Really Great Stuff My Credit Card Reward Points Can Get Me

by Ellen Smith

Paying off my consumer debt has been rewarding, if not exactly fun. I recently hit my halfway mark, which is great! But it is also horrible, because unlike when I started, I now know exactly how it feels to be on this money diet, and I’m not thrilled about doing it all over again. Also, I am now so safely below my credit limit that I could buy so many things! To stop myself from doing this I decided to see what I could get for “free” with my credit card reward points and maybe scratch my online shopping itch.

First, a little rough math: Each point is a dollar spent. Unfortunately in my case, each point also represents at least $0.099 in interest because I made the bright decision to carry substantial revolving debt for years on a card with a 9.9% APR. I’m sure that it is more complicated than this, but this will do for now. So I took a look at what items were available to me, how much spending I’d done to earn it, and the interest that went along with it (for me, not those of you who Do it Right).

I have 7,411 points. Let’s see what I can get:

5 Reusable Shopping Totes: 1,700 points
Includes a bonus packing cube!
What I Spent: $1,700 plus $168.00 interest
Retail Price: $0.00, much like matches, one does not buy shopping totes; they make their way from trade conferences to your desk by magic.

HD VISION® HD Vision & HD NightVision Glasses Set: 2,600 points
Not really what I’d call “night vision,” but I suppose they could help your vision at night.
What I Spent: $2,600 plus $257.40 interest
Retail Price: $15.99

OMAHA STEAKS® 4 Creme Brulee: 3,400 points
Reusable ceramic ramekins!
What I Spent: $3,400 plus $336.60 interest
Retail Price: $34.99

FASCINATIONS® Magic Jellyfish: 4,700 points
The perfect pet.
What I Spent: $4,700 plus $465.30 interest
Retail Price: $39.99

FASCINATIONS® USB Aquarium Desktop: 4,700 points
“The aquarium doubles as an LCD calendar with time, date, week, and temperature display, plus an alarm clock with snooze, countdown timer, and 5 tranquil nature sounds.”
What I Spent: $4,700 plus $465.30 interest
Retail Price: $39.99

PANDORA™ Lotsa Love Bead: 5,700 points
This is actually one bead. One bead with hearts on it.
What I Spent: $5,700 plus $564.30 interest
Retail Price: $39.99

3-in-1 Breakfast Maker: 6,000 points
For those of us who like to make our coffee, eggs, and bacon and die in a fire all at once.
What I Spent: $6,000 plus $594.00 interest
Retail Price: $39.99

HALEX® Deluxe Steel Lasso Golf Game: 7,300 points
I grew up calling this game “Monkeyballs.”
What I Spent: $7,300 plus $722.70 interest
Retail Price: $69.99, which is news to me, because I thought people just made these on their own.

(Not Listed: Many varieties of golf balls, sunglasses, and bluetooth headsets.)

At first it was fun to see what I could get, but looking up retail prices really ruined it for me. It comes to between .5 and .9% cash-back value for most of the stuff and in every case (except the jellyfish) I paid more than ten times the retail value in interest alone on the purchases that earned it.

This forced me to realize that these are not free gifts for being an excellent shopper, but are more like sympathy gifts to cheer me up after paying over $700 in interest over the short life of this card. It’s not that I don’t think the rewards are good enough — I don’t deserve anything for the mess I got myself into — but the whole points thing made me realize how much I’d spent on that card in total, not just per month, and boy was that an eye-opener. With a $4,000 credit limit, I had no idea I’d managed $7,411 in purchases.

2.) If you’re in a card for rewards and a Spencer’s Gifts/SkyMall hybrid is not your thing, maybe skip the USAA AmEx.
3.) I think I’ll get the aquarium? I forgot to mention that the lighting inside changes colors. Key point.

Ellen Smith is 59.56% done with her credit card debt and 49 days away from positive net worth. She spends most of the day obsessively tracking her finances.