Manufacturing spend with low credit limits

My impression is that most people get into travel hacking the same way I did: by accident. Either by accidentally triggering elite status, getting an operational upgrade to first or business class, or discovering a lucrative but unadvertised feature of a card they already carry. Then — if they have the right personality type — they get hooked.

A straightforward consequence of that fact is that most travel hackers are middle or upper class. It simply doesn't occur very often that the working poor fly 25,000 miles on the same airline during a single calendar year (and think to credit their flights to a frequent flyer account), or carry credit cards that can offer outsized rewards.

But as I never hesitate to remind people, I myself am a poor person, and that means low credit limits. Nonetheless, I have a miles and points strategy that's comprehensive enough for me. Here's how I do it.

Have perfect credit

When I was growing up, my mom always referred to herself as a person with "perfect credit." What she meant was that she paid off all her credit card bills on time each month, and had never missed a payment.

And when my mom was growing up, that may have been what "perfect credit" meant. Nowadays, of course, we could critique her credit history for not having students loans, car loans, or home mortgages: she was fortunate enough to be educated when student loans were in their infancy, and to never have to take out a loan for a car or house.

Nonetheless, the single most important thing you can do to develop your miles and points strategy is avoid scrutiny by banks, and that means at least having a spotless credit profile, if not a perfect one: pay your bills on time.

Miles-earning debit cards

For years, Bank of America would issue Alaska Airlines debit cards to anyone with a checking account — they didn't ask your annual income and they didn't check your credit history.

Sure, that card's no longer being offered, but rather than pine for lost opportunities, why not go sign up for a Suntrust Delta Skymiles World Check Card?

Diversity is strength

I don't have a credit limit over $10,000 on any of my 2% cash back credit cards.

But I have three of them:

  • Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express;
  • US Bank Cash+;
  • and Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard.

Between the 3, I have over $20,000 in credit limits, which I can deploy to earn over $200 in cash back each month without spending over my credit limit on any one of the cards.

Take risks

I would never give this advice to someone who makes a lot of money and enjoys high limits on all their credit card accounts. But this post isn't for them, it's for the rest of us.

As I shared back in January, my "old" Blue Cash card was approved with a credit limit of just $1,000. If I limited my spend on that card to my credit limit each month, I'd be earning just $340 per year, minus my costs. And that would be a total waste.

So I cycle my credit limit many, many times each month.

Is that a good idea? Of course not. But you probably have higher credit limits than I do.


What I'm trying to say is that you don't need to think about manufacturing $50,000 per month as requiring a single card with a $50,000 credit limit, or even multiple cards with credit limits that add up to $50,000. $25,000 in money orders deposited into a checking account with a linked miles-earning debit card can double your value at a trivial additional cost, and aggressively paying off your credit cards mid-cycle can free up additional credit limits as well.