Welcome to ThePointSoldier Beginner’s Guide in using points and miles.
I will break this process up into 6 steps.
Step 1. Join rewards programs
Sign up for any and every rewards program you can think of. Every airline, hotel chain (SPG, IHG, Marriott, Hilton, Best Western, etc.), rental car agency should be on your list. At a minimu
m, as far as airlines are concerned, start out with a few of each of the “Big Three”. OneWorld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam are the three major airline alliances.
Once you’ve joined all the program you can think of, search for more. A quick Google search is all it takes. The reason why this is the very first step is because this is what it’s all about. You’ll want to join as many rewards programs as possible and earn points and miles on every dollar you spend. In fact, this is the beauty of this system. You won’t have to change any shopping habits or spend more money than usual, rather the opposite. You just follow the same routine you already do, only with a specific system in mind as you do it.
All set? Good, now make sure that next time you book a flight, rent a car, or stay at a hotel, you book using your applicable rewards number, and follow up on it. Always double check you’re being credited the points you’ve earned. Also, don’t let a humble beginning discourage you, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Trust me, the points and miles do add up, and you don’t have to be a frequent flyer.
Step 2. Call your banks and credit issuers
This website is military oriented, and while everyone is more than welcome here, this specific step is mostly applicable to my brothers and sisters in arms.
Call any financial institution that you have any line of credit with and ask to have your Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) benefits applied. The SCRA is the successor to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act, which had been around in some way, shape or form since the U.S. Civil War. The Act, an official U.S. law, was imposed to protect U.S. service members from legal action while deployed to an armed conflict. Those legal actions also include debts accrued prior to active duty. The law has evolved over the decades, but not its primary focus: To minimize the financial effect deployments have on Soldiers, Sailor, Airmen and Marines. Times have changed and we are much better paid than in the Civil War era, but a $30,000 student loan with 11 percent interest can still degrade a Soldier’s main mission; to win America’s wars. The Act will not erase the debt, it merely limits the interest rate imposed by the financial institutions on the service member to no more than 6 percent. That, however, can mean the difference between paying thousands of dollars in interest and just several hundred. The best part, this includes credit card debt. There are other benefits under this Act and I highly recommend reading up on it. But for the purpose of our mission to earn and collect points I’d like to focus your attention to the credit card benefits.
When I first heard about this law, I called all of my financial institutions and had them check my records. I did not have many credit cards at the time so I did not have high hopes for a any reimbursement. But roughly 3 weeks later I received a check in the mail from Chase and a debit from American Express of almost a thousand dollars each. The SCRA benefit is retroactive to your first day of active duty. I received the check from Chase for an old account that had been closed for years. But it was actually the only account I had with Chase that qualified for this benefit, as my, at the time, current Chase account had been opened after I joined the Army. As far as American Express, I only had one credit card with them, the SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) card. I had opened that account long after I enlisted, so I was surprised to receive anything from Amex. Turns out that Amex goes above and beyond with their SCRA benefits. Remember, you can always add, but cannot take away. Well Amex adds, a lot. Not only do they not care about when you joined the military, it also does not matter to them if the debt was accrued before active duty or during. All debt will fall fall under those benefits. That’s not even the good part. They not only limit interest rates to no more than 6 percent, but also waive all fees! That means no late payment fees, no foreign transaction fees and here’s the big one, no annual fees. And yes, you’ll be reimbursed once your military service has been verified by Amex. This is a huge deal for us, because Amex has some of the best credit cards out there for earning and collecting points, as well as some “premium cards” with typically pretty hefty annual fees. Turns out that Amex is not the only institution with such generous benefits. Here’s a breakdown of some of the major credit institutions and their SCRA benefits. Keep in mind that this is nothing official and only as I have researched it at the time of writing. Please conduct your own research and always assume the a financial institution will “only” adhere to the benefits outlined in the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
- 6% interest rate cap
- all fees waived for ALL service members
- adheres to the SCRA
- 4% interest rate cap
- all fees waived for ALL members (with few exceptions)
Bank of America
- seems to just strictly adhere to the SCRA
- seems to just strictly adhere to the SCRA
- have not been able to find anything official, though Barclay does also waive all fees to all service member, to my knowledge
- adheres to the SCRA
- 4% interest rate cap on pre-existing USAA credit card and loan debt (excludes mortgages)
As you can see, the benefits vary widely from institution to institution, so the best thing you can do is to call all of your institutions. You may be surprised by how much you’ve been overpaying for years.
Note: Please, do not just apply for every Amex and Capital One card available. Always remember that just because you can, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Step 3. Check your credit score and pay off your existing credit card debt
Here’s the deal, this points system can very lucrative, even fun and very healthy for your credit score (which, in turn, is also very lucrative). But if you do not use your credit card(s) like cash, i.e. paying off your balance in full each Month, you will not be successful at this. Worse even, you could put yourself in a very grave situation, financially speaking. I do not mean paying off the entire balance most Months, I mean every Month! If you fail to pay the full balance just once, the points you’ve accumulated will have lost tremendous value, because you will now pay interest for at least 2 Months.
Doing this was a huge change for me, because even though I never really carried large credit card balances in the past, I didn’t mind making Month to Month payments on my cards. That was a tremendous waste of money and rendered any and all points that I had accumulated over the years, which weren’t many to begin with, essentially worthless. So this is the step that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. Are you ready to truly get a handle on your finances and any potential impulse buying? You should be, and financial freedom should be your motivator.
Once you’ve brought your credit card balances down to zero, you will, as stated earlier, continue to pay interest for a few months (usually 2 or 3). This is normal and has something to do with your billing cycle and grace period. Keep monitoring your credit card balances and pay off any interest as soon as you notice it.
Next, perform a credit check. You should already be checking your credit report annually at www.annualcreditreport.com (this is the only official website to do so) but there are many other free, albeit unofficial tools to check your credit score as well. My personal favorite is Credit Karma. Credit Karma shows your TransUnion and Equifax score for free, along with factors influencing your score and suggestions for improving your score. It may not be your official FICO score, but it’s a good indication of where you stand.
Step 4. Evaluate your situation and determine your goals
This is where you’ll have to sit down and look at your 12 Month plan. Do you plan on making any major purchases, such as a house, car, or boat? Or maybe you’re thinking about refinancing or getting a business/personal loan. If the answer is “yes” to any of these, I’d suggest holding off on applying for any credit cards at this time. There are many factors influencing your credit score and recent credit inquiries is one of them. With any type of loan application, you’ll want your credit score to be as high as possible. Wait at least 3 Months after paying off your credit cards to apply for any loans in order to get ideal interest rates. Then wait 6 Months or more before you apply for any new credit card.
Once that’s settled, determine what credit card benefits you’re looking for. Do you travel frequently and are interested in miles and/or points? Or would you prefer essentially a “25th paycheck” each year and get a cash back? I will focus primarily on points and miles, as those may be less straightforward, but much more lucrative if you learn how to maximize the points for you. If you’ve decided you’re more interested in points, your next step is to determine what type of points you want to invest in. There are 3 major credit card points systems: Ultimate Rewards by Chase, Membership Rewards by American Express and ThankYou Rewards by Citibank. There are more, but I recommend using at least one of these as your foundation for collecting points. I also suggest diversifying your points because each system has its unique perks and transfer partners.
Step 5. Determine your spending habits
You need to know what your spending habits are in order to pick the right cards for your purpose. Maybe you fly and stay at hotels a lot? Do you drive a lot and spend a ton on gas? Do you eat out more or buy groceries and cook at home? Probably a combination of those things, and you need to determine what your priorities are.
Building a budget helps tremendously with this step and is generally a great tool to have. I’ve built mine in under 3 hours and it helped me shave off unnecessary spending that I was oblivious to before. There are countless budget building tools and spreadsheets for this purpose online. All you have to do is to find one that suits your situation and needs. It’s actually kind of fun, and definitely eye opening. I keep a working budget and record all of my daily spending and income.
Step 6. Do your research and apply
Research your options. Look at each program’s transfer partner and see how you can benefit from them. Keep in mind that just because your airline of interest isn’t an actual transfer partner, doesn’t mean you cannot use your points to fly with that airline. As stated earlier, it’s all about the big 3 airline alliances. You can, for example, book an award flight with British Airways for an American Airlines flight, as they are both part of OneWorld. Another option is to book a flight, vacation package, cruise or rental car through the reward program’s travel portal with points, cash, or a combination of both.
I will update this site regularly with interesting reading material, travel experiences (and how I used my points) and product reviews. Make sure to stop by frequently, leave comments, sign up for e-mail updates, and join us on social media. Please feel free to also contact me with any questions you may have. This is only the beginning but there will be so much more to come. Thank you for reading my blog and remember that reading is the key to knowledge.