(Credit) Card Games

English: 'I'm Lovin It' — HM1(FMF) Fred Turner...

English: ‘I’m Lovin It’ — HM1(FMF) Fred Turner swipes his gift card in McDonald’s new card machine, April 4. The new machine now allows customers to use debit, credit or gift cards to purchase food. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seems to me, the bigger companies are, the more they manipulate customers. Financial institutions are arguably the most deft at this. We had been using the same couple of credit cards for several years when I recently spied an ad for a new one, from American Express, that I was eligible for through my credit union. It actually offered a clean 1.5% cash-back on all charges, credited at the end of each monthly bill. So I stopped using Discover Card and started using the AmEx for everything except food and groceries (discount stores excluded). For those I use a Visa card that pays 5% on gasoline and 3% on groceries. To leverage this even more, I’ve found I can use the AmEx card to pay my cable, satellite and insurance bills.

The kinds of cards have exploded, with all kinds of specialty uses. Those most unappealing to me are the air-travel ones for which you get “miles”. They must be lucrative (for the airlines) because I don’t think a month goes by that Mollie and I don’t each get a big packet in the mail urging us to apply. The USPS should be grateful. One would think the airline would have figured out after 15 years that I’m retired and no longer a business traveler, but they clearly haven’t. We only take a couple of flights a year, if that. And I’m really not sure what a “mile” is, anyway. How do you define that? Small print, obviously, with restrictions that run several pages. I’ve been accumulating American Airline “miles” for at least 15 years now and I still don’t have enough of them to pay for a ticket anywhere. Every year or two they try to get me to “spend” some of them ordering magazine subscriptions.

Speaking of fine print, you know that Visa card I mentioned above? This year, instead of crediting the pay-back to the statement, they started paying in “points”. What’s a point? One might think a point is one percent, but one would be wrong. Turns out, when I now go to redeem points I either have to use them to buy from a list of sponsored products at non-

PT-barnum-MONEY-GETTING-Poster Credit:  kevin.lexblog.com

Credit: kevin.lexblog.com

discounted (or even elevated) prices, or to buy a debit card, and it takes 11,800 points to get a $100 debit card. That’s a 15% hit (100/118 = 0.85)! A hundred “points” is therefore 85 cents, not a dollar.  And isn’t it a little transparent for them to move the decimal point two places to the right?  Well, maybe not.  P. T. Barnum and all that, you know.

I wondered if Discover Card might get upset at me for dumping them, somehow, but there’s no indication of it.  They still send me a friendly-sounding email once in a while and I’ll likely go back to using them again when the rules change, which they are bound to do. Discover has a nice web site that makes it easy to manage billing and even do budgeting. Their irritating gimmick, however, consists of switching their percentage discounts to different categories every three months. One quarter it will be restaurants and the next, for example, home improvement. Clearly, they think I’ll forget what the current category is and use the card for everything.  (They would be often right.)  It’s all a game, and one I probably wouldn’t be so assiduously playing if I weren’t retired. Not as much fun as crosswords, but still kind of interesting and, hey, the money I get back is free of tax because its just return of some of what I spent.

What about you, fellow consumer? Anyone else out there who plays credit-card games?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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10 Responses to (Credit) Card Games

  1. No games. We’ve used one no-annual-fee credit card almost the whole time we’ve been married (30+ years.) We haven’t bought into the sky miles thing, and it seems like other points/cash-back types have annual fees. A couple years ago Jim did sign up for a new one with some promise of ? something, and almost before we’d used it, it was hacked and used fraudulently. Yeah. THAT charmed us! So, back to the no-frills old reliable.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Melanie, there are lots of cards out there that have no annual fees. It is a mystery to me, with all the competition, why anyone would pay fees for having one. As far as I can see, the perks that come with them are not worth the fees. The one exception I can think of would be someone who travels for a living and whose employer lets them keep their air points – the major hubs have exclusive lounges for high flyers.

      I get your comfort with your long-time card, but its number is no more secure than a new one. In fact, some of the new ones are now coming out with embedded chips for extra security against card-reader gimmicks. And if your card pays nothing back you might want to consider one that does. You can’t pay your taxes or mortgage with a credit card, but there’s a lot you can. Let’s say you could get 1.5% back on $30,000 a year. That’s $300, tax-free, that you wouldn’t otherwise have. I’ve found that credit unions are a great place to look.


  2. Jim in IA says:

    I was just about to say what Melanie said. 🙂 We should stop meeting like this.

    I resist getting the fuel saver card from our grocery store. Too many hoops to jump. Plus, it keeps track of everything you buy. I’d rather not be tracked so closely. But, I am probably fooling myself. Likely I am being tracked already as a consumer. I looked up a new guitar strap the other day. Now, I get a whole mess of ads for them and guitars in the side bars of the sites. Before that it was dresses when Melanie wanted me to look at one. I had a ton of nicely dressed women on my pages.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I don’t think your credit card is how you are being tracked, Jim, but I could be wrong. My sense is that it’s just through the web pages you visit, i.e., “cookies” and, more importantly, when you are induced to give a site your email address. I’ve found that having two email addresses handles that well. I got my secondary email from my ISP provider, a cable company, and I use that one for all commercial purposes. Thus I get virtually zero spam on my primary email and dumping the ads on the secondary is easy, scanning by exception every few weeks.


      • Jim in IA says:

        I said it wrong. I don’t think the CCard is being used that way. It is all the other clicks, web visits, cookies, gas saver cards, etc, that do it. I’m also using an alias email for some privacy.


  3. aFrankAngle says:

    Yep … we play … but don’t bounce around cards. We play buy using certain card at designated places (as groceries, movies, restaurants) and the other card for miscellaneous … of course we use both for gas depending on where we get the gas.


  4. Hi Jim,
    Best explanation I’ve read about how these things work. It’s something I avoided knowing Recently, a banker –he seemed new and bumbly — invited me so sit down when i was in for other reasons. He said, reviewing the account, he sees ways I can save. He said something about thousands of points I’ve never used.
    I said, essentially, what’s that. He said go to the web page and you can see lots of things that you can have, free. I said ok, I would look, but I still have not. (But I do work the daily xword puzzle and crypto).
    You have made me curious now — maybe I’ll go look. Or maybe not.
    Like Jim in LA, I get annoyed with the grocery’s fuel saver cards and don’t use them. Ads? Never see them. All three of our computers have AdBlockPlus installed.
    So we never see ads. I’ve wondered, sometimes, whether there are ads here on WordPress, but I don’t know.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You might want to try what I recommended to Melanie, Helen – a credit union. They are much more consumer-friendly than banks, and less voracious, and anyone can qualify for membership these days. In fact, it’s easy to shop for them online. The array of options and plans is amazing. Good luck.


      • Actually, my husband and I both have (separate) accounts with State Employees Credit Union.
        My reasons for a Wachovie (now Wells Fargo) account? I’m sure that you, Jim, as my defacto financial advisor 🙂 will not approve, but here it is: It’s the relative merits of the web sites. The credit union web site is aggravating in several ways, and patience is not a virtue I have learned. The WF site is easy to move around quickly. Also, at tax time, it’s a nuisance., The credit union site will look back through “bill pay” for the three months. WF will go up
        to 16 months. (Or you can choose “last calendar year”). So, the C.U. requires more discipline. I will regret my lack of financial discipline some day when I can’t afford the retirement home.


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          Thanks for the feedback, although I think I’ll forego the title. The advice is not guaranteed for any more than your cost. 😆

          I get what you mean about the web site. The quality of these things varies widely in my experience too. My own CU’s site I would grade at B-, my insurance web site at C-, and at the top, A- for Discover Card and A+ for Vanguard. The absolute worst I’ve come across is a government pharmacy site.


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