Credit card sign-up offers can be an incredibly lucrative opportunity to earn large amounts of points or miles in a short period of time. The ability to accrue 100,000 points (if not more) is nothing to sneeze at, as those points can cover travel expenses totaling at least $1,000.
When I tell my peers about the opportunity that comes from a simple credit card sign-up bonus, they always ask me the same question: “What’s the catch?” After all, collecting so many points or miles so quickly seems too good to be true … but it’s not.
Earning a credit card’s points or miles bonus is fairly straightforward. All that you need to do to be eligible is to meet a minimum spending requirement. This typically ranges from $2,000 to $5,000 in purchases within a roughly three-month time frame, though it could be more or less depending on the individual product.
With students regularly spending less than the average adult, some may wonder if meeting such a threshold is possible. Believe it or not, it is with some careful planning. As long as students are strategic about how they spend their money and remember to only use their cards when they know they can pay off the balance in full, they can easily earn a sign-up bonus.
Here are 10 ways students can meet minimum spending requirements without breaking the bank.
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Without a doubt, one of the most expensive aspects of a student’s life is college tuition. Depending on the university a student attends, they can find themself paying tens of thousands of dollars (or more) for their studies.
Although many people rely on their credit cards for everyday purchases like food and gas, few realize that you can also use them to pay for larger academic expenses. In fact, many schools are flexible when it comes to payment, allowing you to use cards to pay for part or all of your tuition and housing. If you have a tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan, you may even be able to reimburse yourself for those purchases through your 529 account.
Know, though, that institutions often charge a fee for using a credit card. At the college I attend — the University of Virginia — there is a 2.75% fee for paying tuition with a credit card as opposed to linking directly from a bank account. While this fee can certainly add up, it can and should be a worthwhile consideration in weighing how to to meet a card’s minimum spending requirement.
For example, signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and making a $4,000 tuition payment on the card to meet its minimum spending requirement would cost $110 more than paying directly. This may initially seem like a bad deal — until you consider the welcome offer. By spending $4,000 with the card, you’ll receive 64,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points — 60,000 from the sign-up bonus and 4,000 from spending within in the first three months your account is opened. These points are worth $800 if redeemed through Chase’s portal or $1,280 based on TPG’s valuation, which also factors in transfer partners, making the slightly higher fee up front more than worth the investment.
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Moving into student housing often requires spending much more than the cost of housing itself. To start, there are sheets and blankets to buy for your bed, plus towels, hangers and other everyday basics. Odds are you’ll also want a coffee maker and a minifridge in addition to some accent pieces like an area rug and wall art.
If you were already going to be making these purchases, why not put them on a credit card instead of using a debit card? Just be sure you’re stretching your dollars by taking advantage of student discounts and completing purchases through a shopping portal, such as Rakuten. And if you’re not already a member and join Rakuten today, you can earn a one-time bonus of $30 (or 3,000 Amex points) when you make at least $30 in purchases through the site in the first 90 days.
Textbooks can be pricey, whether you rent or buy them, so why not use the necessary expense to earn points or miles? While studying may seem tough in the moment, you’ll quickly forget about the temporary agony when you use those credit card earnings to pay for your spring break flights.
Similar to tuition, books and other school supplies are eligible for reimbursement through a 529 plan, so remember to pay yourself back after charging any of those items to your card.
Your parents’ expenses
Parents often have a lot more expenses than the average student, so it makes sense to offer to purchase things on behalf of your parents and have them reimburse you.
If your parents need to make a major purchase — a new dishwasher, for example — consider offering to purchase what they need and have them reimburse you later. Or, you could offer to use your new credit card to pay for their monthly expenses, like the electric bill.
Explain to your parents how it will help you unlock a sign-up bonus, then use those expenses to move one step closer to meeting your card’s minimum spending requirement. Even better, some cards include an extended warranty or purchase protection that they might not otherwise get. Don’t forget to have them pay you back with a check or cash, though.
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One expense that everyone has at one point or another is gifts. Whether it is a birthday, a holiday or another occasion, odds are you’ll need to buy gifts for others at least a couple of times annually, so why not put those charges on a credit card?
Buying gifts with a credit card, even if it’s several months in advance, allows you to work toward your card’s spending threshold while taking care of purchases you’ll eventually need to make. If you tend to be forgetful, this strategy can prove particularly valuable, as it may save you from a last-minute scramble to get a loved one a gift.
Starting college often requires purchasing a number of pricey new electronics, including a laptop, a printer and earbuds or headphones. Use these necessary expenses, which are also 529 plan-eligible, to your advantage by placing them on a credit card.
Take the need to buy a laptop as an example. If you know you are going to purchase a brand-new 13-inch MacBook Pro, use a new credit card to pay for it. After your student discount is applied, the laptop would come to $1,199 before taxes and fees, plus other expenses like shipping. This total is more than enough to meet the minimum spending requirement for cards like the Hilton Honors American Express Card, which gives new cardholders 100,000 points after they spend $1,000 in purchases on the card in the first three months of card membership.
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An easy way to inch toward a minimum spending threshold is to cover the tab when hanging out with friends. By charging group meals, movie tickets and more to one of my credit cards and having my friends pay me back through a mobile payment service like Venmo or Cash App, I can easily increase my own spending without blowing past my budget.
An added bonus is the convenience it brings to everyone involved: Employees at restaurants, movie theaters and other venues don’t have to deal with multiple purchases at once, my friends can cover their portions of the bill in a matter of seconds and I quickly have the money back in my account.
Most of us have more digital subscriptions than we care to admit. If you are going to pay for Netflix, Hulu, Audible and other subscription services, be sure to use your new card to cover them for at least the few months when you are striving to reach a minimum spending requirement, if not longer.
Linking these subscriptions to your card is simple. All you have to do is go into each account and switch the card to the new one with a sign-up offer so the recurring charge can help you reach the card’s threshold. If you prepay for your subscription an entire year in advance, you’ll have an even easier time qualifying for the sign-up bonus, as the one-time charge on your card will be higher than it would be if you paid per month.
After spending hours filling out tedious college applications, there is no better feeling than getting into the school of your choosing. When you’re ready to stock up on college merchandise to show your school pride, do so with the help of your new credit card.
All of the swag, from hoodies and T-shirts to grandma’s coffee mug and grandpa’s baseball cap, will quickly add up, putting a noticeable dent in your effort to meet your minimum spending requirement.
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While the bulk of your focus may be on the purchases immediately affecting your time in college, don’t forget about the everyday items you need at any time of the year.
Whether you need a coffee while on campus, a ride home from the airport during school breaks or a tube of toothpaste you forgot to pack for a trip, a new credit card can come in handy for even the smallest of purchases. The more everyday purchases you put on your card, the more of an impact they’ll have in your effort to earn your sign-up bonus.
Reaping travel rewards with the help of a credit card is possible, even as a college student on a tight budget. To take advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses in a fiscally responsible way, all you have to do is to stay within your means, use your card for critical purchases and pay off your balance in full every month to avoid accruing debt.
By being smart with your money and using other resources you may have at your disposal, such as a 529 plan and student discounts, you can quickly reach your credit card’s minimum spending threshold while avoiding extraneous purchases.
Featured photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.