TL;DR: Had crappy credit. Used points cards as motivation to improve my credit score. Hooked ever since.
I’ve taken a server job a few nights a week to get out of the house, stay active, and be social. I see people using credit cards more than ever. I’m shocked by how many people still throw down debit cards. Most of them are millennials.
My generation is a complicated story of student loan debt, job-hopping, delaying children, unable to afford or save to buy homes, living longer than ever – and definitely NOT wanting to get sucked into credit cards.
I see cool metal cards here and there – but most millennials are using well-worn debit cards from local banks.
If you can use credit responsibly and pay the balance in full every month, then you’re leaving money on the table by using debit cards. Even a 2% cashback card with no annual fee is free to use and earns literally free money.
I remember the sting of credit cards: opened a student credit card when I was 18, charged textbooks I couldn’t afford, and fell into the soul-crushing cycle of debt. Such a slippery slope.
Then I did the unthinkable: defaulted on a student loan. I was so poor, making $120 a week working overtime at retail jobs. And they wanted $500 a month? I ripped up the bills and threw them in the trash. I didn’t have extra money. How was I going to come up with $500 more every month? And that was the “financially burdened” plan. 😑
Getting into rewards credit cards
6 years ago, I’d been at my first salaried job for nearly a year, making $36K annually as a Marketing & Communications Associate for a non-profit. I thought it was so much money at the time.
I got up at 7am every day to be on the F train by 8am. The ride took 45 minutes. And some days, I’d have time to pop into a bogeda on 61st Street and grab a coffee.
There was a Chase Bank around there too. I’d stop in to use the ATM. One day, it was broken so I had to go to the teller. He offered me an application for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. My first thought was, “no way in hell I’d be approved.” On the way out, I saw the sign talking about 50,000 something-or-other points and had no idea what they were talking about – and it probably was all BS anyway.
No, I had my checks direct deposited and used a debit card for everything. Plus, I still had deep, ugly marks on my credit report from life’s follies: an unpaid electricity bill from when I lived in Buffalo, a library fine with interest for a book I’d returned 2 weeks late, defaulted student loans I tried to wish away. My credit score was in the 500s and I was positive there was no coming back from it.
But, I was curious about those 50,000 points.
You can Google anything
Later that day, I typed “50,000 chase points” into Google – probably expecting it to be full of scam alerts, ripoff reports, and how Chase was literally the devil reincarnate. Instead I ended up on The Points Guy, Million Mile Secrets, Frugal Travel Guy, and the other blogs around at the time.
When I found Chase points were actually super valuable, I felt like I was missing out. (And certainly had no idea I’d be writing my own version of how to use 50,000 Chase points one day!)
I also knew nothing about airline loyalty, upgrades, shopping portals, or dining rewards – there was a points system for everything. And holy crap, you can even get a whole vacation for only a few bucks. FML, I’d been paying for coach seats and resigned myself to the back of the plane. I’d never be one of those people who flew up front.
They made it all sound so easy. Plus, you needed good credit.
I closed all the browser tabs (probably at 3 in the morning after falling way too deep in it). But I kept thinking about it…
Getting my credit right
I did something long overdue. I knew it would be ugly. Probably a bunch of stuff I’d forgotten or didn’t know about. But I did it. I pulled my credit report.
It was all there, in black and white. The defaulted loans, the overdue bills, the old credit card I used to buy textbooks, all of it. With numbers and due lates and codes of how behind I was. And over it all, a pathetic number like a grade hovering above it all – the credit score.
I rarely used sick or personal days. So, I took one. I fired up my phone and started dialing all my creditors. With such a pit in my stomach.
I thought the voices on the other end would scold me. Give me speeches I didn’t want to hear. Or make me feel bad about slipping so far and for so long.
Instead, I found people that wanted to work with me. Many of them offered payment plans or settlements for much lower than the original amounts.
I asked for proof in writing that I’d paid the debt – that it was done, once and for all.
Then I went for the Big Kahuna: the freaking federal government with my defaulted student loans.
“Wow,” the girl said as she opened my file. (I imagined cobwebs and dust flying off the screen.) “You should’ve called us a long time ago. We have so many new plans now.”
“I know, I know…”
So here’s what happened: the loans had gained so much interest. That will never go away. I still have to live with that. But they were updated to an active status. I got on the income-based repayment plan (IBR). My new payment was much lower than expected. I just had to prove my income once a year.
It took ~3 months for the loans to update on my credit file. And for the other bills to fall off or show as paid in full. But, one by one, they were all fixed. I only had to call 1 of the creditors to follow up.
And soon after, my credit score started jumping – each week it seemed higher.
Back to Chase
- Link: Chase Sapphire Preferred – Compare cards here
I still wanted that Sapphire Preferred card. In those months, I thought of it as a symbol of a new era. (I still think it’s the best card for beginners.) So I went back to Chase and spoke with a banker. This time, I was pre-approved for the Sapphire Preferred card. And did I want to apply?
I almost did it. But I was still so unsure. If I was gonna get a denial, I wanted it to be at home, so I could feel disappointed in private.
When I got home that night, I fired up the application. And got an instant approval! I couldn’t believe it.
After all the calls, payments, and months of watching my score, I was finally able to pull myself up enough to get a premium rewards card.
I couldn’t wait to use it for everything and get that big sign-up bonus. It came in the mail the following week.
I used the card for everything. And paid it off religiously. The points kept rolling in: between the card, dining programs, shopping through the portals, and keeping up with the promotions, I was soon rolling in Chase points.
Before I knew it, I took my first award trip to Hawaii. And in March 2013, Out and Out was born to record my adventures.
From there, I signed-up for other cards to earn various sign-up offers, benefits like elite status, or just to have other bonus categories. I now have 30 cards! But it started with one – and started slowly.
The first step was to learn to trust myself to be responsible with credit. When you have that trust in yourself, you can earn points for pretty much every purchase.
The last 6 years have been a wonderful ride. I’ve been to destinations I’d dreamed about my whole life (Hawaii, Easter Island, Japan (twice!), and all over Europe). I love writing for my blog. And have met so many amazing people. (If you’re in Dallas, join my frequent flyer meetup!)
But it’s not like I started here. I worked my way up from the bottom of the barrel, using rewards cards as fuel to dig myself out of crippling debt.
After my first award trip, I was hooked. I still feel giddy when I book a cool trip using points.
But that’s how I got started with points & miles. Not even at the beginning, but several steps behind before I even began.
I still have those student loans. But I also have ample savings, bought a house, and get the best interest rates every time I borrow. Good money habits are just that – habits. Anyone can learn a habit.
If you love travel, maybe points can be your reason, too. I find having a credit card actually gives me more control over my cash flow. If you’re not into points, get a cashback card with a $0 annual fee – and get free money just for using it. There’s no need to ever use a debit card. Even for millennials.
What got you into points and miles? And if you don’t have a points-earning card, do you think you’ll ever get one?* If you liked this post, consider signing up to receive free blog posts in an RSS reader and you’ll never miss an update!
- Capital One Venture X Rewards—Earn 90,000 Venture miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening, plus a $300 annual statement credit for travel booked through Capital One
- Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card—Earn 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first 3 months and 3X bonus points per $1 on the first $150,000 spent on travel and select business categories each account anniversary year
- Amex Blue Business Plus—Earn 15,00 Membership Rewards points once you spend after you spend $3,000 in purchases in the first 3 months of Card Membership and 2X bonus points on up to $50,000 in spending per year with NO annual fee
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