How I talked myself around on Chase ending pooled Ultimate Rewards points

When the travel hacking blogosphere erupted in recent weeks with "rumors" that Chase might, maybe, eventually end the ability to combine points between fixed-value Ultimate Rewards accounts and flexible Ultimate Rewards accounts, I met the rumors with a yawn, for two reasons:

  • such a change would smash the value of their credit card portfolio and cause many heavy spenders to move their purchases to more valuable rewards programs, which you'd think Chase would want to avoid, or at least avoid admitting to their shareholders;
  • and as a travel hacker, there's no use whining about how great things used to be, how terrible they are now, and how much worse they're going to be in the future.

The second point is still true, but over the weekend I had the chance to chat with a couple fellow travel hackers while up in Boston and managed to talk myself around to Chase's logic in ending points pooling, should they ever choose to do so.

Chase Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Cash are bad cashback cards

I love my Freedoms, with which I max out the bonus categories 3-4 quarters each year, and I love my Freedom Unlimited, which gets a lot of my unbonused spend, but we need to clearly understand that they are lousy cashback cards.

The golden standard for a cashback credit card is 2% cashback on all purchases, with no annual fee. There are several such cards; the two I happen to carry are the Citi Double Cash and Fidelity Rewards cards, but there are others.

Note, however, that 2% cashback credit cards with no annual fee are invariably somewhat cumbersome: the Double Cash pays out 1% on purchases and 1% on payments. Fidelity Rewards have to be redeemed into Fidelity accounts, and you have to meet payout minimums and deal with their somewhat primitive rewards site. Both cards charge foreign transaction fees, as well.

In other words, 2% is the ceiling on the value banks are willing to offer their customers in cashback on purchases made with a no-annual-fee card, and even then, they do so only under duress and in the expectation they'll earn at least some of that value back in interest charges and ancillary fees.

Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Cash cards fall far short of that ceiling. Instead of offering 2% cashback, Freedom and Ink Cash cards earn just 1% cashback. Instead of 2% cashback, Freedom Unlimited cards earn just 1.5% cashback. The gimmick — and let's be clear: it's a gimmick — is that Freedom and Ink Cash cards earn bonus points in certain categories, with the idea that a person who carries the card to make bonused purchases will also reach for it when making unbonused purchases, giving up a whole 1% cashback on those unbonused transactions.

With the launch of the Freedom Unlimited offer for 3% cashback the first year, we see something similar: if you can convince someone to use their Freedom Unlimited for all purchases the first year, when it's a good deal, then maybe they'll keep using it in later years, earning just 1.5% cashback and leaving 0.5% cashback for Chase to pocket.

Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus/Bold, and Ink Preferred cards are replacement-level travel cards

All three of Chase's "premium" travel credit cards are middle-of-the-pack offerings for business travelers and other heavy spenders. If you don't manufacture spend, then deciding between the flexible travel rewards cards offered by Chase, American Express, and Citi is just an exercise in optimizing between imperfect airline and hotel chain combinations.

This gives us access to what I think of as one of the most valuable insights of the economics profession: revealed preferences.

Since the Sapphire Preferred and premium Ink cards earn just one flexible Ultimate Rewards point per dollar on unbonused purchases, but the Freedom Unlimited pays 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on unbonused purchases, we know for a fact that Chase values flexible points at least 33% higher than fixed-value points.

That is to say, if Chase has determined that a dollar of unbonused spend is worth, at a maximum, 1.5 cents in rewards, then a dollar spent with the premium cards earns 1 cent in cashback plus 0.5 cents in flexibility (adjusted for the hefty annual fees you have to pay whether you get any value from the cards or not).

This makes pooled points a problem for Chase

If fixed-value Ultimate Rewards points can be freely converted into flexible Ultimate Rewards points, then a dollar spent with the Freedom Unlimited costs Chase not the 1.5 cents they're willing to pay out on unbonused spend, but 2.25 cents: 1.5 cents in cashback plus 0.75 cents in flexibility.

It literally makes no sense that for a single $95 annual fee, someone can earn 2 flexible Ultimate Rewards points using a Sapphire Preferred for their travel and dining purchases and 1.5 flexible Ultimate Rewards points on all other purchases using a Freedom Unlimited. Even if the $95 annual fee covers the cost of making the Sapphire Preferred points flexible, it can't also cover the cost of making the Freedom Unlimited points flexible.

Points that are easy to earn are easy to redeem

Everybody knows my maxim that the least valuable point is the one you don't redeem. But for banks, it's just the opposite: when you redeem a point, they actually have to cut a check, whether it's to the airline or hotel you book a paid reservation with, or the partner you transfer your points to.

That means folks who redeem points confident that they'll be able to easily earn many more are much more expensive to a bank than the folks who, in making sure they only redeem points when they're able to get the "maximum possible value," never redeem their points at all.

So if Chase knows what they're doing, as I suspect they do, they've noticed that folks who are transferring in big balances from Freedom and Freedom Unlimited cards to flexible Ultimate Rewards accounts, and especially super-premium Sapphire Reserve accounts, are much more likely to also redeem their points for expensive partner transfers and paid reservations.

While they may be content with the rates they pay their travel partners, and even the redemption rate on paid travel bookings, Chase may not be content with the speed with which folks build up and redeem their balances. Restricting points pooling thus has the added benefit of slowing down redemption rates and leaving more points orphaned, perhaps permanently, or redeemed for cash.

Conclusion

If this change ever comes down in any form, whether it's restricting household pooling, restricting pooling between personal and business cards (forcing some folks to hold 2 premium cards), or eliminating pooling altogether, there won't be anything you can do about it, besides adapting and shifting your spending to more lucrative opportunities.

But in the meantime, you should certainly be combining all your Ultimate Rewards points into your most valuable account on every statement close.

Not because of any potential devaluation or restriction, but because it's common sense.

If you qualify, Chase Freedom Unlimited might be the deal of the decade

Last week, I saw via Frequent Miler that Chase was offering a new bonus for new Freedom Unlimited customers: 3 fixed-value Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on all purchases for the first year. It's not for everyone, but for those eligible this has the potential to be one of the greatest deals since Office Depot stopped selling Vanilla Reload cards.

Most churners won't be eligible

The biggest obstacle for folks who chase signup bonuses is that they likely aren't eligible to open new Chase cards if they've opened 5 or more personal credit cards in the last 24 months (the so-called "5/24 rule").

Even if you are eligible for new Chase cards, the terms of the offer state, "This product is not available to either (i) current cardmembers of this credit card, or (ii) previous cardmembers of this credit card who received a new cardmember bonus for this credit card within the last 24 months."

Under those terms existing Freedom Unlimited cardholders should be eligible for the bonus if they product-changed to the Freedom Unlimited (for example from a Slate, Sapphire Preferred, or Sapphire Reserve card) and therefore didn't receive a new cardmember bonus, but they'd first have to request another product change for their existing Freedom Unlimited, e.g. to a regular Chase Freedom.

This might be a trap

For all my shutdown datapoint needs, I rely on Vinh at Miles per Day, who frequently shares readers' experiences getting the axe. Even if you're eligible for new Chase cards, and eligible for the Freedom Unlimited, just applying for the Freedom Unlimited might be enough to put eyes on your Chase relationship and get all your credit card and bank accounts with Chase closed.

That would suck.

Make no mistake: this is one of the greatest deals of all time

I wanted to get all that out of the way because I know commenters like to snipe whenever I leave caveats like that out. But for those who are eligible for this signup bonus, this is an incredible opportunity:

  • Unlimited 3% cash back on unbonused spend is as good as it gets. If you just redeemed your Ultimate Rewards points for cash, this is would be a phenomenal cashback opportunity, handily beating the BankAmericard Travel Rewards 2.625% cash back, which is only available to folks who qualify for Platinum Honors status with them.
  • Points are awarded monthly, so even if shut down you can lose at most a single month's earnings.
  • If you already have a flexible Ultimate Rewards-earning card, then you can redeem those 3 Ultimate Rewards points for 3.75 (4.5 with the Sapphire Reserve) cents towards paid airfare, or transfer them to Southwest, Hyatt, or United.
  • After the first year you can product change the Freedom Unlimited to a Freedom card and take advantage of that card's valuable quarterly rotating categories.

Conclusion

People sometimes ask me how I think a deal or opportunity is going to play out, and I often find myself giving versions of the same answer:

  • A deal can be shut down immediately, wasting your time and energy getting reimbursed.
  • A deal can be cut off prematurely, pay out less than expected, or end up disappointing in some other way.
  • A deal can pay off exactly as planned, leaving you laughing all the way to the bank (or the beach).

The essential thing to understand is that every deal has all three possibilities built into it from the start. There are no deals so certain of success that they don't contain the possibility of failure or disappointment, and there are no deals so certain of failure they're not worth trying (as long as the stakes of failure are low enough).

For example, a few years ago the shopping portal for Marriott Rewards briefly showed a payout of 120 points per dollar spent with an online merchant. I bought a few thousand dollars of merchandise assuming that the portal would not pay out — I assumed the deal would fail! But since the merchant had a generous return policy, the stakes of failure were low enough to be worth taking the chance of success.

On the flip side, after years of steadily paying off for thousands of travel hackers around the country, Wells Fargo suddenly started sending threatening letters to, and then actually closing the accounts of, folks who manufactured bonus spend on their 5% cash back credit cards. People who, with all the experience and wisdom of the community, were certain of success, nonetheless had the deal pulled out from under their feet!

Success is not a function of picking deals guaranteed of success and avoiding deals certain of failure. Success comes from distributing your time, energy, and of course money across deals, weighted by both their chance of success and their potential payoff.

Travel hacking with less manufactured spend

It seems that the travel hacking community has been thrown into one of its periodic panics, first over the loss of a popular gift card reselling opportunity and then an online bill payment option. I don't participate in such panics myself, but it's an opportunity to ask the question: what would travel hacking look like not in a world without manufactured spend, but in a world with less manufactured spend?

It's a good question because in a world with plentiful manufactured spend, lots of things are worth doing that might not be in a more constrained world. For example, today I happily earn 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent with a Chase Freedom Unlimited card, essentially speculating that I'll get more than 1.3 cents per point when I ultimately redeem them (since I could use a 2% cash back card instead). That wouldn't make any sense (for me) in a world where every dollar manufactured on one card reduces the amount I can manufacture on the others.

So, here's what I would do in a world of severely constrained — but not eliminated — manufactured spend.

Chase Ink Plus or Ink Cash for office supply stores

I consider buying $200 or $300 Visa prepaid debit cards from office supply stores with a Chase Ink Plus or, if you're signing up today, Ink Cash, to be the best current opportunity, even though liquidating smaller-denomination gift cards can be time-consuming if you have to do it in-person. Paying $8.95 in activation fees and $0.35 for money orders lets you buy 1,545 Ultimate Rewards for $9.35. That's slightly more expensive than paying $4.30 for 756 Ultimate Rewards points by using a Freedom Unlimited at an unbonused merchant, but it's over twice as efficient, in that a single money order transaction made with four $300 debit cards earns 6,180 Ultimate Rewards points (at 0.6 cents each), while one transaction with four $500 debit cards earns just 3,024 points (at 0.57 cents each). In a world of limited manufactured spend, maximizing the total haul from each transaction would inevitably become a much higher priority.

Since flexible Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for 1.25 cents each for paid travel, doing this alone would let you earn $3,125 in paid travel each year for about $1,504.

Annual spend: $25,000 (Ink Cash) or $50,000 (Ink Bold or Ink Plus).

"Old" Blue Cash for grocery stores

For reasons that are beyond my petty comprehension, American Express still issues the "old" Blue Cash card that earns 5% cash back on up to $43,500 in purchases at supermarkets, gas stations and "select" drugstores in the United States. That's a devaluation from the previous, unlimited bonus earning, but it's still a lot of money.

Since grocery store spend is somewhat cheaper than office supply store spend, whether you prefer to prioritize Ink Plus or Ink Cash spend or "old" Blue Cash spend properly depends on the value you expect to get from Ultimate Rewards points redemptions.

Annual spend: $50,000.

Amex EveryDay Preferred for grocery stores

I almost hesitate to include this one since the cap on earning is so low, but if you can knock out $6,000 in grocery store purchases, then make enough additional purchases to get to 30 transactions in the same statement cycle, you can earn 27,000 flexible Membership Rewards points per year (and pay an annual fee of $95).

That's not very many Membership Rewards points, so in a world of unlimited manufactured spend you'd want to supplement them with, for example, a Premier Rewards Gold card. But in a world of less manufactured spend, it would roughly add up to a business class international award ticket every 3-5 years. That's not great compared to the status quo, but it's not terrible either.

Annual spend: $6,000

A good cashback card for unbonused spend

So far so good, right? The problem is that all these cards are terrible for anything except manufactured spend. The Ink Cash and EveryDay Preferred have foreign transaction fees (the "old" Blue Cash card does not for some reason), and the Ink Bold and Ink Plus only earn 1 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar on unbonused spend.

Obviously if you have a lot of money the answer is the BankAmericard Travel Rewards with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards, which earns 2.625% on all spend, has no foreign transaction fee, and is PIN-enabled for use internationally.

If you don't have a lot of money, you can use the PenFed Credit Union Power Cash Rewards card, which earns 1.5% cash back, or 2% if you have a PenFed Access America Checking Account. It's PIN-enabled and has no foreign transaction or annual fees, although the checking account requires a $500 average daily balance or monthly direct deposit to avoid a $10 monthly fee.

For domestic transactions you might consider using a Chase Freedom Unlimited to top up your Ultimate Rewards balance, but that card also has a foreign transaction fee so shouldn't be used internationally.

Conclusion

I think this is roughly the strategy I would pursue if my access to manufactured spend were suddenly constrained. It's pretty cheap (two $95 annual fees), pretty lucrative, and isn't very time-consuming, requiring only an average of about 6 total trips per month.

It would yield 125,000 or 250,000 Ultimate Rewards points, $2,240 in cash, and 27,000 Membership Rewards points. Whether or not that's sufficient to cover all your travel expenses depends on how many travel expenses you have, but it would certainly make a dent in mine.

Why I manufacture cash

I was chatting with a blog subscriber the other day who expressed surprise when I told him I was manufacturing spend on a 2% cash back card, rather than a mile- or point-earning credit card.

That exchange made me think I should present my argument for why travel hackers as a general rule either should manufacture cash back, or at least should be willing to manufacture cash back. The simple reason is that doing so keeps you honest.

Bonused spend is capped or limited

There are cards that are straightforwardly superior to cashback-earning credit cards, or may be under certain circumstances. For example, if you have access to grocery store manufactured spend, a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card (2x), Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express (6x), Amex EveryDay Preferred (4.5x), or American Express Premier Rewards Gold (2x) card are either clearly or convincingly worth more than manufacturing spend on a simple 2% cash back card.

But manufacturing spend at grocery stores faces all sorts of obstacles, from daily limits on purchases to annual caps on bonused spend. Whether the limits you face are imposed by the stores you visit, the cards you carry, or the inconvenience of visiting bonused retailers, they leave you with a simple choice: restrict your manufactured spend to bonused retailers, or manufacture unbonused spend as well?

Unbonused spend should present hard choices between rewards currencies

I loosely consider the 3 most lucrative travel rewards-earning credit cards for unbonused spend to be:

  • Chase Freedom Unlimited. 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent, flexible if transferred to Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, or Sapphire Reserve.
  • Amex EveryDay Preferred. 1.5 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. 1 Starpoint (1.25 airline miles) per dollar spent.

You would need to get 1.33 cents per Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards point in value, or 2 cents per Starpoint (1.6 cents per mile when transferred in 20,000-Starpoint increments), to break even compared to a 2% cashback-earning credit card.

Those thresholds are, on the one hand, trivially easy to meet. Getting 1.33 cents per Hyatt Gold Passport point or United Mileage Plus mile is considered a poor redemption of those currencies since it's so easy to get so much more value from them. Even 1.6 cents per transferred Starpoint is relatively easy to achieve on long-haul flights, especially in premium cabins.

On the other hand, those thresholds are only easy to meet when the points are redeemed for travel. When you earn rewards currencies other than cash because of their possible future value, then fail to redeem them, you are ultimately paying a premium for an inferior product.

Consider two travel hackers, each of whom manufactures $10,000 in unbonused spend each month for a year. The first uses a Chase Freedom Unlimited and earns 15,000 Ultimate Rewards points. The second uses a 2% cash back card, and earns $200 in cash back. Both pay the same purchase and liquidation fees. At the end of the year (in the 13th month), the first travel hacker will have 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points, and the second will have $2,400 in cash.

To make up the $600 in cash value, the first could redeem all 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points for 1.33 cents each — an easy lift, as described above.

But what if the first travel hacker redeems just 120,000 of their Ultimate Rewards points for travel, leaving them with a 60,000-point balance? Now she needs to get 1.5 cents per Ultimate Rewards point — still not too difficult, on long-haul United award redemptions or at mid-tier Hyatt properties. After all, Hotel Hustle pegs the median Hyatt Gold Passport point value at 1.862 cents.

Finally, consider if the first travel hacker redeems just 60,000 of their 180,000 Ultimate Rewards point haul for the year. They still have $1,200 in cash value, but that means they'll need to get 2 cents per Ultimate Rewards point to break even with the 2%-cashback travel hacker. Now we've found ourselves, rather than being safely below the median Hyatt point value, 7.5% above it. Rather than merely looking for a decent United redemption, we need an excellent one. All to break even with the person who's been taking their rewards to the bank in the form of cash each and every month!

This has nothing to with devaluations

When I point out the folly of hoarding miles and points, people often think I'm talking about the risk of devaluations. But as I wrote in the linked post, 

"For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth whenever an airline or hotel devalues its miles, that process is relatively gradual and relatively predictable.

After all these years, despite everything that's happened in the airline loyalty industry, the 25,000 domestic saver award ticket still exists."

If there is never another devaluation of any loyalty program under the sun; if every loyalty program opened up every seat, in every cabin, on every flight, for award redemptions, unredeemed points will still be worth nothing, while cashback earned can still be put to work paying for the expense of your choice, from groceries to retirement savings.

Conclusion

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. But it's as good a place as any to start!

When deciding between a cashback-earning credit card or putting the same unbonused spend on a travel rewards-earning credit card, take a look at your existing balances and your account history. Do you redeem the points you earn? Are you consistently getting the value you need to break even compared to a 2% or higher cashback card, taking into account the orphaned points you don't redeem?

If so, terrific — keep doing what you're doing. If not, then it's time to ask further questions about your manufactured spend strategy.

And those questions are how cashback credit cards keep travel hackers honest.