Using your rewards points to get ready for summer

Whether you’re excited about summer shopping for summer fun or even getting ahead of the back to school rush, it’s important to consider what any additional spending could mean for your budget. For example, the National Retail Federation reported that the average shopper would spend $696.70 in 2019 on back-to-school supplies alone. 

That sounds like a decent amount of cash to hand over, but there’s a better way to pay for your shopping. If you’ve accumulated points on one or more rewards credit cards, those could be your ace in the hole for saving. 

The key is making sure you’re using your rewards points (or earning them) in a way that delivers maximum value. As you make your shopping plans, these tips can help you leverage your rewards for a great summer and back-to-school season.

Take stock of your rewards point earnings

A little organization can go a long way when using rewards points to do your shopping. If you don’t know how big of a pile of points you’re sitting on, it’s time to add it all up.

Make a list of all of your rewards cards you’ve earned points on, including the number of points you have. If you have multiple cards from the same issuer, check to see if you can combine your rewards points to make redeeming them easier. 

For example, you might have a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and a Chase Freedom® credit card. While the Freedom card technically earns cash back, not points, you can transfer those rewards to the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to combine them with points earned with your Sapphire Preferred Card. 

If you’re a little thin on points, or you want to earn even more rewards on spending, you could open a new rewards card account. If you’re interested in using points for summer or back-to-school shopping, then you might want to consider one of these credit card options:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Earn two points per dollar on dining and travel, one point per dollar on all other purchases. 
  • Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Credit Card: Earn two points per dollar on travel and dining, 1.5 points per dollar on all other purchases. Bank of America Preferred Rewards members earn 25%-75% more points on every purchase.
  • American Express® Gold Card: Earn four Membership Rewards® points per dollar on dining, four points per dollar at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 in purchases annually, then one point per dollar), three points per dollar on flights booked with the airline or amextravel.com, and one point per dollar on all other purchases. 

While comparing the rewards points you could earn for shopping, dining or travel, pay attention to the introductory sign-up bonus as well. Bonuses can be a chance to earn a large chunk of points right off the bat when you meet the minimum spending requirement. 

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, for instance, offers an introductory bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 in qualifying purchases within the first three months of opening your account. It’s one of the best travel credit card bonuses available. 

Pro tip: Don’t count out student credit cards for earning rewards. The Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students offers 3% cash back in the category of your choice, including online shopping. It’s one of the best cash back credit cards for students who are new to building credit and earning rewards.

Increase rewards points through online shopping portals

Some credit cards and travel loyalty programs offer an online shopping portal for cardmembers. You can shop these portals with your card to earn additional points, on top of the base points you’re already receiving by making purchases with your card. 

You simply log in to the portal, search for the merchant you want to shop with, and then click through to make a purchase. This can be an easy way to maximize points earnings on purchases you were already planning to make. When evaluating shopping portals, pay attention to the kind of rewards you’re earning, the amount of rewards you can earn, and whether any additional incentives are on tap. 

For example, the Wells Fargo Go Far Rewards portal offers cash back rewards for cardmembers who shop with an eligible Wells Fargo rewards card. Cash back rewards typically range from 1% to 5%. Chase Ultimate Rewards, on the other hand, offers a chance to earn between one and 15 additional points on purchases from partner merchants.

Here’s a shortlist of online shopping portals you may be able to take advantage of for summer or back-to-school shopping:

  • Amex Offers
  • Barclays Reward Boost
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Wells Fargo Go Far Rewards

Remember, you’ll need an eligible card to shop these portals and earn rewards. You can, however, earn rewards through travel shopping portals without having a co-branded credit card from that program. 

For example, you can earn rewards through Delta SkyMiles Shopping, Southwest Rapid Rewards Shopping or United MileagePlus Shopping if you’re a member of those frequent flyer programs. Those rewards can be redeemed for summer travel but you could also use them for gift cards or merchandise, which you could then use for back-to-school supplies. 

Pro tip: Stack rewards through rewards apps and websites like Rakuten, MyPoints or TopCashback. These sites let you earn points and/or cash rewards on purchases, in addition to what you’re earning with your card.

Compare redemption options for using credit card points

If you have some points you’d like to redeem for shopping, the goal should be to get the most value from them possible. This is where it pays off to do your homework and evaluate the redemption value for your rewards. 

For example, you might be able to redeem points for:

  • Gift cards
  • Statement credit
  • Merchandise
  • Pay at the checkout
  • Travel
  • Unique experiences

If you’re planning for the summer, you might be most focused on gift cards, statement credit or merchandise. Gift cards and merchandise could be given away, while statement credit can leave you with less to pay off once the summer is over.

Typically, points tend to be worth around one cent each. So, theoretically, 10,000 points would be worth $100 in gift cards. That’s not always a hard and fast rule, however. The value of your points depends largely on how you redeem points and the card in question.  

Let’s use American Express as an example. Here’s how the value of 10,000 Membership Rewards points breaks down for different redemption options:

  • Shop at Amazon: $70 (0.7 cents per point)
  • Gift cards: Up to $100 (one cent per point)
  • Shopping at Membership Rewards partners: $50 (0.5 cents per point)
  • Statement credit: $60 (0.6 cents per point)
  • Book or upgrade flights: $100 (one cent per point)

As you can see, the value of points can vary greatly. You’ll get the most value (one cent per point) when you redeem rewards for gift cards and the least (just a half a cent per point) when you use points to shop partner merchants. 

Chase Ultimate Rewards have slightly less variation in points values. When you redeem for travel, for example, points are worth 1.25 cents apiece, while the value drops to one cent each when redeeming for cash. Gift card redemptions are also valued at around one cent each, though you may get more or less value, depending on which merchant’s gift cards you’re redeeming for. At the lowest end of the spectrum, redeeming Ultimate Rewards points for Amazon purchases checks in at about 0.8 cents per point. 

Bottom line, it’s important to do the math on any redemption option before making a move. If your goal is to use points for gift cards and/or merchandise, or to apply them as a statement credit against purchases, you don’t want to shortchange yourself. 

Mark your calendar for deals

The summer holidays and back-to-school season are great for maximizing rewards. When mapping out your strategy, figure out what your goal is first. Are you trying to get the very best deals? Or are you more concerned with earning the most rewards possible on those purchases?

Scouting out deal sites beforehand can give you a heads-up on what’s going to be on sale and when retailers release their ads. From there, you can create your shopping plan.

If you’re set on earning rewards, these tips can help:

  • Make a list of the deals you want to take advantage of, including which items are on sale at which stores.
  • Look at each of your rewards cards to see which ones offer the most rewards for those purchases.
  • Match up the items on your shopping list to each card. 

You may be wondering whether it’s worth opening a retail store rewards credit card. For example, you might be looking at the Target RedCard, which offers 5% back at Target in-store and online. The Capital One Walmart Rewards Card offers 5% back at Walmart.com and the Walmart app, along with 2% back at Walmart stores and 1% back everywhere Mastercard is accepted. New cardmembers can also earn 5% back at Walmart stores their first 12 months of membership when they use Walmart Pay. 

The pros of retail store cards include being able to earn rewards on purchases and potentially getting an upfront discount on your first purchase. The cons are a higher APR than you’d get with a standard rewards card and limited redemption options. For example, you may only be able to redeem rewards as a statement credit or for a gift card to the store that’s affiliated with the card. 

Pro tip: Check your card’s bonus categories for capitalizing on deals. The Discover it® Cash Back card, for example, offers a 5% cash back bonus during the second quarter. The bonus applies to online purchases made at gas stations, Uber, Lyft and WholeSale Clubs, up to the first $1,500 in purchases, then 1% cash back, so you can stock up on summer barbeque supplies or prep for a family road trip. 

Do you have your shopping plan ready?

Any shopping season comes and goes quickly, so it’s important to make sure you’re using rewards to their full potential. These tips can help you max out points earnings while shopping, and get the best return for your money when it’s time to redeem them. 

Rebecca Lake

Personal finance writer and small business expert

Rebecca lives on the North Carolina coast with her two children an assorted collection of pets. In addition to freelance writing, she also authors a blog focused on making and saving money.