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How I earn credit card rewards responsibly

The topic of maximizing credit-card rewards seems to be a popular one lately, especially in the world of personal finance blogging.

Many of us use our credit cards to pay our bills and monthly expenses. We earn cash back and rake in the rewards. Some of us have even mastered the envious ability to churn credit-card rewards to pay for awesome vacations.

Because personal finance readers are so financially savvy, we usually take for granted that, for many people, this is a dangerous habit. After all, the average US household credit card debt is upwards of $15,000.

If you do it right, earning credit card rewards is a great money hack. Last year, for example, I earned $450 in cash-back. But you should have control of your finances before trying any kind of hack like this.

Let’s say you have control of your financial situation and you’re ready to play this credit-card-rewards game. How do you play properly? And what precautions should you take?

Here’s what’s worked for me.
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 NEWS 
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American Express Eliminating Some Foreign Transaction Fees

American Express announced this month that they would be eliminating foreign transaction fees for Platinum and Centurion cards starting at the end of the first quarter of 2011. Foreign transaction fees are fees tacked onto purchases made in another currency and one of the big reasons why we opened up a Capital One credit card prior to our trip to Europe last year.

As an added bonus, if you’re a Platinum or Centurion cardmember, you get $200 in airline fee credits that can go towards airline fees from food to changing a flight to airport lounge day passes to checking a bag.

According to an updated list of foreign transaction fees at CreditCards.com, Capital One is still your best bet for avoiding a foreign transaction fee (unless you have a Platinum or Centurion American Express card).


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Is Capital One’s Currency Exchange Accurate?

In the last few weeks I’ve had a good conversation with Mark in the comments of this foreign transaction fee post. Mark wanted me to confirm that Capital One was not hiding a fee within the currency exchange rates it was using. Several years ago, there was a lawsuit and subsequent settlement over this very issue. Credit cards were assessing a fee for currency exchange and not disclosing it on statements. Since then, credit card issuers are required to disclose this fee and many itemize it out.

However, as responsible consumers we can’t just take their word for it! Trust, but verify. :)

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 Credit 
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Lowest Foreign Transaction Fee

In a couple months, my wife and I will be taking an extended vacation to Europe. It’ll be a fantastic trip, one we’ve been looking forward to for months, and with the dollar strengthening and the economy across the world weak, we figured we could take advantage of lower prices to get some traveling done.

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 Credit 
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Best International Credit Card

This Thanksgiving, my wife and I will be heading to London, England, to visit good friends of ours who are working there. Given the recent economic unrest, it seems pretty foolish for us to try to play any games involving exchanging money so we’ll try to convert as little as possible directly, instead we’ll resort to using credit cards as much as possible so we orphan (leave in pounds sterling) as little cash as necessary.

When it comes to using credit cards abroad though, it’s gotten a little more complicated than your classic “foreign transaction fees.” It turns out that in addition to the issuers and banks charging you a fee, some merchants will add a “Dynamic Currency Conversion” fee on top of everything else. That can be as high as five percent!

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 Credit 
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Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litigation (MDL 1409) Settlement

Did you know that there was an anti-trust case brought against the major credit card issuers regarding foreign transaction fees? For those who aren’t aware of foreign transaction fees, these are fees that some card issues add onto a credit card charge made in a foreign currency. This fee can range anywhere from 1-3%, though some issuers will absorb the fees. These fees are not the cost of converting the currency, which is likely absorbed in the exchange rate used by the credit card company. Well, today these foreign transaction fees are often broken out and detailed on the credit card bill itself (sometimes as a mere asterisk indicating a x% fee was levied for this foreign transaction, sometimes an actual dollar amount) but this wasn’t always the case. In the past, card issuers wouldn’t even mention a transaction fee was levied and buyers would merely see a poor exchange rate.

But the fee itself wasn’t the problem, plaintiffs claimed that the Visa and MasterCard networks, their member banks, and Diners Club conspired to set the fees and conceal them from the public by inflating their exchange rates (essentially hiding the fee in the rate). Which cards are included?

Visa- and MasterCard-branded credit cards (including charge cards) and debit/ATM cards (including stored value and payroll cards), and Diners Club-branded credit cards (including charge cards). The Visa-branded cards include Visa-, Interlink-, and Plus-branded credit and debit/ATM cards; the MasterCard-branded cards include MasterCard-, Cirrus-, and Maestro-branded credit and debit/ATM cards. The lawsuit includes purchases, cash advances, cash withdrawals, and internet transactions.

So, the defendants have now elected to settle and set aside $336M to pay for it all. If you wish to participate in the settlement, what you’ll need to do is choose one of three options. The option you choose will depend on your level of international travel and how much you’ve spent in the years between 1996 and 2006.

  1. Refund Option 1: Request an Easy Refund of $25. This Option is recommended if you traveled outside of the U.S. for less than one week or had foreign transactions of less than $2,500 using your eligible cards during the 1996 to 2006 period. (Green Form); OR
  2. Refund Option 2: Request a Total Estimation Refund based on typical spending during travel and your answers to a few questions about your own travel outside of the U.S. This Option is recommended if you traveled outside of the U.S. for more than one week or had foreign transactions of more than $2,500 using your eligible cards during the 1996 to 2006 period. Refunds will be a maximum of 1% of estimated foreign transactions. (Blue Form); OR
  3. Refund Option 3: Request a refund based on information that you provide concerning your Annual Estimated foreign transactions during the 1996 to 2006 period. This Option is recommended if you had extensive foreign travel or foreign transactions and are willing to provide year-by-year information. Refunds will be a maximum of 1% to 3% of foreign transactions. This is the only Option you can use to get a refund for corporate card use. (Red Form)

I think I’ll probably do Option 1 or perhaps Option 2, since I’ve traveled internationally quite a bit to visit family in Taiwan and on vacations abroad. I have yet to review the claim form to see the level of rigor involved but it seems relatively straightforward.

The deadline to file this has been extended to May 30, 2008.

(Thanks Tim!)


 Credit 
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7 Unwritten & Often Forgotten Credit Card Secrets

Credit card companies are just like every other business. There are essentially three concepts to understand when dealing with a business, especially credit cards:

  • They exist to make as much money as possible,
  • They have relatively well documented rules and operating procedures,
  • They’re willing to break #2 in pursuit of #1.

So, to that end, here are 7 unwritten and often forgotten credit card tricks or “secrets” (I hate the term “secrets” because how much of a secret can they be if I know it?) that may save you a few bucks someday. If you don’t learn a single secret or you have a secret of your own, please let me know! Secrets are better when you tell everyone!

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Foreign Currency Transaction Fees List

I just made a trip to China and one of the interesting things I learned before I left was that a credit card will often tack on a foreign currency transaction fee if you use your card abroad – this fee is tacked onto the cost of the purchase and is used to cover the foreign currency exchange, in theory. No matter what the reason, the fee still exists and it certainly would be helpful to know which card issuer charges the most and which charges the least right? So, check out the table below:

Card Issuer Fee
Capital One 0%
Discover 0%
Wachovia 1%
Washington Mutual 1%
American Express 2%
Bank of America 3%
Citibank 3%
JP Morgan Chase 3%
Wells Fargo 3%
US Bank 3%


Visa and Mastercard automatically charge the card issuer 1% for the foreign currency transaction itself so a lot of the Visa/Mastercard cards will pass that onto the end user (which is included in the number above). Capital One is the lone exception, eating the fee, and Discover and American Express obviously aren’t on that network so don’t have that extra overhead.

It looks like Capital One and Discover are the best for this though I’d argue that you likely want to get a Capital One card because Discover isn’t as widely accepted overseas. It’s the reason why I chose a Capital One card as the best international credit card on my trip to England.


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