A Year Unlike Any Other

For years, I have centered much of my identity around travel. Facing a global pandemic, all of us faced new realities and it goes without saying that travel was out of the question. That said, through the strategic use of the right cards for our budgeted expenses, and thanks to banks adapting their rewards midyear, we were still able to operate net-positive of annual fees using these guiding principles:

  1. Always pay each card’s balance in full each month and never carry debt on any cards month to month
  2. Use cards that provide the highest rewards on spending we already budget for
  3. Take advantage of sign up bonuses and promotions throughout the year

3X Return on Investment

By budgeting $244/month for travel and lifestyle expenses, and using it to pay for the annual fees on our credit cards in 2020, our monthly budget became worth three-times that: $832/month. From an annual standpoint, we redeemed rewards valued at over $9,979 in 2020!

The Winners

We earn AMEX Membership Rewards from the Platinum and Gold cards (which make a dynamic duo), as well as the Green card which in aggregate, earn us 6-10% back on everyday purchases. In addition, American Express has offered even more cashback in the form of statement credits with rewards for phone bills and streaming services, in addition to investment contributions attempting to make up for the underused travel perks like lounges, upgrades, and status.

As I’ve explained, the value of the Alaska Air Visa card is the companion fare which we continue to redeem strategically. In addition, my mileage bank allowed my wife to return home for extended breaks during the pandemic.

The Losers

The Hilton Aspire Card from American Express provided a nice return for us in its second straight year in our wallet, however, it has officially been retired from my wallet after Hilton’s extension of elite status through the Spring of 2022. I will reevaluate the value of this card at that time, but in the interim, I will come out ahead by not paying the $450 annual fee in exchange for a free night award.

The Hyatt Visas continue to provide good value for us, with each providing a free hotel night every year in exchange for the $95 annual fee. Though they’re not big earners, they continue to keep a spot in our arsenal.

Admittedly, we reserve our use of the Chase Sapphire Reserve for rental cars or when American Express isn’t accepted. So while it brings us value, it isn’t in the form of big rewards each year.

Finally, the Amazon Visa card simply provides 5% cash back on our Amazon spending. Since we don’t use it anywhere else, it doesn’t take a large slice of our overall reward redemptions.

Looking Ahead

With a new normal promised for 2021, hopes are high. Wherever your year takes you, be safe and have fun!