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Points master Joe Pyrek gives us the deets about
how to pay your grad school tuition with a credit card
and use the points to travel in luxury for free!
How long have you been "travel hacking?
I have been messing around with points since about 2004, but really started in earnest about 5 years ago.
About how many points do you estimate you earn a year?
I'm at a point where I am earning 750,000 points per year by doing pretty much just my normal spending. I typically average about 2 credit card sign-ups per year, but always make sure to maximize shopping portals, dining rewards programs, gift cards, and funneling my bill payments through intermediaries like Plastiq to generate points.
What is one of your favorite techniques for "manufactured spending?"
I actually don't engage in any true manufactured spend. The closest I get to it would be utilizing my credit card to purchase gift cards and Plastiq transactions to pay my bills. In reality, the best way, in my opinion, to "manufacture" spend is to use a points card to purchase goods that you intend to sell. Thus, you get the points AND make money on the sale. If you get volumes high enough, you're rolling in beaucoup points and potentially making a healthy profit.
Where did you learn the tricks that you use?
Blogs: The Points Guy, View From the Wing, Frequent Miler, and Miles to Memories
Facebook Groups: Travel Hacking 101, Credit Card Tips and Tricks
What's your favorite example of a manufactured spending technique that got banned?
The easiest one I recall was the ability to load Bluebird Accounts using Vanilla Reload Cards which could be purchased with credit cards and earn extra bonus points. But many retailers stopped accepting credit cards for these a while back. It wasn't a practice I ever engaged in, but when Bluebird began shutting down accounts (leaving some people with money on the cards), I was glad I never got involved.
Did you always plan to pay your tuition with a credit card?
I have been using Plastiq to pay my bills since about the middle of 2015, so when I made the decision to go to grad school, it was only natural for me to look into the best way for me to earn points on the transaction.
What is your tuition and what school do you go to?
I am attending William and Mary for my MBA and the tuition actually varies a bit semester to semester, but averages out to about $25,000 a year. It isn't completely breaking the bank, but is in no way chump change.
What is your strategy for paying by credit card? How do you choose it and what are the details?
For the most part, I employ the same strategy as I do with my mortgage, utility bills, and car payment. I purchase Visa/MC/Amex gift cards from office supply stores using my Chase Ink Plus card (there’s a category bonus with this card where you earn 5x Ultimate Rewards points at office supply stores) and with my Chase Freedom card following their quarterly bonus categories (earns 5x, capped at $1,500 in spend per quarter). Each gift card carries a small load fee ($6.95 or $8.95), but I have done the math and it’s still worth it. Sometimes the office supply stores also offer rebates, which cancel out the fees.
I then have the option to use these Visa / MC / AMEX gift cards to pay the school directly or via Plastiq. I chose Plastiq because the fees charged were much lower than the ones William & Mary charges. Normally, Plastiq charges 2.5% for all of those cards, but they routinely run promos where the rates are lower. For example, Plastiq is running an AMEX promo right now with a reduced 2% fee:
Expires: Feb 28, 2017
Can you explain why you use gift cards instead of paying directly through Plastiq or through your school?
I choose to use Plastiq because they have lower transaction fees for using the cards than if I used the cards with my school directly. As far as why I go through the extra step buying the gift cards at office supply stores, it’s because I can get 5x the points.
How many hours would you say you've spent executing on this strategy?
In total, I probably spent 45 minutes procuring all of the gift cards and liquidating them through Plastiq.
When do you go to Office Max and Staples?
On the way home from work.
Is there a daily limit?
It depends. OfficeMax limits gift card transactions to $2,000. The most I have ever purchased at Staples is $1,500, but I have heard both reports of $2,000 and $3,000. For Staples online, there is a $2,000 per day limit. Just to make things more complicated, both stores run rebates on gift cards almost monthly. Staples rebates are done online and limited to one per person per household (and they do try to shutdown fake accounts). OfficeMax on the other hand has rebates that are applied at the register. They technically limit the rebates to 2 per customer (generally). However, as they don’t take any personal information, you can grab these rebates at different stores and even at the same store with different associates. Like a lot of things of this nature, your results may vary! If you choose to go the online route, definitely use one of the many shopping portals out there. Technically gift card purchases do NOT receive portal bonuses, but they don’t always code correctly. In my experience, about 10% of the time using a portal for Staples gift card purchases results in bonus points. Again, your results may vary, but you’ve got nothing to lose with this strategy!
You paid your tuition in how many transactions?!
Ha ha...too many. My first semester ended up being 34 transactions, since the gift cards I had were mainly $200 and $300 cards. My second semester ended up being 3 transactions - 2x $500 gift cards sent through Plastiq and then I put the remainder on my SPG Business card and sent the money through Plastiq. I did the SPG card for two reasons:
AMEX (the SPG card is an AMEX) was running the small business promotion, where small businesses would code as 2x points. Plastiq was coding that way and since I value SPG points above all others, it is a pretty good return.
I was a shade under $30,000 of spend on that card for the year and at $30K you receive SPG Gold status for the following year. This pushed me over that $30K to guarantee that status for 2017.
Do the people in student financial services think you're a little nuts?
I fully expected to receive a phone call asking what was going on, but no one said a thing, they all posted to my account, and I kept my mouth shut. I assume it is an automated process on their end, or they just don't see this sort of thing often, so there isn't anything in the system to watch for it. To be perfectly frank, nothing that was done here was in any way wrong. Perhaps it could be a bit more inconvenient for them, but then again, you can go to the bursar and pay with cash. I would assume that could be equally inconvenient for them.
Would this work for people who are using student loans?
Not for paying your tuition because student loans are usually disbursed directly to a university (they don’t come through you first). However, this would work for any portion you are pre-paying. Just make sure you don’t do this if you don’t actually have the cash to pay for it because credit card interest rates are steep and will quickly negate any point rewards you might earn. Also, you can use Plastiq and this technique to pay off your student loans!
And you always pay your credit card bills in full and on time? You never accrue interest?
I always pay in full and on time. I never accrue interest.
Do you have to pay taxes on credit card rewards?
No. They are considered a rebate. You can read more here.
Have you run into any issues or obstacles?
Overall, no, Plastiq is pretty straightforward and you input your bill info and then you pay it and you're good to go. The only minor issue I had was actually paying my HVAC guy, not my tuition. I was having a new HVAC system installed in my rental property and the terms were half up front, and half on completion. I used Plastiq to send a series to checks to him for the first half without issue. Two weeks later when I went to pay the second half, Plastiq flagged it. The reason for this is that Plastiq does not allow for random payments to individuals (they don't want to be used for manufactured spend or anything that could resemble laundering). My HVAC guy's check just had his name on it as that is also the name of the company. The email they sent me just asked for an invoice. I emailed back stating that I had a hard copy invoice, but that I had a PDF of the job estimate that detailed the half payment up front and half upon completion. I attached the PDF in the response and I received an email less than 24 hours saying they processed my payment and it was on the way. Going forward, I expect to be able to pay him without any issues.
Can you break down your first semester’s tuition payment and point haul for us?
What do you consider the cash value of the points earned from paying your tuition?
Well...typically the cash value of a point is a meager $0.01. So, for that first semester, the Ultimate Rewards points could be converted into $477.18 cash. The SPG points cannot be redeemed for cash, but get roughly the same cashback rate on gift cards.
The value can be SIGNIFICANTLY higher if used for travel, especially if transferred to an airline and used to book an award ticket. With just these points you could fly Singapore Airlines’ First Class Suites from New York to Frankfurt and have points left over. This is a flight which typically retails for over $5,000.
What do you plan to use all these points for?
I ALWAYS use my points for travel. If I look at the flight redemptions in terms of their face value and # of points required, I can typically secure a value of over $0.10 per point. So if I earned 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points, I find a way to redeem it for approximately $5,000 in travel.
One of my "problems" is that I am sitting on quite a cache of Chase points at the moment and due to school and work, have had limited time to travel. I am targeting a trip over to Asia later this year and I'll definitely grab a few flights for my parents. More than likely I'll be using 80,000 Chase points transferred to Korean Air to try out one of their first class products. Although, depending on availability, I may try to find a business class or first class Singapore Airlines flight over to Asia, which would set my back anywhere from 72,000 – 94,000 for the one-way ticket.
Side note for amateurs: transferring points to airline partners as “miles” is often the best way to get a high value per point. Typically, the higher the class of travel (first class, for example), the higher the value per point. It’s usually just a few clicks and for most airlines, it’s instantaneous (the miles post in your airline account immediately). Don’t be intimidated!
Joe's total point haul for all of 2016 (including but not limited to his tuition):
Those 797,660 points? If he keeps finding first class flights where he can redeem for 10 cents/point, he could theoretically
redeem this stash for about $79,766 of travel.
Joe's Current Ultimate Rewards Balance:
What is your best tip for people looking to pay their tuition with their credit card?
I don't have just ONE best tip, come on! Here's my top suggestions:
Check and Double Check the Fees:
Check the fees for paying with a card and see how this aligns with your points haul from the purchase. If you are getting one or more sign-up bonuses, then it is basically always worth it. However, it might not be worth if it you can achieve that spend organically through your everyday purchases, which won’t incur a credit card transaction fee (at least not one that you are told about – retailers just hide it in the price of a product). In general, if you’re not shooting for a sign up bonus and if you are just about the cash back, you might actually be spending more than you receive.
Plan Your Redemptions:
If you aren't as experienced with points travel, just create a redemption plan first, don't just start banking points. Points devalue over time and can devalue suddenly, so you should always have an exit strategy in mind. An app like RewardStock can help you make a plan for earning and redeeming points.
Pick A "Points" Currency:
If you are newer to the points game, pick a points "currency" first (AMEX Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thank You Points, Starwood Preferred Guest) and stick with it. Having 500,000 points, split up among programs in increments of 25K won't do you much good.
There are so many great things you can do with these points and it can really take the sting out of some of these bigger bills like tuition or your mortgage knowing you’re earning some free travel when you hit “pay bill.”
How can people thank you for giving them these awesome insights?
I co-run a Facebook group called Credit Cards – Tips & Tricks that people can join to chat with like-minded folks about points travel and credit card tips. I'd be honored if your readers joined up. I also have a referral link to Plastiq. In the spirit of full disclosure, I do get "fee free dollars" to use if people sign up and complete a payment through Plastiq, but the good news you get some fee free dollars too!
Joe has been an avid traveler all of his life and found a way to link this passion with his personal financial knowledge in order to earn massive annual hauls of points. Over the past 4 years, he has been averaging $45,000 of free travel annually. When he isn't scheming on points or traveling the globe he can be found in Richmond, VA perfecting BBQ recipes and volunteering at his local rescue squad. You can contact Joe at allthosepoints [at] gmail.com.
The owner of this site is not an investment advisor, financial planner, nor legal or tax professional and articles here are an opinion. The content on this site is intended to be educational and used for general informational purposes only. It is not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. The owner of this sites assumes no liability for information provided above. The information may not be correct when applied to your specific situation.