Category: money

Credit Card Churning: 1.5 Years In

I posted back when I began to dip my toes into the vast world of credit card churning in October of 2017. (For those of you who don’t know, it’s the practice of signing up for credit cards that have attractive incentive offers (tens of thousands of points for spending $3,000 in the first three months, typically), and then chaining those offers together to gets tons of free points for, well, free.) I posted another update about four months later, saying that so far, it had been going well.

How are things looking now?

Still peachy keen. Really, my only regret is that I didn’t start this a long time ago. Though, as always, that comes with a huge disclaimer. To make this work, you need to be hyper-organized. You need to keep track of what cards need to be used when and for what. You *need* to pay off each card in full every month. You also need to have a steady stream of purchases you put on a credit card anyway. If you start making purchases just to meet a minimum spending goal, then you’re spending money you wouldn’t have spent otherwise. And that means you’re likely losing money . . .

Denisa and I have some purchases we know will go on a card every month: groceries, phone, utilities, gas. We know how much we spend on those each month, and so we’ve gotten a new card about every 2-3 months. Since I started this, I have gotten 10 new credit cards. With those credit cards, I have gotten 260,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, 325,000 Marriott Points, and I’m coming up on 275,000 Hilton Points. All earned on purchases we were going to make anyway. In addition, I have Gold status with Marriott and Diamond status with Hilton.

Of course, some of the nicer card offers come on cards that have annual fees. If you don’t watch yourself, you’re going to lose some of your “profits” by paying those, but if you swing it right, it actually works out very well. Some examples:

  • My Marriott cards typically cost about $95/year. However, they each come with a free night each year. If I’m planning on staying at a Marriott one night/year anyway (per card), then as long as the Marriott I was planning on staying at would cost more than $95, I’m ahead of the game on this one. With my family, when we stay at Marriotts, the cheapest we can find them is usually around $120, so this is just fine. And we travel often.
  • My Hilton card costs $450/year(!) When I was starting out, this would have been a deal breaker for me. However, I realize there are ways to make this work as well. For example, it comes with $250 of Southwest gift cards, which knocks that annual price down to $200. It comes with a free weekend night at almost any Hilton. (This year, I’m hoping to take Denisa to stay at a Hilton right off Central Park. It would usually cost $450 for the room. I’ll stay there for “free.”) In addition, I get automatic Diamond status at Hilton, which comes with free upgrades to rooms when I say there, free breakfasts, and other perks. If you don’t travel and stay at hotels enough, it’s hard for these perks to counterbalance the $450 you’re paying for them, but if you *do* travel anyway, they’re an excellent bonus.
  • My Chase Sapphire Reserve card is also $450/year. But again, there are benefits. If I spend Chase points to travel, I get a 50% bonus. The first $300 I spend on travel with that card each year is refunded. I get extra buyers protection on purchases, automatic trip insurance, and more. It all depends on whether these bonuses work for what you’re already doing or what you want to do anyway.

I’m to the point now where I’m being more selective on what cards I get, and where I use which card, as some of them give you bonus points for spending in a particular category. For example, my Chase Freedom card gives me 5% points at grocery stores and home improvement stores this quarter. That means I get back about 8-10% of what I spend there if I use those points in travel. If I was going to buy groceries anyway (spoiler alert: I was), then which would be better: buying them for $100 and getting nothing back, or buying them for $100 and getting $8 in travel credits?

My biggest concern going into all of this had been for my credit score. I needn’t have worried. It’s still at the highest level possible, even with all these cards.

Would I do it again? Of course. But only within the constraints I’ve outlined. This morning I just bought round trip tickets to San Antonio for my family, all with points. They would have been over $1,500 for cash. I spent 96,000 Chase points, transferring them over to Southwest. It really felt like a cheat code for travel.

Honestly, my biggest “problem” at this point is that I’m so used to saving money, my natural inclination is to save points as well. They’re no good to me if I don’t use them, so I’m having to look for ways to spend the points to have fun, which is why I got into all of this in the first place. Next up? I’m hoping to stay in Orlando for a week with the fam for free, and there’s another trip to Boston I’d like to take.

Life’s rough.

If any of this sounds like it’s something that’s up your alley (with the disclaimers I gave), then let me know. I can give you some referral links to good cards . . .

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Tax Time: Author Income and Traveling for Church

It’s March, which means it’s high time for me to be working on my taxes. Part of that process is taking an accounting of everything I was up to the past year from a dollars and cents perspective. Two data points stood out to me this year that I thought would be interesting to you as well.

First off, a candid look at the high flying life of an author. I think there’s a fair bit of misunderstanding out there on just how much you make as an author. I’ll tell people that I got a book deal, and they ask when I’m going to quit my job. Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely authors out there who are able to do that as their main job. But I’d say those are few and far between. Personally, I love the steady paycheck I get as a library director (not to mention the fact that the job itself is rewarding). I’d be hard pressed to give that up for the scattershot approach to payment that’s often the life of an author.

But it’s not making me nothing, and I thought it would be interesting to go back through the data to see how my income as an author has changed over the years, from my first sale in 2011 to this year:

  • 2011: $5,100
  • 2012: $10
  • 2013: $0
  • 2014: $0
  • 2015: $7,243
  • 2016: $3,188
  • 2017: $8,035
  • 2018: $8,960

None of that takes into account any actual expenses. That’s just what I earned. You’ll see there was a nice start with VODNIK, and then several years with no sales, and MEMORY THIEF has been happily churning out money for me since it first sold (and then sold again) back in 2015. I have no real idea what things will look like this year yet. I know I’ll get at least some income from some foreign sales, and hope springs eternal that INKBINDER will finally see print one of these days (or I’ll at least get the second half of my advance for it), and I have a couple other books going out on submission, but you just never know.

So am I raking in the money hand over fist as an author? Clearly not, though I’m grateful to be making what I am. Still, consider that I work on writing approximately 10 hours a week, and my hourly “wage” for writing has been:

  • 2011: $9.81
  • 2012: $0.02
  • 2013: $0
  • 2014: $0
  • 2015: $13.93
  • 2016: $6.13
  • 2017: $15.45
  • 2018: $17.23

Though that’s not quite accurate, since the times I got paid I typically ended up working much more than 10 hours a week on those books. And of course, when you take into account the fact that I started writing in 2000, my average hourly wage over the entire time I’ve been writing comes to a grand total of $3.23. (And remember: that’s before any expenses are taken out at all. Self-employment taxes are significantly more than normal salary taxes . . .)

But hey–the trajectory is definitely upwards, so I’ll take it.

The second data point I wanted to share was total travel for church. I spend a lot of time on the road these days, much of it church-related. How much time? Well, considering all that mileage might be tax deductible, I’ve kept track.

This year, I drove 4,280 miles for church-related service. How much is that?

  • I could drive down to Disney World and then back to Maine, change my mind when I got back to Maine, and drive back to Disney World, though I’d be just shy of making it there.
  • I could drive to Disneyland and still have over 1,000 miles to drive somewhere else.
  • But let’s not worry about Disney. Let’s go international. I could go to Costa Rica if I drove that far south. I could go to Anchorage if I headed north.

That’s a lot of driving.

Why do I drive so much for church? I’m on the high council, which means I drive to Waterville (64 miles, round trip) or Bangor (180 miles, roundtrip) once a month. I also drive to speak at a congregation somewhere in the region about every other month. Some of those drives can be 180 miles roundtrip (or more), as well. Add those trips up and throw in some things that are more local, and it all snowballs pretty easily.

Anyway. Those are my two “gee whiz” facts of the day. Have a good one.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

How to Use Reviews of Products

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of product reviews. I don’t write too many myself, but I love looking at what other people say about something before I buy it. If there’s something I need to buy, I’ll scour the Amazon reviews before I pick the thing that looks Just Right.

At least, that’s what I’ve done in the past. Over the last few months, however, my faith in those Amazon reviews has really been shaken. Right now, I’m at the point where I no longer firmly believe a product with a ton of great reviews must, by default, be good. Why not?

First of all, it’s clear to me that companies are gaming the system somewhat. More and more after I buy a thing through Amazon, I get a follow up email from the company begging me to review their product. (In so many words.) It’s disguised to be “helpful.” They just want to make sure I know how to properly use the microfiber dust cloth I bought. (Really? If I need directions on how to use a dust cloth, maybe I’m not qualified to write a review. Have you considered that?) But then they also say how important reviews are to them, and how they’re a small company and blah blah blah.

Fact. If you send out emails to everyone asking for reviews, you will inevitably get more reviews than otherwise. If you include “helpful tips” and a good reason why you need a review, you’ll get even more. Not because your product is any better than another, but just because you asked. At that point, Amazon pushes your product more than others. People see all the reviews and assume it’s superior, and you’re off and running, with no real need to even pay for extra reviews. (Though I do think that happens as well.)

It used to be fairly easy to identify the shills in Amazon reviews. Poorly written smear pieces or praises. It was easy to discount them and just focus on the ones that seemed to have merit. These days, it feels to me more and more like companies have caught on to that. The shills write better, if that makes sense. I also feel like companies pay people to write poor reviews of other products. The “complaints” that show up are just bizarre and non-sensical, and (more importantly) hard to prove.

Case in point? I’ve been looking at bluetooth headphones. I went to Amazon, and some products received glowing reviews. Others, not so much. But when I went to actual paid sources like PC Magazine (that review those products) the ones they rated highest are middle-of-the road on Amazon when it comes to reviews. Complaints are “quality control” and “doesn’t hold a charge.” Things that might theoretically get by a professional reviewer. Maybe. But which *might* show up after people have used a product for months.

Except I really don’t believe professional reviewers wouldn’t catch a lot of those things. I’m much more inclined to trust a professional review than I am to trust a random Amazon review. (Especially now that my overall trust of Amazon reviews is becoming shaken.)

So what are your thoughts? How are you using reviews these days? Do you still trust Amazon? Where do you go to decide what you want to buy? I love using reviews, but I want to make sure I use the right ones. Ones I can trust and believe in.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Save Money by Shipping with Paypal

I’ve had to send a few packages over the last week or two, and I was looking for the cheapest way to ship them. Now that we’re in the holiday season, my gut told me some of you might be in the same boat, so I thought a post on the subject might be helpful to some of you.

My specific goal was sending Magic: The Gathering cards across the country. Since I was selling a large quantity of these cards, I wanted to save as much money on shipping as I could. More money saved there meant more profit for me. Time wasn’t an issue. I didn’t need the cards to get to their destination the next day or anything like that.

Do Magic cards count as Media Mail? If so, then I’d be in luck. But Media Mail is very specific. Books (at least 8 pages), CDs, DVDs, manuscripts, printed music, and the like. No advertising. No comic books (they don’t count, randomly). No letters. No board games. Magic cards don’t count, sadly.

They’re also quite heavy. 1.75 grams per card, give or take. Which doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly. The best vehicle I found for shipping a large number was the flat rate boxes with the USPS. I can fit 7,000 cards into a large one of those, and that weighs over 26 pounds. Cost? $13.65 at the post office. Not ideal, but honestly better than anything else I found.

Except you can save even more by shipping it at a commercial rate. (It lops off 80 cents, or 5.86%, bringing it down to $12.85.) You can do this by shipping it with PayPal. Except PayPal makes it obnoxiously difficult to find out exactly how to do that.

No worries, friends. Just click this link to be taken straight to the spot on PayPal’s site. You log in with your PayPal account, select the shipping address, and then select what kind of shipping you’re going to use. You pay online with whatever method you use to pay PayPal, and then you print off the postage. Tape it to the package, and drop it off at your local post office.

It seemed complicated to me the first time I did it, but now that I’ve done it a few times, it’s much more straightforward. The pain point is just remembering how to get to that PayPal page. I’ve got it bookmarked now, though, so I just pull it up automatically.

You can ship all sorts of things via that link. Media Mail. First class parcel. Anything you ship in a box, I think. I highly recommend it, especially since this way, I can just go to the post office knowing all I need to do is drop something off. (I stress about silly things sometimes. Go figure.) And have I mentioned I’ve now shipped over 17,000 Magic cards off? The bulk of them are cards I bought for 1 tenth of a cent per card, and I’m selling them (after paying for shipping) for 3.55 tenths of a cent per card. That might not sound like much to you, so how about I just say I’m selling them for 3.5 times what I bought them for. That sounds much better, right? And that’s after I took a ton of them out that were worth much more. If I’d just sold them all at this rate, I would have made $255 off a $100 investment.

(Just don’t pay any attention to how much time it’s taken me . . .)

Anyway. Maybe that helps some of you. Happy shipping!

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Credit Card Hacking Update

largeBack at the beginning of November, I let you all know I was going to dip my toe into the world of credit card churning: applying for credit cards one after another to get their sign-up bonuses and rack up points and miles. The goal was simple: I use my credit card almost exclusively for everything I buy, and I pay it off in full each month, religiously. So why not put all that credit card usage to work for me? I read all about how easy it was, and how it wouldn’t hurt your credit score, yada yada yada.

So here I am, four months later, and I have a bit of experience in the area now. (Not a ton, but enough to give some feedback.)

Basically, if you fall into the same category that I described myself above, then you should be doing this. Flat out no brainer. I applied for the Chase Ink Business Preferred card for my first one. I used my author job as my business, but they’re quite flexible on what they count as a “business.” Basically, if you do anything where you’re buying or selling stuff on the side, you can count it for the purposes of Chase. Ebay sniping? Sure. Antiquing? Why not. Selling eggs? You betcha.

Signing up qualified me for 80,000 free points IF I spent $5,000 in the first three months. I had already done the research to know I spent more than that on credit cards on average, so it seemed like a low enough risk. And sure enough, I spent the money and got the bonus. I then referred Denisa for the same card. (They give you 20,000 free points if someone else uses your referral code to get the card.) She got the card. We used it as our main card for the next bit, and now we just completed our spend for that. I got the 20,000 free points for her signing up, and she’ll get the 80,000 free points.

I now have something in the neighborhood of 200,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points kicking around. (If you’d like to sign up for the same card, please use my referral code by clicking here. But please only do it if you’re going to spend responsibly.) Do be aware that this card has a $95 annual fee. At the end of the first year, you don’t cancel it. (That’s bad for credit scores, and largely unnecessary.) Rather, you downgrade the card to an Ink Business Cash card. That has no annual fee. So even though I’ll have paid $190 in annual fees for a single year, I’ll have gotten 180,000 points out of the deal, which can be turned into $1,800 of cash at the least. (More on that in a minute.)

One of the big concerns was what this would do to my credit. I had excellent credit to begin with, and for the first month or two, my credit score did indeed dip by about 50 points. However, as of just now, my credit score is actually up 10 points higher than it started. It recovered and even improved. So it looks like having more credit available really does outweigh applying for more cards. And that’s even after I applied for another card yesterday.

My next card is the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which should indicate my confidence level in this. See, that card has an annual fee of $450. Earlier me would have said I was nuts to get a card that you have to pay that much each year to keep. But now I didn’t just apply for it, I’m planning on keeping it active year after year. Why?

  • Each year, it credits you with $300 to go toward travel expenses. So if you fly or stay at hotels at all that year, that basically covers $300 of the $450 right there. $150 sounds much more reasonable, doesn’t it?
  • Better still, when it comes time for me to redeem my points for airline tickets, it gives me a 50% bonus on those points. So that turns my 180,000 bonus points that I’ve earned so far into 270,000 bonus points. (Which is why I’m not turning them in for cash back. Since I fly so often, it makes so much more sense to just use those points for travel.)
  • Beyond that, it has awesome travel insurance perks, airport lounge access, and other nice bonuses. Back in September when my brother in law’s flight was canceled because his airline went insolvent, I was left hanging out to dry. If I’d bought those tickets with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I’d have gotten reimbursed. I’ll pay a bit of money each year for that peace of mind.

To get the 50,000 free points for signing up with this card, I’ll need to spend $4,000 in the next three months. I’ve got trips to DC and New Orleans planned that I have to pay for. I’ve got that covered.

What do 270,000 Chase points get me in airfare, though? Well, let’s look at that trip to New Orleans I’ll be taking in June for ALA. Right now on Kayak (my typical go-to source for flights), I can get a roundtrip, non-stop ticket from Boston to New Orleans for $187 on Spirit Airlines. Or, if I’d rather go with luggage and fly Delta, it would be $224. I can buy the exact same flights through Chase’s rewards sites, only using points instead of dollars. So my 270,000 points would buy me 14 round trip, non-stop tickets to New Orleans on Spirit, or 12 on Delta. (Multiply the price by 100, and that gets you the approximate point price. So 270,000 is about $2,700 in flight value.)

It doesn’t just have to be flights, either. I could rent cars with those points. Buy tickets to Universal Studios in Orlando. There are some restrictions, and I might be able to find a better deal outside of Chase’s site, but that’s okay. I don’t have to spend all those points by a certain date. They don’t expire.

I could also transfer those points over to United or British Airways or any number of other programs, so I can shop around for the best redemption value of the points as well.

What I mean to say is, these points have real value.

There is a learning curve involved. I did some research on what cards to get and in what order. (Chase in particular can be finicky about what they let you get, and how many cards.) I personally felt like the Ink Business Card was the way to start, since its reward is the best, and that might go down at any point in time. If you decide to go with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I’ll have a referral link for that in about a week. (EDIT: Here it is.)

Anyway. There you have it. I keep track of all these cards in a simple spreadsheet. I set up automatic payments on all of them. It’s a slight pain to juggle the different pieces of plastic, but not overly burdensome, and I really feel like it’s worth the hassle. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking to get to $10/month to justify the amount of time I spend on this blog. I’m at $8/month so far. Read this post for more information. Or click here to go to Patreon and sign up. It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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