Double-Dipping at Starbucks

If you go to Starbucks once every two months or more, you should pick up a Starbucks gift card. And register it.

The Starbucks Rewards program is a hybrid between a store loyalty card and a store credit card. Just like a loyalty card, with each transaction, you accumulate points and make your way to earning more benefits. But similar to a store credit card, the benefits only accrue if you use the store card rather than your primary credit card to pay. In Starbucks’ case, however, there’s no need to give out your social security number and wait to get approved. Rather, to accumulate Stars (their version of points), all you have to do is pay for your drinks and food with a Starbucks gift card.

This is how the program works: first, you get yourself a Starbucks gift card. They come in several different styles and may even vary by city – any of them is fine. It can also even be the gift card that you receive when you redeem your credit card points. Then, you create an account in the Starbucks Rewards webpage and register that gift card. From that moment on, you will get one Star each time you make a purchase (no matter what you buy or how bill or small the bill) at Starbucks using that gift card. You can register as many gift cards as you want in your account.

The benefits increase with the number of Stars you get, and will be more or less meaningful to you depending on your drinking and loitering habits. Here are the benefits at each level, straight from the Starbucks Rewards website:

 

Starbucks Rewards Benefit Levels

 

It’s a little annoying that you need to reach 45 Stars to earn your first “free drink every 15 purchases”, but the good thing is that as long as you maintain your Gold status, you’ll keep earning this benefit. That is, provided that you make 30 purchases  at Starbucks every 12 months, you’ll continue getting a free drink every 15 purchases – you don’t have to go 2 rounds of 15 without earning anything again.

To Double-Dip

Now, because Starbucks Rewards requires that you use their gift card to pay for your purchases in order to earn Stars, it may seem like you’re giving up on earning whatever points or cash back you earn through your credit card – but you don’t have to. This is the perfect double-dipping opportunity: a Starbucks gift card can be re-loaded as many times as you want, so why not re-load it using your preferred credit card?

Suppose you go to Starbucks twice a week. Next time, rather than paying for your order on your credit card, you can pick up a Starbucks gift card right on the counter and use your credit card to load it with, say $20. Then use that to pay for your order and all your subsequent orders until the balance runs low again. Then just use your credit card again to re-load it. This way you earn your credit card points (loading a gift card will show up in your credit card statement just like a purchase and earn you the points or cash back accordingly) AND accumulate Stars.

If you have the CitiForward card, for example, this method will earn you 5 ThankYou points whenever you re-load the Starbucks card and a Star each time you actually use it. The Starbucks Rewards webpage even allows you to set up for auto-reload if you so prefer.

If you have a credit card with 5% cash back categories that rotate every quarter, this approach allows you to stretch that benefit even further. For instance, from July to September 2012, the Chase Freedom card is giving 5% cash back on gas station and restaurant purchases. Since Starbucks counts as a restaurant for that credit card, you could load your Starbucks gift card before September 30, 2012, with roughly what you would spend over the following couple of months. Then, even once October kicks in, you can continue paying for your drinks with your Starbucks gift card, essentially earning 5% cash back for drinks bought outside the 5% cash back window!

Also note that your Starbucks gift card can be used in various countries including Canada and the UK – even if purchased and loaded in the US – so no need to worry about foreign transaction fees or navigating local currencies just to get a cup of coffee. And you still get a Star.

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Movie Night Tomorrow with Visa and Fandango

If you are a Visa Signature credit card holder, you may want to make tomorrow a movie night. Throughout the summer Visa has been running a Friday 2-for-1 deal with Fandango, whereby its Signature members who buy two or more tickets for the same show through this link get one of them free. This deal is only valid for same-day purchases on Fridays, and tomorrow August 17th is the last day.

Several cards under the Visa brand are Visa Signature cards, including the Chase Sapphire, a United Airlines and an Alaska Airlines card, and even the Capital One Venture card. Just look in your wallet and if you find any card that says “Visa Signature” on it, it should qualify. If you’re still not sure, Visa/Fandango can let you know; before buying your ticket you are required to enter your credit card number and you should get a message saying whether it is a Signature card or not.

2-for-1 Movies from Visa and Fandango

As for the rest of the rules, the main catch is that in order to get the 2-for-1 deal you have to book through Fandango, incurring its convenience fee. However, the 2-for-1 does include the fee as well, so that at least you’ll only pay for half of it. And half a fee is likely cheaper than a whole other ticket. The discount covers up to $19.50 and is only valid once every 30 days, so you can get in on this deal tomorrow only if the last time you took advantage of it was Friday, July 13th or earlier.

If you have a Visa Signature card but are not planning on watching a movie tomorrow or have already used the deal in the last 30 days, you can still get a discount: Signature cardholders get $5 off each purchase of $25 “Fandango Bucks” through the same link. “Fandango Bucks” are essentially Fandango gift cards, which must be redeemed through fandango.com but can be used any day and do not expire. Visa Signature card holders can buy up to $100 worth of Fandango Bucks each month until October 31, 2012. If you frequently buy tickets through Fandango anyway – particularly if you catch movies on weekends when they are first released and may get sold out before you reach the theatre – this can be a nice discount.

If you’re looking for something to do tomorrow, a 2-for-1 deal on movie tickets just might do the trick. But if you’re enjoying the sun and it doesn’t seem like the right day to be indoors, you can still load up on some discounted “Fandango Bucks” and save them for a rainy day.

Secure Your Way into Having a Credit History

I recently met up with a friend of mine who started looking into buying a house, but has no credit history. ‘None at all?’ I asked? She moved to the US only a few years ago, so she never had the benefit of building her credit history as an authorized user for her parent’s credit cards. She doesn’t have US student loans, her utility bills are included in her rent, and her company pays her cell phone bill. She bought a used car and paid for it in cash.

Although it seems like a catch-22, where you need to have a credit history in order to get credit, there may be a few ways out. The most reliable one, which I suggested to her, is getting a secured credit card. Several banks and credit unions offer secured credit cards, which require customers to deposit a certain amount of money as collateral. This deposit, as long as it stays in the bank, generally becomes the credit card holder’s line of credit. Basically, this is a credit card that requires you give the maximum amount you’d like to be able to charge on it – your line of credit – up front. This way, you build your credit history by using it as any other credit card, receiving a statement and paying your balance every month, while the bank has access to your deposit in case you default on it.

Secured Credit Card (from Capital One)

If you decide to close your secured card, say, because you “graduated” into receiving offers and getting approved for an unsecured credit card, you get back the deposit you made for your credit line. There may be some fees, however, for maintaining a secured credit card that end up biting into your deposit, so it’s worth shopping around before settling on the right one.

Below is a sample of a few secured credit card offers out there, with a wide range of minimum deposits and fees.

  • BankAmericard Secured Credit Card ­­– the credit line for this secured credit card offered by Bank of America varies from $300 to $4,900 and is determined by the Bank according to your income and the minimum deposit you would like to make. Your deposit does not earn any interest (it is placed into a ‘Deposit Account’), but after 12 months you may be eligible to “graduate” into an unsecured card and get your deposit back. Annual fee: $39
  • USAA Secured Credit Card– the deposit you make for this card, which can be between $250 and $5,000, is placed in a 2-year Variable Rate CD. On one hand, this means your deposit is locked in for two years, but on the other, at a current annual yield of 0.74%, it has one of the highest CD returns out there. This secured card is available as an American Express and a MasterCard. Annual fee: $35
  • US Bank Secured Visa – you can make a deposit from $300 to $5,000 into a US Bank Savings account, which currently yields 0.05% per year. Your line of credit is written out for the same amount as your deposit, and US Bank reconsiders cardholders for an unsecured credit card after 12 months of good standing. Annual fee: $35
  • Wells Fargo Secured Visa – users can deposit $300-$10,000 for this card, all of which becomes the card’s line of credit. This deposit, however, does not earn any interest (it is placed into a ‘Collateral Account’) so if your goal is to establish credit it is probably best to deposit close to $300 and pay the balance off in full every month. You can deposit any extra money into a savings account or a product that yields at least some interest. Annual fee:$25
  • Capital One Secured MasterCard – this is technically a hybrid between a secured and unsecured credit card. The minimum security deposit ranges from $49 to $200, but the starting credit line starts at $200. So, if you are deemed fairly safe, you may be required to only make a $49 deposit for a $200 credit line. This is a great advantage, as it doesn’t force you to lock in as much money in collateral. Any additional deposit you make over your required minimum translates into a higher credit line, up to $3000. Annual fee: $29

In deciding how much to put down as a deposit, consider your reason for getting a secured credit card. If you plan on only using your card for a few small charges each month, you may as well make a deposit close to the minimum requirement rather than lock in more of your funds into low- or no-yield accounts. On the other hand, if you see this as a step into embracing a credit card-filled life, it may be worth making a larger deposit so that you can get used to statements and paying off balances that more accurately reflect those you expect to face once you have better access to credit. But whichever you choose, don’t forget to pay off your balance in full so that you don’t erase the benefits of having a secured credit card with the ding of a default on your credit history.

And once you’ve proven your creditworthiness with your secured card for a year or so, start looking for unsecured credit cards. Yes, you too can eventually have one of those cards that doesn’t require locking in money upfront and earns rewards!

During Restaurant Week, get Amex Credit for Dining Out in New York

Next Monday, January 16, New York is kicking-off its 4-week-long Restaurant Week. As mentioned in my previous post, from Monday through Friday, January 16 to February 10, several restaurants in the city will be offering 3-course fixed-price meals for $24.07 during lunchtime and $35 during dinner.

Just like last year, American Express will be one of the event’s major sponsors – but this time with a much simpler promotion for restaurant guests. If you are an Amex cardholder, you can earn a $20 credit on your next billing statement after dining 3 times at any NYC Restaurant Week participating restaurant. You can mix and match the restaurants as long as they’re on the list. Last year’s promotion required a foursquare account and “synching” your Amex card, but this time all you have to do is sign up on the Restaurant Week/Amex webpage.

This offer is limited to the first 15,000 people who sign up, and each cardholder can only earn one $20 statement credit during the promotion period. Prepaid cards and corporate cards are not eligible for the promotion, nor are payments made through Amex’s “expresspay” feature. But if you are a regular Amex consumer or business card holder, this offer can be a fairly good deal. The minimum spend for your dine out to count for the credit is $24, but if you’re choosing from the Restaurant Week menu you’ve already got that covered. And getting $20 for spending $72 (plus tax) on 3 3-course lunches isn’t bad at all. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but $20 gets you pretty close to a fourth Restaurant Week one.

AMEX offers $20 for 3 Restaurant Week dines in NY

January Restaurant Weeks: Eat Well and Save Money

As your stomach recovers from holiday overstuffing, you might not be too inclined to eat out. But restaurant associations in several major cities are doing their best to change your mind this January with a Restaurant Week. These “weeks,” which nowadays tend to last much longer (see New York’s eight-week “restaurant week” last summer), may be a great time to visit higher-end restaurants you’ve been meaning to check out – or to go to your local restaurant and trade in “the usual” for a 3- or 4-course meal. Participating restaurants offer fixed price meals for lunch and/or dinner, and more and more interesting restaurants have joined in on Restaurant Week throughout the years.

Below is a list of cities hosting Restaurant Week this January – with California and South Carolina both promoting state-wide events. All of these have their own dates and fixed prices, so check not only for your city but also to see whether your January travel plans match up with another Restaurant Week as well.

City Restaurant Week Dates Lunch Dinner
Alexandria (metro DC) January 13-22 $35
Baltimore January 20-29 $20.12 or 15.12 (3- or 2-course) $30.12
Charleston January 12-22 $20-40* $20-40*
Los Angeles January 22-27
January 29-February 3
$16-28* $26-44*
New York January 16-Feb 10 (M-F) $24.07 $35
Philadelphia January 22-27
January 29-February 3
$20 $30
Sacramento January 9-18 $30
San Diego January 15-20 $10-20* $20-$40*
San Francisco January 15-31 $17.95 $34.95
Toronto January 27-February 9 C$15-25* C$25-45*
Washington, DC January 9-15 $20.12 $35.12
Vancouver January 20-February 5 C$18-38*

*pricing varies by restaurant

While most participating restaurants don’t require reservations, Restaurant Week tends to bring in a lot of customers, especially to the more upscale restaurants, so it’s worth making a reservation if you can. Besides, with OpenTable co-sponsoring several of these events, participating restaurants tend to also be members of the online reservations program.

To ease the guilt from dining out after a food-packed holiday, consider the OpenTable points you’ll earn from making your reservation online and how much you’ll save at that restaurant you’ve been meaning check out when you take advantage of its Restaurant Week fixed-price menu instead. Bon Appétit!

Getting the Most from Your Amazon Purchases

If you are America’s largest online retailer, you don’t have to offer coupons or cash back deals to get people to buy from your web store. But if you are an Amazon customer, there are still ways to maximize the savings you get when making purchases on Amazon.com.

First, there’s Amazon Prime, which, for $79 offers 2-day shipping for an entire year on “millions of items” sold on Amazon, and, in my experience, almost all items shipped by Amazon itself. Students can get one year of Amazon Prime for free, and pay only $39 per year subsequently. If you shop a lot online, or are in the market for some bulky item with a high shipping charge, Amazon Prime may be a good deal.

But to get the most out of your Amazon purchases, look into double-dipping. Since August 2011, Hawaiian Airlines’ eMarket has been giving miles, now downgraded to 1 mile per dollar, for purchases made on Amazon.com. US Airways briefly also offered this deal, but has since pulled it down, making the eMarket currently the only portal worth a visit before an Amazon purchase.

earn miles on Amazon purchases through Hawaiian Airlines’ eMarket portal

To double-dip, take a peek in your wallet. This quarter, from January 1st to March 31st, 2012, Chase Freedom cardholders get 5% cash back on up to $1500 spent on gas and Amazon.com. Unless you spend over $100 on gas every week, the $1500 ceiling should be enough to let you effectively get up to 5% in savings when shopping on Amazon until the end of March.

If you don’t have the Chase Freedom card, the Citi Forward card may do the trick as well. Currently, the Citi Forward card, which gives 5 points per dollar on restaurants, books, music, and movies, seems to categorize purchases made on Amazon.com as “books,” effectively yielding 5% cash back when buying through the online retailer. However, unlike Chase Freedom’s deal, which explicitly includes Amazon.com in its 5% cash back category, Citi Forward does not offer a list of retailers eligible for earning 5 points per dollar. In other words, it’s a very sweet deal right now, but you should keep an eye on your statements since Citi can decide at any time that what you’re buying on Amazon doesn’t really count as a book.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to use points and save on cash when buying on Amazon, check your Discover balance instead. In October 2011, Discover announced a new redemption option for its cash back program: spend it on Amazon. The dollars are spent 1-to-1, but while statement credits and direct deposits can only be redeemed in increments of $50, the “pay with Cashback Bonus” option for Amazon allows Discover cardholders to redeem any amount of cash back on an Amazon purchase, which means you don’t have to wait as long to transform the cash back you earned into real cash. For this, all you have to do is link your Discover and Amazon accounts here.

But whether you use the Chase Freedom or Citi Forward card to earn more points, or Discover to redeem points, don’t forget to go through Hawaiian’s eMarket. Even though Amazon’s prices are often already a good deal, and there aren’t many coupons to be found, double-dipping can still maximize what you get out of your Amazon.com purchase.

Chipping Student Loans Away through Shopping

New Year’s is just around the corner, and it looks like I’ll get to celebrate fulfilling one of my 2011 resolutions: pay off one of my graduate school student loans! In three years, I chipped away a $15,550 student loan balance, which now stands at just over $200. I’ll use some Christmas money to finish it off, and should ring in the New Year with one less student loan to deal with (but 2 smaller ones to go).

Besides making payments on the loan during deferment, I used two shopping tools to help me work on that loan: UPromise and ThankYou points.

I’ve covered the UPromise program before, but to summarize, it’s primarily based on a shopping portal that gives cash back to users. The cash back balance can then be applied against a Sallie Mae student loan account, transferred to a 529 education savings account, or redeemed for cash. The cash back rate is often not as high as that from Discover’s ShopDiscover or Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Mall, but every so often I come across retailers that are not partners with either of these two but are in the UPromise portal.

Not that credit cards don’t help with student loans. Over the last two years, Citi’s ThankYou points program has been vital to erasing my student loan balance. I have the CitiForward credit card, which offers 5 Thank You points per dollar spent on books, movies, music, and, most importantly, restaurants, and 1 point on everything else. These points can then be redeemed for gift cards and cash, but also cheques to pay student loan or mortgage balances! Until September 2011, to get a $100 cheque, you needed 12,700 points, but since then the requirement has dropped to 10,000 points. There was no official announcement about this change, so I don’t know how long it will last – if you’re sitting on any ThankYou points and have a student loan or a mortgage, now might be the best time to redeem them.

Now, 12,500 ThankYou points trade for $125 in Student Loan Rebates. In April, 12,700 points were required for $100.

Admittedly, at 10,000 points for $100, this is the same redemption rate as for, say, a Banana Republic or a Macy’s gift card. However, I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to spend money shopping than it is to put money aside to pay off my student loan more quickly, so I prefer redeeming ThankYou points for student loan payments since it’s a way to force myself to pay down the loan with money that never made it to my hands in the first place. Besides, the redemption rate for student loans and mortgage payments is much better than for cash: $100 in cash costs 16,000 ThankYou points.

To redeem ThankYou points for student loan or mortgage payments, all you have to do is call the ThankYou network (1800-THANKYOU) and give them your lending company’s name. They will then mail you the cheque, which you can send to your lending institution along with a note with any special instructions on how to apply the payment (e.g., post everything to the loan with the highest interest rate or to the one with the smallest balance). For UPromise, even though the payments post automatically, you can also call Sallie Mae to request a change to how any payment is applied.

With less than two weeks of 2011 left, if you are also aiming to making a big chip on your student loan or mortgage balance, now might be a great time to ramp up the online purchases you make through UPromise or to redeem your ThankYou points for loan payments. The fact that now you only need 10,000 ThankYou points for a $100 cheque not only sweetens the deal but may also be the push you need – it’s not clear how long this new rate will stick around.

And if it’s too late for 2011, here’s an easy 2012 resolution for you: set up and remember to use UPromise or the ThankYou network to get rid of your student loans next year. Good luck, and have fun watching your loan balance disappear!