than redeeming your hard-earned rewards for a free flight.

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.