I have had credit cards since around 2004 and have been with American Express since 2010. It wasn’t until 2018 that I started to actively track my spending toward specific goals where I focused not a small amount of time in growing my points portfolio specifically to use for travel. The only exception would by my Amazon Prime credit card (issued by Chase) that I use on Amazon.com and at Whole Foods and then redeem those points once a year for Amazon.com purchases. That’s what they’re best for and it’s a no-fee card that gives a discount at two places I shop regularly.
My current cards are listed out and I’ve included which ones are ‘sock-drawer’ cards meaning I have the cards for their perks that work without swiping. The annual fee is simply an upfront payment for a later benefit.
- AmEx Platinum (sock drawer)
- AmEx Gold
- Delta Platinum
- Marriot Brilliant (sock drawer)
- Marriot Business
- Amazon Prime
- United Explorer (sock drawer)
- BMW Card (sock drawer)
- Card (virtual sock drawer)
To maximize points, I specifically chose cards for brands I’m already loyal and secondary is to establish a matrix where you rarely ever earn just 1 cent back on your purchase. 2 or more cents for every swipe is ideal but you’ll notice I don’t have any cards that have any cash-back except Apple Card so something like Chase Freedom is probably worth having. Second priority is to not get so many cards that you just can’t keep track of them all and finally, my cards are all spread out on when the annual fee posts. As in, I did not sign up for every card on the same month of the year.
This is partly budgetary but also it’s because every 13 months, I ask for retention offers on all of my cards that have an annual fee. Over 50% of my points are derived from retention offers. The last 12 months gave me 75,000 Amex membership rewards points, 50,000 Delta sky miles and 75,000 Marriot Bonvoy points just for calling up and asking if there are any retention offers. I agree to keep the cards open for 13 months and I’ll have 90 days to spend a certain amount of money. My current Platinum retention offer was 30,000 points for $3,000 in spending and I have 90 days to meet that. If every card’s annual fee posted at the same time, I’d have to spend a lot all at once to meet retention offer spend requirements.
Benefits per card: Each of these cards provides a value to me that I’ll break down and it should help in why some are sock drawer cards.
- AmEx Platinum (sock drawer):
- $695 per year annual fee
- Sock drawer perks: $189 for Clear, Global Entry, Marriot Gold, Hilton Gold, $185 a year for Uber, $240 a year in streaming service credits, Delta lounge access, Priority Pass, Centurion Club access, $200 hotel credits, $200 in airline incidentals, Rental car status and more
- 30,000-55,000 points every year just for keeping the card open (through retention fees) — one year they waived the annual fee for no charge
- I also use this card for big purchases for the extra warranty (even adds on year to a Mac you buy with AppleCare for a 4 year warranty)
- Finally, I use this card for all airline bookings for 5X points
- It’s a sock drawer card because for daily-swipes, there isn’t much value in keeping it in your wallet. I throw it in when traveling for extra protection
- AmEx Gold:
- $250 per year annual fee
- Sock drawer perks: $120 toward Uber and $120 for dining
- 4X multiplier for groceries and restaurants (the #1 use for it)
- 20,000-30,000 points per year in retention offers
- Delta Platinum:
- $250 per year annual fee
- Sock drawer perks: Priority boarding, free checked bags and a companion ticket to economy, main cabin or comfort plus as long as I’m flying with the companion (I use this for our annual vacation and usually get $450 in value without trying)
- I only carry this card on me 3-4 months a year why? Because with $25,000 in purchases, this grants you a Delta MQD Waiver + 10,000 MQMs. Once I hit the $25K in spending, it goes back in the sock drawer. This waiver + MQM bonus helps me keep Gold status every year then the waiver we use to take a trip. The card is easily worth $500-$750 to me every year
- Marriot Brilliant (sock drawer):
- $650 annual fee and its on the chopping block for me as a card I’ll likely drop this year
- Sock Drawer Perks: 85,000 Free Night Certificate every year after annual fee posts, Marriot Platinum status with no spending requirement, some perks if I stay at a St. Regis or Four Seasons, $20 a month for restaurants ($240 a year) that we use the 1st day of every month to get it out of the way then it goes back in the sock drawer until next month
- Platinum Status + 85,000 certificate + $240 in restaurants does make up for the fee but I earn Platinum status almost organically every year so the only other perk is a free night and $20 toward a dinner.
- It also have a multiplier when booking a stay at a Marriot but so does the business card (below)
- Marriot Business:
- $125 a year annual fee
- 4X multiplier for fuel (which is what I use it for) plus other purchases like 50% off FedEx which saves me enough to cover the annual fee
- 6X multipler at Marriot
- 12% off Marriot room rates (not as good as AAA or AARP but it’s decent)
- 35,000 night certificate every year
- This is the most profitable card I hold hands down
- Amazon Prime:
- No Fee
- I only use it at Amazon.com and Whole Foods
- Redeem points once a year for an Amazon purchase (usually a few hundred dollars worth of stuff.
- United Explorer (sock drawer):
- $99 a year annual fee
- Free checked bags with United + 2 Lounge passes
- Points multiplier on United purchases (not as good as Amex Platinum)
- My United miles will never expire so long as I hold this card. I no longer live in SF so my United miles expiring is something I’ve come close to and why I originally got this card.
- BMW Card (sock drawer):
- No annual fee
- I only use it when purchasing BMW cars/bikes/accessories/service/parts
- I have about $1500 worth of points toward a BMW purchase like a down payment on a car/bike or redeemable toward a BMW financed vehicle. It’s a great return but only ever swiped at BMW dealers. Not recommended for anyone not owning a BMW.
- Card (virtual sock drawer):
- No annual fee
- 3% back on Apple purchases. I use it anytime either Amex isn’t accepted or there’s not a good points multiplier for the place I’m shopping. I might put $250 a month on this card. I use it for small Apple purchases but I admit I usually use the Amex Platinum for most large Apple purchases like iPhones due to the extended warranty Amex offers.
How this looks in reality? I use Amex for 90% of my purchases. Gold mostly than the Marriot Business card and then Platinum or Skymiles. It all depends on what place I’m swiping my card (or tapping mostly). Also, my strategy focuses a lot on retention offers so while I know my Amex is only getting 1 point per dollar spend right now, I know that by spending $3,000, I’m going to get 30,000 points or 10% back. I almost always have a retention offer so my strategy is primarily using the card that has an equivalent 10% off at any given time which, as mentioned earlier, feeds half of my annual points.
Notable call out, no Chase Sapphire in my card options. I’ve found AmEx is more closely aligned and don’t want to split my points between two major players. Having Chase & Amex points side by side would be more than my mental spreadsheet can track so I’ve chosen to just focus on one. I’d suggest people do the same when starting out.
How many points are we talking each year? These are rounded figures:
- 75,000 skymiles
- 150,000 Membership rewards
- 175,000 Marriot Bonvoy points
Keep in mind this is spending + retention offers + any other applicable bonuses like 120,000 of those Bonvoy points I acquire through the annual free night certificates I earn just by holding the card. This will usually earn us one free trip a year.
…but wait, it’s not FREE.
Good point because if you are an astute reader, you have already added up the fees and saw that I’m paying $2,069 a year in annual fees which should get me pretty close to a free trip but this is you exclude the additional values like status, lounge access, checked bags, companion tickets, restaurant and uber credits and more. You do have to work to maximize the ‘coupon clipping’ nature of some of these cards but I use the Amex Platinum WalMart perk very often and I definitely maximize all of the monthly credits and the $200 toward hotel stays or airline incidentals. It all adds up. My wife just this week got $40 in restaurants and 4 free checked bags just by being an authorized user on my cards and using the right one at the right place. There are ongoing perks that keep these cards in our wallets (or sock drawers).
I don’t want to overload folks reading about credit card points for the first time so I’ll leave this one out there and maybe write another one about points redemptions which is a lot more complicated but might be valuable to some. Thanks for reading!
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