I filed bankruptcy in 2008.

Shortly after, I started teaching myself how to invest in stocks.

My credit came second to building wealth. It was kind of an afterthought. I didn’t use credit for years, thinking that if I invested well, I’d have no need for it. Then, I got into real estate investing and began hitting my credit more aggressively so we could get better rates to finance property.

In there somewhere I realized that credit is a powerful tool that can assist you in building wealth.

Even with this realization, I was not much of a fan of using credit cards. I used them for small purchases a couple times a month, then paid them off in full to boost my score. I didn’t have the cards because I wanted to use credit cards; I was simply using them as a tool so I could qualify for the best mortgage rates for investment properties.

However, once I really started building both my and my husband’s credit up to “excellent” range, it became clear that credit cards are not used by the wealthy to finance things that they can’t or prefer not to pay for in cash. They don’t just use it for investments.

When you have excellent credit, you have access to the finer things in life, like first class travel…for free or next to nothing.

This was a whole new world. While I’ve never called myself a credit expert, I thought I had it’s purpose all figured out, which was to leverage and build more wealth. I discovered (from Susan, one of my students, actually) that once you’ve nailed down using credit cards responsibly by only using them for purchases you’re making anyway (and can afford to make), you can still experience a 5-star life on a 3-star budget!

Here are some things that I discovered:

  • Certain credit cards that can only be obtained with great credit, such as American Express and Chase, don’t give a few measly dollars back in cash every month like other “rewards” cards, but have points programs. These points are far more valuable than cash back.
  • Within these programs, you generally earn 1 point per dollar spent, but you can earn more in certain categories or when you spend at certain retailers. For example, I ordered my mother and my mother-in-law’s flowers for Mother’s day through the Chase shopping portal. I earned 30 points for every dollar I spent there, something like 2000 points for each of their gifts.
  • These points you accumulate are advertised to be worth 1 cent each, but when you learn how to redeem them properly, they can be worth 3 or 4 cents or more each.
  • These points are then transferable to numerous airlines and hotel partners, where you can redeem for hotel rooms, first class upgrades, and airline seats like these:

That’s a real “seat” on a real flight on Singapore airlines, one of the points transfer partners, and one that can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on where you’re going. With the right points accumulation and redemption strategy, you could get it for maybe a couple hundred dollars. What?!

This racking up of membership reward points and then strategically redeeming them for maximum value to travel the world for cheap is called travel hacking. You can redeem the points for cash, but you get the most from them, sometimes 3 or 4 times their face value, when you use them for travel.

During my first month in my foray into travel hacking, I’ve racked up 106,394 in points between American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards. I promise you, I am not a big spender, but I did make very strategic purchases. In addition to the Mother’s Day gifts, here’s how I squeezed every last point possible out of these reward programs:

We have an American Express Everyday Preferred card.

  • For every dollar spent at grocery stores, we get 3 points.
  • For every dollar spent at gas stations, we get 2 points.
  • When we make 30 purchases a month (no matter how small) we get an additional 50% more points.

Feeding and hauling around 3 hungry and busy boys suddenly feels less expensive when I know there’s a free trip in there somewhere down the road!

You may also qualify for a sign-up bonus when you open an account. Keep in mind that these cards require pretty good credit; think 700 or higher. You can apply here, and just know I might be awarded some bonus points for referring you! #NoShame

Apply for an American Express Everyday Preferred credit card

We also have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

  • For every dollar spent on travel or dining out, we get 2 points.

However, the big points earned came from shopping through Chase’s portal.

  • Like with the Mother’s Day gifts, I made some strategic purchases at Macy’s for 4 points per dollar (I don’t generally shop, but I was forced to for a photo shoot).
  • I booked my husband and myself a trip to Italy through Groupon for an unbelievable $649 per person which included airfare, hotels, rental cars and breakfast. Since it was travel, I earned an initial 2796 in points at 2 points per dollar spent. By purchasing the trip via Chase in Groupon for a bonus of 4x the points, I earned another 5592 in points, for a total of 8,388 in points, on a trip that was cheap as hell to begin with!

Chase Sapphire Preferred has an even better sign-up bonus than American Express, at 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4000 in 3 months and another 5000 in bonus points when you add an authorized user. I love this card, but with a larger family it works very well for us to use both the American Express Everyday Preferred along with it to get bonuses on a wide range of purchases. Apply for a Chase Sapphire Preferred card below.

Apply for a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card

Even at a very low estimate of 1 cent apiece, this 106,394 in points is worth $1063.94 in travel. However, being a person who loves strategy and loopholes and maximizing everything I have, I know I can stretch that $1000 to at least $2000-$3000, maybe more. It’s a bit of a game to use the right card for the right purchases (one I had to review the rules of several times with my husband to get right!) but it’s right up my alley. I’m going to keep working at this travel hacking thing, and I’ll update you as I go!

Do you use and maximize travel rewards?

Read next: 3 Things to Consider Before Choosing Your First Travel Rewards Credit Card >>

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