Earn cash first, spend cash last

Last week I wrote about the option of redeeming Wells Fargo's Go Far reward points for 1.22 cents each when using them to purchase Hyatt gift cards (an offer that's still ongoing).

Commenter Rob S made an observation in the comments to that post that I think is worth exploring in some more depth. He wrote:

"but those WF reward points can be used for flights at 1.5 cpp. Some people can redeem at 1.75 cpp. so i don't think I will be doing this"

Rob is referring to is what's called, for reasons lost to history, "uplift," the ability to redeem Wells Fargo rewards points for more than 1 cent each towards paid airfare after spending a certain amount on certain Wells Fargo rewards-earning credit cards.

Uplift isn't something I've written about before and I can't find any good blog posts to link to about it, but Rob is exactly correct: some people can redeem Wells Fargo rewards points for 1.5 or 1.75 cents each for paid airfare after meeting certain spending thresholds with their Wells Fargo credit cards.

The question I want to explore is, under what circumstances does uplift change the value proposition of redeeming Wells Fargo rewards for cash?

Earn cash first

I have a simple approach to my manufactured spend practice: I earn cash first. That's because cash is basically the opposite of miles and points: it's worth face value when redeemed for goods and services, and if you choose to invest rather than spend it, it increases, rather than decreases, in value over time.

Miles and points, on the other hand, are worth varying amounts depending on current cash prices and award availability. Therefore, given the option between cash and points, I'll always earn cash first.

Spend cash last

The flip side of the above principle is that once I have miles and points in my rewards accounts, I'll redeem them whenever possible rather than spending cash. Again, that's because cash is flexible and can be deployed wherever necessary, while miles and points can only be redeemed for dates and flights the loyalty programs choose to make available.

When I find that availability, you better believe I'll redeem miles and points for it.

How uplifting are Wells Fargo rewards?

Suppose a Wells Fargo cardholder has earned the maximum uplift of 1.75 cents per "Go Far" rewards point redeemed for paid travel. Keeping in mind that those rewards points can each be redeemed for 1 cent in cash, the uplift provides a discount of 43% off paid airfare (a $175 flight would cost $100 in foregone cash back redemptions).

That's a pretty good discount, for a civilian.

But a 43% discount off paid airfare is not exactly inspiring for a travel hacker. If you earn US Bank Flexpoints, then at the top of each redemption band you'll get a 50% discount off paid airfare (plus a $25 credit towards in-flight purchases). If you earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points (transferred to United or British Airways) or American Express Membership Rewards points (transferred to Delta) you might be accustomed to getting much larger discounts, depending on your local airfare market.

Hyatt gift cards are cheaper than cash

The reason I wrote favorably about redeeming Wells Fargo rewards points for Hyatt gift cards is not because they give a discount off Hyatt stays, but because they give a discount off the cash portion of Points + Cash stays (or, in the cash of pure mattress runs, the cash cost of the stay). That's the portion you've already committed to paying in dollars, which is the component you should be seeking to minimize the cost of.

Paying $41 instead of $50, or $246 instead of $300, is a savings in cash for the portion of a stay you were going to pay in cash anyway. There is literally no other currency but US dollars you can use to pay the cash portion of a Points + Cash stay.