My card strategy without an ultra-premium card

Oct 14, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.

Fun fact: I do not have an ultra-premium credit card. As someone who spends a considerable amount of time talking about how many amazing premium credit cards are out there, a lot of people are surprised when they learn I don’t have a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or The Platinum Card® from American Express. While there are plenty of excellent premium credit cards out there, I haven’t applied for any yet. So far, my focus has been on establishing an earning strategy that helps me hit my travel (and overall financial) goals.

Here’s a peek at my cards strategy and why I’ve avoided ultra-premium credit cards right now.

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My focus is on earning rewards, not premium benefits

At this stage in my life, my travel goals are about seeing as many places as possible by spending the least money possible. I’m a budget traveler and my credit card portfolio mirrors that. Lounge access, elite status with hotel chains – those aren’t currently large priorities for me. Instead, I’m more interested in building up my Membership Rewards points balance with my American Express® Gold Card and my Ultimate Rewards balance with my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and new Chase Freedom Unlimited, along with an assortment of other low-annual-fee credit cards.

This will likely change as I visit more places and mark destinations off my bucket list. I’ll start revisiting places I’ve already been to and I’ll want to upgrade my travel experiences. But for now? I’m a young budget traveler who would rather use credit cards for earning and burning points than luxury perks.

Pairing cards for maximum value

A large part of my credit card strategy is pairing credit cards. I try not to overlap too many earning categories, and all of my main spending habits are covered by a card that earns rewards in those categories.

My two largest expenses each month are groceries and dining, followed closely by assorted online shopping. I use my American Express® Gold Card (which is my most expensive card at a $250 annual fee — see rates and fees) for U.S. supermarket purchases and dining at restaurants worldwide since it earns 4x on those expenses (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x at U.S. supermarkets). Since I use Doordash for most delivery, and they have a partnership with Chase, I put my food delivery purchases on my Chase Sapphire Preferred. Any broad travel purchases go on my CSP, too. Drugstore and online shopping purchases go on my new Chase Freedom Unlimited since it earns 3% (which I will convert into 3x Ultimate Rewards points by transferring rewards over to my CSP) on drugstores and 1.5% on non-bonus spending such as online shopping.

Right now, those three are the primary cards I use for pretty much everything, and they ensure I’m racking up points to spend on travel at a solid rate.

Other earning strategies

As I said before, my primary focus is on earning rewards. While some mid-tier cards offer a great return on some of my top spending categories (looking at you, Chase Freedom Unlimited and Amex Gold), they don’t always hold up against the potential earnings from top-tier credit cards. That’s where other earning strategies such as online shopping portals, referral bonuses, and Amex and Chase offers come into play.

Related: How to refer friends and earn points, miles or cash credits

I sift through my Amex Offers and Chase Offers at least weekly (it’s currently part of my Sunday evening routine) and add any I think I might use. That way, I make sure I’m earning across every purchase possible. I also send friends and family members my referral codes when they ask for recommendations on which cards to get. Then I make sure to check CashBackMonitor for any shopping portal bonuses when I’m shopping online.

(Photo by Tashdique Mehtaj Ahmed/Getty Images)

Bottom line

Now, none of this means I won’t ever get a premium credit card. In fact, I have one on my wish list for 2021. Back when the Chase Sapphire Reserve first added Lyft and Doordash benefits earlier in 2020, I’d planned to upgrade my CSP. I put that plan on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, I will eventually add that card to my wallet (barring another card announcing some serious changes that make me reevaluate). This is simply my current strategy without a premium credit card and how I’m making my cards work for me without paying a $500+ annual fee.

Premium cards can be a great tool for frequent travelers. The annual fees are worth it for many people, and there is a lot of love about the benefits that come with most of these cards. But premium credit cards are not the only way to be successful in the points and miles game. With so many excellent mid-tier and no-annual-fee credit cards out there, you can build a solid strategy for earning travel rewards without adding any luxury cards that cost hundreds of dollars in annual fees.

Featured image by Madison Blancaflor/The Points Guy. 

For rates and fees of the Amex Gold Card, please click here

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