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!

Rewards in Checking: Citibank

This is Money Under Your Futon’s 101st post!  To celebrate this occasion and thank our readers, we are announcing our new e-mail address: moneyunderyourfuton [at] gmail [dot] com.  Please feel free to send us your money-related questions, and we will try to respond to them in future posts.

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It is hard to make money off your checking account.  With a few exceptions, such as ING’s interest-paying Electric Orange account, most checking accounts give you no more cash than what you have already deposited into them.  And some don’t even offer that, as their maintenance fees slowly chisel through your balance.  But sometimes a bank promotion can transform a regular checking account into part of a relatively generous program.

With Citibank, for example, you can earn ThankYou points every month simply for having a checking account with a debit card and direct deposit.  The ThankYou Network allows for point accumulation through several services and merchants, including Citibank and Expedia, though the fastest way to earn points is usually through one of Citibank’s credit cards tied to the program.  But Citibank also gives its checking customers monthly ThankYou points for coupling the account with at least any two other services, such as having a debit card, direct deposit, or online bill payment.  The monthly points range from 25 to 1,200, depending on the type of checking account and the number of services linked to it (click here for a table detailing the points per account type and number of services).

You can earn even more ThankYou points if you use your Citibank debit card for purchases.  Although the credit card offers tends to be more generous, Citibank has jumped into the bank trend of linking debit cards to reward programs in an attempt to attract more customers dropping credit cards in response to the crisis.  For purchases made with a Citibank debit card, you can earn 1 ThankYou point for every $2 spent on signature purchases (i.e., a purchase that requires your signature on the receipt) and 1 point for every $3 on purchases using your PIN.

If you already have a ThankYou Network account, make sure to get points for your checking and debit card use.  Call customer service (1800-THANKYOU) to link your checking account to the network.  And if you have a Citibank checking account but are still not in the ThankYou Network, consider joining it and reaping rewards, especially if you use the other partners in the network, have a high-end account for which you can get a lot of points per month, or use your Citibank debit card frequently.

With the current low interest rates on savings account, you may find that your checking account gives you more bang for your buck.