In our most recent Frequent Miler on the Air podcast, Nick and I played a game. We each had 15 minutes to design the ultimate collection of credit cards with a total annual fee of $250 or less. The goal was to build a wallet with the best possible earning power. The rules were that all cards must offer points that transfer 1 to 1 to airline and hotel programs and that rebates don’t count.
In this post, I’ll show you what Nick and I came up with and discuss real world considerations for making the ultimate wallet even better…
Before recording our latest podcast, Nick and I had about 15 minutes to design the ultimate wallet for earning the most valuable rewards. Here were the rules:
- Total annual fees could not exceed $250
- Rebates don’t count. This meant, for example, that we couldn’t choose the $550 Sapphire Reserve card and say that the card’s $300 travel rebate reduces the annual fee to $250. Nope. We had to stick with cards where the total up-front annual fees added to $250 or less.
- 1 to 1 transferable points only. All cards must offer points transferable 1 to 1 (or better) to airline and hotel programs. It was OK to pick a card like the Chase Freedom Flex where points require another card to become transferable, but only if the wallet also included that other card. With the Freedom Flex, for example, we would need either the $95 Sapphire Preferred or the $95 Ink Business Preferred to make the points transferable.
During the show we emailed each other our picks (to keep ourselves honest). Then we stepped through a number of categories of spend (gas, grocery, dining, etc.) and alternated who went first to reveal which card they had in their wallet for that type of spend.
Nick’s wallet included cards from American Express and Capital One. Both of his Amex cards earn Membership Rewards points. With Capital One, Nick relied heavily on the fee-free SavorOne cash back card. Even though it’s a cash back card, rewards become transferable if moved to a Capital One “Miles” card. That’s why Nick also added the fee-free VentureOne card to his wallet. This made his SavorOne rewards transferable.
- Gas: Amex Everyday Preferred 3x (with 30 transactions). $95 annual fee.
- Grocery: Amex Everyday Preferred on first $6,000 each year then SavorOne 3x ($0 annual fee). Add the Capital One VentureOne to make SavorOne rewards transferable ($0 annual fee)
- Dining: SavorOne 3x
- Travel: Amex Green 3x. $150 annual fee.
- Phone/internet: Amex Blue Business Plus ($0 annual fee) 2x on first $50K spend per calendar year.
- Office supply: Amex Blue Business Plus 2x on first $50K spend per calendar year.
- Everywhere else: Amex Blue Business Plus 2x on first $50K spend per calendar year.
- Other cards & categories: SavorOne 3x entertainment
Nick’s wallet summary:
- Total Annual Fees: $245
- Amex Everyday Preferred Card ($95 annual fee): With 30 transactions per month, this card offers 4.5x at US grocery stores on the first $6K of spend per year and 3x at gas stations.
- Amex Green Card ($150 annual fee): Nick will use this to earn 3x on all travel spend (the card also offers 3x for dining, but Nick will use his SavorOne card for that purpose).
- Amex Blue Business Plus (No annual fee): This is Nick’s “everywhere else” card. It offers 2x Membership Rewards points on all purchases, up to $50K spend per calendar year (then 1X thereafter)
- Capital One SavorOne (No annual fee): This card offers 3% on dining, entertainment, select streaming services, and purchases at grocery stores. Nick will use the SavorOne to earn 3x for all dining spend, and 3x at grocery stores once he exceeds $6K on his Everyday Preferred. Nick will also enjoy additional perks such as 10% back on Uber & Uber Eats and complementary Uber One membership through 11/14/24.
- Capital One VentureOne (No annual fee): The purpose of this Capital One “Miles” card is to turn the SavorOne cash back rewards into transferable points. See our Capital One guide: Cash back can be converted to miles and rewards can be moved between cards and cardholders.
I went hog wild and included cards from every major transferable points program…
- Gas: Citi Premier 3x ($95 annual fee)
- Grocery: Citi custom cash 5x for first $500 ($0 annual fee). Thanks to the Premier card, above, the Custom Cash rewards become transferable. Then SavorOne 3x ($0 annual fee). I would also add the fee free VentureOne or Spark Miles Select card to make the SavorOne rewards transferable.
- Dining: Bilt 3x ($0 annual fee).
- Travel: Chase Ink Business Preferred 3x ($95 annual fee)
- Phone/internet: Chase Ink Business Cash 5x ($0 annual fee). This requires the Ink Business Preferred, above, to make points transferable.
- Office supply: Chase Ink Business Cash 5x
- Everywhere else: Amex Blue Business Plus 2x for first $50K annually, then Citi Double Cash 2x
- Other cards & categories:
- Bilt: Use monthly on “rent day” when the card offers enhanced earnings. I’d also use this to pay rent (if I had rent to pay) in order to earn additional rewards.
- Citi Rewards+: 10% rewards rebate
- Amex Everyday: More Amex Offers and referrals
- Chase Freedom Flex: 3x drugstore, 5x rotating categories
- Ink Business Unlimited: Product change to Ink Cash for more 5x capacity
Greg’s wallet summary:
- Total annual fees: $190
- Amex Blue Business Plus (No annual fee): This is my “everywhere else” card. It offers 2x Membership Rewards points on all purchases, up to $50K spend per calendar year (then 1X thereafter). If I were to spend more than $50K, I’d switch to earning 2x on the Citi Double Cash.
- Amex Everyday (No annual fee): I’d get this one simply to expand my opportunities for getting lucrative Amex Offers. Some Amex Offers are only available on consumer cards. In real life, I’d also use this as a way to get in on upgrade offers to the $95 Everyday Preferred card, but that doesn’t meet the spirit of this game.
- Bilt (No annual fee): I’d use this to earn 3x dining. Additionally, on the first of each month (“Rent Day”) this card earns double rewards and so on those days I’d use this card for 6x dining, 4x travel, and 2x everywhere else.
- Capital One SavorOne: I’d use this card to earn 3% at grocery stores (after using up my Custom Cash 5x capacity) and to earn 3x for entertainment and select streaming services. I’d also take advantage of additional perks such as 10% back on Uber & Uber Eats and complementary Uber One membership through 11/14/24.
- Capital One Spark Miles Select (No annual fee) or Capital One VentureOne (No annual fee): The purpose of either Capital One “Miles” card is to turn the SavorOne cash back rewards into transferable points. See our Capital One guide: Cash back can be converted to miles and rewards can be moved between cards and cardholders.
- Chase Ink Business Preferred ($95 annual fee): I’d use this to earn 3x on travel, shipping, and select advertising. This card is also essential to make points transferable when earned with fee free Ultimate Rewards cards.
- Chase Ink Business Cash (No annual fee): I’d use this to earn 5X at office supply stores and for phone and internet (on up to $25,000 in total purchases in 5x categories annually).
- Chase Ink Business Unlimited (No annual fee): This card earns 1.5x everywhere, but I’d product change it to the Ink Business Cash in order to expand my 5x earning capacity.
- Chase Freedom Flex (No annual fee): I’d use this to earn 3x at drugstores, and 5x in rotating categories on up to $1500 per quarter.
- Citi Premier ($95 annual fee): I’d use this to earn 3x at gas stations and to make points transferable when earned on fee-free Citi ThankYou cards.
- Citi Custom Cash (No annual fee): This card earns 5x on purchases in your top eligible spend category each billing cycle, up to the first $500 spent, 1x thereafter. I would use this exclusively for up to $500 in grocery spend each billing cycle.
- Citi Double Cash (No annual fee): This card earns 2x on all purchases. I would use this as my “everywhere else” card after using up the Amex Blue Business Plus 2x earnings.
- Citi Rewards+ (No annual fee): This gives me 10% of my points back on the first 100K redeemed each year. By pooling this with my other Citi cards, I’ll get this rebate regardless of which card I earned the points with.
During the show, there was no debate. Nick quickly conceded that I had the winning “hand”. While Nick’s wallet offered 3x and 2x for most spend, my wallet included multiple 5x categories. And, once a month on “rent day”, my wallet would top out with 6x for dining with the Bilt card! Additionally, Nick’s wallet was limited to two (admittedly very good) transferable points programs. If he wanted to transfer points 1 to 1 to Hyatt, United, or American Airlines; or 1 to 2 to Choice Privileges, he was out of luck. With my wallet, though, all of those transfers would be possible. Plus, all Citi transfers would benefit from a 10% points rebate thanks to my Rewards+ card.
Improving the Wallet
If not for the goals and constraints of the game, one might create a very different wallet in the real world. Here are some considerations…
The primary downside of my wallet is that it involves getting and juggling a huge number of cards. You could simplify without losing earning power by removing the Amex cards and Capital One cards in my wallet. Then use the Citi Premier to earn 3x at grocery stores and the Citi Double Cash as the primary 2x everywhere else card. I don’t think that losing Capital One points would hurt much, but losing out on Amex points would mean losing ANA as a transfer partner. Otherwise, I think that the remaining combination of Chase Ultimate Rewards, Bilt Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards is very strong.
In my wallet I suggested holding a single Citi Custom Cash card in order to earn 5x on the category I spent most each billing cycle on up to $500 spend. In reality, it’s possible to get many Custom Cash cards in order to expand that $500 limit. The trick is to sign up for other Citi cards and later product change to the Custom Cash.
The Ink Business Preferred card in my wallet for travel spend offers decent travel protections, but it’s not the best card around for that purpose. The best cards for travel protections are the $550 Chase Sapphire Reserve and the $450 Ritz Carlton Card. The latter isn’t available to new applicants, but you can get it by product changing from a Chase Marriott consumer card that you’ve had for at least a year.
See these posts for more details:
When buying things where you may need an extended warranty, short term damage or theft protection, or return protection, you’ll want to think twice about which card to use for your purchase. The Citi Double Cash, for example, doesn’t offer any of those benefits anymore. For details about which cards offer which types of protections, see: Best Credit Card Purchase Protections.
Similarly, when paying your cell phone bill, it can make sense to use a card that offers cell phone protections rather than the card that offers the biggest rewards. A good compromise from my wallet is the Ink Business Preferred which offers both cell phone protection and 3x rewards (vs. the Ink Cash with 5x rewards and no protection).
Foreign Transaction Fees
Many of the fee free cards listed above have foreign transaction fees. When travelling abroad, stick with these cards from my wallet which have no foreign transaction fees: Bilt, Capital One SavorOne, Capital One Spark Miles Select, Chase Ink Business Preferred, and Citi Premier. Instead of earning 2x for “everywhere else” spend you can earn 1.5x and no foreign transaction fee with the Capital One Spark Miles Select.
Beyond transferable points
In the real world we’re not stuck with earning only transferable points. Other types of rewards can be great too. Here are some additional cards to consider which have awesome earning power for spend:
- Wyndham Rewards Earner Business Card: Earn 8X at gas stations and Wyndham hotels and 5X for marketing, advertising, and utilities (telecommunications, cable, satellite, electric, gas, heating oil and water). This $95 per year card pays for itself with 15,000 bonus points each anniversary plus Diamond status, a 10% discount on free night awards, and no foreign transaction fees.
- U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card: Earn 3X for travel and mobile wallet payments. It’s the latter that is most interesting. You can earn 3x rewards for all Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay spend. This makes the Altitude Reserve the best card to use at big box stores like Costco and at independent stores that don’t fit into bonus categories. Points are worth 1.5 cents each when used towards travel through the portal or through Real Time Mobile Rewards. The card has a $400 annual fee but gives you $325 back each year towards dining and travel spend.
- Bank of America Unlimited Cash Rewards (Free) or Bank of America Premium Rewards ($95): Both cards offer a base 1.5% earning rate for most spend, but if you have $100K invested with Bank of America and/or Merrill Edge you can qualify for Platinum Honors which will give you a 75% bonus on all rewards earned. This means earning a base rewards rate of 2.62% back everywhere. The primary advantage of the Premium Rewards card is that it offers no foreign transaction fees so it’s a fantastic option as your “everywhere else” card when traveling. It also offers $100 back for incidental airline credits each year to make up for its $95 annual fee. If you have Platinum Honors, also consider the Bank of America Customized Cash Rewards Card so that you can earn 5.25% back on the category of your choice on up to $2500 in purchases per quarter.
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