For many people, in many parts of the country, this is a golden age for manufactured spend.
OneVanilla prepaid debit cards are back (sort of). 5% cash back is back. Debit card miles are still around (for those who listen). Flexperks gives 75-100% discounts on paid airfares while Hilton and Club Carlson are working to make your hotel stays as cheap as possible. The list goes on.
But as great as it is to be doing what we do at this moment in history, I've been thinking a lot lately about developing an exit strategy – albeit one I'll hopefully never have to use!
So I thought I'd share with readers my action plan for the day when manufactured spend disappears for good.
Immediately consolidate my debt in a low-interest loan...
One of the underrated benefits of manufacturing spend is the unlimited liquidity it gives. The ability to spin off huge amounts of cash on a monthly basis transforms high-interest credit card debt into free, unsecured loans. Unlike some personal finance gurus, I have no principled objections to debt or even any particular interest in paying off my credit card debt, as long as the banks keep letting me turn it over at 0% APR.
I don't go out of my way to avoid debt, but I do go out of my way to avoid interest, so if manufactured spend disappeared tomorrow, I'd first need to consolidate as much of my credit card debt as possible into one or two low-interest loans. Assuming I didn't have enough notice to use the technique described here, I'd start with a Chase Slate card, the only 0% balance transfer card I know of that doesn't charge a balance transfer fee (for the first 2 months), and maybe take up Discover on one of their regular offers of low-interest personal loans.
...then focus on paying it off!
Of course, whether it's an interest-free balance transfer or a low-interest personal loan, the goal would be to pay it off as quickly as possible in order to minimize the interest paid on the loan.
Cancel or change most of my annual-fee cards
I cancel most of my cards that charge annual fees before their first anniversary anyway, so I pay either nothing or only once for each card (depending on whether the first year's fee is waived). However, there are a few cards that charge annual fees that I only keep around because of the opportunity to manufacture spend on them.
So I'd request to change my Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express back into the no-annual-fee version of the card, downgrade my Barclaycard Arrival+ to the no-annual-fee Arrival, change my Chase Ink Plus into an Ink Cash, and convert my US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card into another Cash+ or Perks+ card. Of course each bank has different policies on product changes, so not all of them might allow me to do so; in those cases I'd cancel the cards.
There are a few cards that charge annual fees I'd keep: my US Bank Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa, which gives 40,000 Gold Points annually (and the last night free on award redemptions), and my Delta Skymiles Platinum Business American Express, since that card's $195 annual fee is more than covered by the companion ticket earned on each anniversary. While it's tough to rationalize paying cash for a Delta ticket (and getting a second ticket free) while Skymiles are so easy to earn, remember that this is a world without manufactured spend: in that world, there's no doubt I'd have a chance to use the companion ticket each and every year.
The card I'd struggle the most to justify keeping is the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Visa, which charges $85 annually for a Category 5 free night certificate. As I explained earlier this year, Marriott's latest category realignment has gutted downtown Category 5 options, making these certificates much less valuable for the properties I like to stay at. On the other hand, for airport, rural, and some overseas properties, it's still easy to get more than $85 in value from the certificates — as long as you're willing to commit in advance to staying in such a property at least once each year!
Use 2% cash back cards for everything
Once all those affairs were in order, I'd take my own advice and do what I've always recommended readers who weren't interested in manufacturing spend do: put all my domestic spend on my Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card, and my overseas spend on a card that didn't charge foreign transaction fees, probably the Discover it card, which still earns 1% cash back on such purchases. For cash transactions, I'd make ATM withdrawals overseas from my Bluebird account, which doesn't charge foreign transaction or ATM fees.
The fact is, I only have trivial amounts of real spend each month, so I might not get more than one or two redemptions per year out of those cards. But I'd know I was getting the best return possible on what little spend I have, and not speculatively earning hotel points or airline miles I may never use.
Get back to travel hacking basics
And finally, I'd reinvest in the techniques I started travel hacking with: watching for cheap fares; taking travel vouchers when flights are overbooked; using Priceline to get the cheapest hotel stays possible; keeping track of future travel plans and be sure to book free one-ways on award tickets; and so on. It may not be particularly glamorous, but it is how to stretch the same small travel budget into more travel.