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.

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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!

ev’reward: An Awesome Shortcut for Miles and Cashback Comparison Shopping

Late last week, I learned about a great website that I think is worth sharing: ev’reward.

I strongly believe in going through a portal whenever I online shop, so once I find something I want to buy, I put it in my check-out basket and then visit several portals to find out which one is giving the highest mileage or cashback return for that store. As I showed a while back, there isn’t one portal that is always the best – some portals have more partner stores than others, and the highest miles/ cashback yield varies by portal and store. And while I still visit several online portals, I admit that checking every one is a fairly time-consuming process if all you want to do is click “buy” and have an item delivered to your house.

Step in ev’reward. Through this website, you don’t have to decide whether visiting each portal is worth it for you – ev’reward automatically visits them and tells you what their deals are! All you have to do is type the name of the online store from which you’re buying something, and ev’reward gives you a list of portals and the miles or cashback each one will give you for making a purchase from that store. This cuts the research process to just a few seconds, and you can immediately see which portal will suit you best.

ev’reward’s output for Banana Republic: portals for cashback, savings, points, and miles

There are only two caveats that I’ve seen so far. First, some rates are a little outdated. For example, United’s Mileage Plus Shopping Portal is currently offering 2.5 miles per dollar spent at Banana Republic online, but ev’reward is showing only 2 miles per dollar. Second, it doesn’t list every portal out there, so that if you typed in “amazon.com,” you wouldn’t know through ev’reward that Hawaiian’s and US Airways’ shopping portals currently give miles for Amazon purchases.

Nonetheless, if you usually check several portals like I do before buying, ev’reward is a great starting point to find out which ones are even worth looking into. In the case of J.Crew, for example, ev’reward correctly does not list ShopDiscover as a cashback portal, so I know there’s no point in checking, which saves me some time. On the other hand, if you are not planning on investigating each portal before buying, with the ev’reward output, you can at least be sure that if you go through any portal on its list, you’ll get more miles or cashback than if you didn’t go through one at all.

Now, Go Through a Portal to Buy on Amazon

To save when shopping online it is well established that you should (1) run a quick search for coupons and (2) shop through an online portal if you can. But until recently, if you were buying anything on Amazon, there was no way to double-dip. You could of course get points/miles through your credit card, but there wasn’t any portal offering points/miles or cash back for Amazon purchases. This changed very recently: now, US Airways’ Shopping Mall now gives 1 mile per $1 spent on amazon.com and Hawaiian Airlines’ eMarket gives 2 miles per $1 spent!

If you are a member of any of these two airline programs and make a lot of purchases on Amazon, this is amazing news. All you have to do is register at the respective portal, and remember to reach Amazon by clicking through the portal link rather than typing it on your browser bar directly when making a purchase.

Amazon.com now on Hawaiian's eMarket

If you shop on Amazon frequently but are not a member of US Airways’ Dividend Miles or Hawaiian’s HawaiianMiles frequent flier programs, there may still be something in it for you. Depending on how much you shop, it may be worthwhile to set up an account with either of the two programs and start accumulating miles anyway. A purchase here and there may not seem to make a difference, but given that membership is free and, for both programs, miles do not expire as long as you have an activity in the account every 18 months, if you buy stuff on Amazon there’s really no reason not to set up an account. In the worst case scenario, your miles expire and you earn nothing – and lose nothing. In the best case scenario, you either shop frequently enough to keep the account going and accumulate miles for a ticket eventually or, even better, you learn that you spend more on Amazon than you anticipated and earn a free ticket in no time.

When deciding for which of the two programs to sign up, there are some things to consider. On one hand, US Airways is a larger airline with more partners, so if you are looking for a mileage program in general, it’s a good bet. Once you’ve set up the account, you can always credit flights you take on US Airways as well as on other Star Alliance members, including United/Continental and international carriers such as Thai and Lufthansa, and accumulate miles even faster.

On the other hand, while Hawaiian is not in an alliance and only has 4 airline partners (Delta, Island Air, Korean Air, and Virgin Atlantic), its portal offers twice as many miles per dollar spent on Amazon. So, if you don’t fly on any of US Airways’ or Hawaiian’s partners, or already have your favorite frequent flier program, Hawaiian may be a good option just for earning those Amazon miles.  Also, as has been pointed out by some very savvy people who know the ins-and-outs of frequent flier programs, every 5000 HawaiianMiles can be converted into 10,000 Hilton HHonors points, making this a compelling deal for Hilton HHonors members too.

Amazon’s new participation in US Airways’ Shopping Mall and Hawaiian’s eMarket portals is exciting news in general.  For members of HawaiianMiles, US Airways’ Dividend Miles, or Hilton HHonors benefits could be great. But even if you aren’t a member of any of these programs, if you shop a lot on Amazon, there are probably still gains to be had by going through one of the two portals. And if you’re still not convinced, you could also sit back and wait: maybe Amazon’s participation in these two portals is a sign of even better times to come, when Amazon is giving miles, points, or cash back on every shopping portal out there.

The MarketPlace is Not Unique, but Isn’t Bad Either

MasterCard has been heavily advertising its new MarketPlace online portal, and it in fact offers some valuable deals.

When it comes to online shopping, portals for discounts, cash, points, or miles already abound.  These are websites that, if you visit an online store through one of their links rather than by typing the store’s name directly, you can get a credit towards your account with the portal.  Even before the MasterCard MarketPlace, there were already many around, including Borders Rewards Perks, Fatwallet, ShopDiscover, Bank of America’s Add It Up, Amtrak’s Points for Shopping, and AAdvantage eShopping, to name just a few.  But one thing the portals have in common is that they all require payment by credit card at the online store, and the portal owners are paid a commission on the purchase their facilitated.  As a credit card company, MasterCard has launched MarketPlace as a way to cut out the middle-man and get a cut not only for the usage of its credit card, but also for the referral through its portal. Continue reading

Rewards in Checking: Bank of America

Barring the rare interest-yielding accounts, it is hard to get much out of your checking account besides the money you already deposited into it and some checks.  But using programs associated with you bank may get you a little more.  Two weeks ago, I wrote on how to make the most of your Citibank account using the ThankYou network, and today I will cover Bank of America.

Bank of America hosts Add It Up, an online shopping portal offering cash back for purchases you make through it.  Of course, there are several other similar portals, such as ShopDiscover, UPromise, and each of the airline portals, and Add It Up won’t always have the best deal.  However, it is worth a visit when you online shop, since the top cash back offer varies by retailer and the cash back earned through Add It Up is deposited directly into your Bank of America checking account – unlike ShopDiscover, for which there are thresholds for cash back redemption, and UPromise, which has a threshold and only makes transfers quarterly. (Click here for a previous post comparing different cash back offers and here for last week’s NYTimes’ Your Money column’s explanation on online shopping portals).

Moreover, unlike most other online portals, Bank of America has a good range of in-store partners as well – at least until the end of 2009.  Once you register your Bank of America checking account for the Add It Up program, you can get a 5% cash back for purchases you make at Staples, Barnes & Noble, Sephora, Macy’s, and Radio Shack stores and at Olive Garden and Burger King restaurants.  This offer runs until December 31, 2009, and is limited to $250 in cash back.  Once you enroll in the Add It Up program, just use your Bank of America check/debit card when shopping at these stores and the bonus will be credited straight into you checking account.  And don’t forget that you can always combine these cash back offers with store coupons.

With Add It Up, it is almost as if Bank of America is paying you to do your holiday shopping – or at least giving you a discount for doing so.