For reference, here’s a link to all the articles I’ve written on the BoA credit card strategy.
Nov 2020 update:
Doctor of Credit discussion that the 75% BoA Platinum Honors bonus might be killed: https://www.doctorofcredit.com/survey-bank-of-america-might-eliminate-75-platinum-honors-bonus-2-62-5-25-etc/. If this eventually happens, it’ll effectively put the kibosh on the strategy outlined in this blog post. Fingers crossed it won’t happen, though I’m worried that the program’s time is limited….
(Lack of) Disclosure:
I don’t make a penny on any credit card recommendation. What I recommend is what I currently have (or have had) in my own wallet.
There are Two Basic Credit Card Strategies:
- Choose your credit card based on the best available sign-up bonus at the time.
- If you decide to go down this path, here is a great resource: https://www.doctorofcredit.com/best-current-credit-card-sign-bonuses/
- I have a colleague who implements this strategy and has around 25 active cards. This seems ludicrous & unwieldy to me.
- Alternatively, sign up and use the best cards on an ongoing basis.
I don’t have much to say about Door #1 above. Doctor of Credit is going to be the best resource there.
However, if you take Door #2 above (by getting & using the best cards), then I have two recommendations:
Door #2A (getting & using the best cards) with < $100k (or even $50k) of investments
Fidelity offers a great no-nonsense, no-fee 2% cash back card (https://www.fidelity.com/cash-management/visa-signature-card). I’ve had permutations of this card for almost 15 years now (starting with a 529 MasterCard version of the card way back in the day). The card requires you to have a brokerage account with Fidelity to receive your cash back rewards. There are no fees associated with the brokerage account and zero minimum balances. For years the sole purpose of my Fidelity brokerage account (before I started using it as a high-yield savings account) was to receive the rewards before I pulled the money to an external checking account. Once you’ve accrued $25 or so of rewards (I forget the exact number), you can set it up to automatically dump into the brokerage account.
If you want to supplement the above with a nice zero-fee card (aside from the cost of the normal Costco membership), the Costco Citi Visa is a pretty nice one (https://www.citi.com/credit-cards/credit-card-details/citi.action?ID=Citi-costco-anywhere-visa-credit-card). 4% cash back on gas. 3% cash back on travel & dining. 2% cash back at Costco. 1% cash back everywhere else. The annoying thing about this card is that cash back is paid back annually in the form of a check, which is much less convenient than the above Fidelity card. For this reason alone, the Fidelity card is better than the Costco card for Costco purchases. For obvious reasons, the Fidelity card is better than the Costco card for any non-gas, non-travel, and non-restaurant transaction (i.e. those transactions earning only 1%).
The above is what I recommend to my students who are just starting out. It’s a great system, and pretty similar to one that I utilized for a decade or so.
Door #2B (getting & using the best cards) with > $100k (or even $50k) of investments
This is where the gravy train of credit card rewards can be really lucrative. But unfortunately you have to jump through a few non-trivial hoops.
**** Edit: To be abundantly clear, the rest of the article can be pretty well exploited with only $50k of investments. Doing so simply reduces the bonus multiplier from 75% (with $100k of investments) to 50% (with $50k of investments). As reader MA points out in the comments, this is still not a bad strategy at all. ****
Hoop #1: Get $100k to Merrill Edge to qualify for “Platinum Honors” status
The whole point of the madness that ensues is to quality for a 75% bump in credit card rewards (link). Without this, BoA’s cards would be pretty impotent. With this, BoA’s cards are the best in the country.
In order to quality for the preferred rewards, you need to do the following:
- Open up a checking account. I keep $0 in mine on an ongoing basis and avoid maintenance fees through my Platinum Honors status. The sole purpose of this account is to meet the requirements of the preferred rewards program and to dump the CC rewards there (which are then immediately swept elsewhere).
- Enroll in the preferred rewards program.
- Transfer $100k of investments to Merrill Edge.
- Wait 3 months to qualify.
The $100k transfer may initially seem like a nuisance, but it isn’t too bad. Transferring $100k from our joint brokerage account at Vanguard to our newly opened joint brokerage account at Merrill Edge was as simple as any transfer I’d ever experienced at any brokerage. It takes about 3 minutes to initiate the transfer online. Zero paperwork. Zero mailings. Zero faxes. Zero phone calls. Just a simple online request.
The downside to holding VTSAX at Merrill Edge is that you cannot costlessly sell it. There is a $20/transaction commission for doing so, which puts a damper on tax-loss-harvesting strategies. To combat this, you may want to consider converting VTSAX to VTI at Vanguard before transferring to Merrill Edge. With platinum honors status, you get free ETF and stock trades, so VTI becomes free to trade.
Once the $100k is at Merrill Edge, you have to wait up to 3 months for the “Platinum Honors” status to kick in since it is computed on a three month rolling average. Annoying, but necessary.
Once you hit this “Platinum Honors” status, you qualify for a 75% bonus on all credit card rewards.
By the way, the act of transferring $100k from Vanguard to Merrill Edge will qualify you for a transfer bonus of $250: https://www.merrilledge.com/cmaoffer
These bonuses will periodically increase during promotional time periods. Check these links to see if now is one of those times:
If you wanted to transfer IRAs instead of brokerage accounts, you could do so. If you go down this path, your spouse’s IRA will not count towards your preferred rewards status (and vice versa). Only jointly owned accounts count towards both spouses preferred rewards statuses. Since my wife and I have a joint brokerage at Merrill Edge, $100k in assets there will suffice for both of us (i.e. no need to store 2*$100k there).
Hoop #2: Get two different types of BoA credit cards
Credit Card #1: BoA Premium Rewards (link)
- Travel & Dining: 2% base rewards * 1.75 = 3.5% cash back with platinum “preferred rewards” status.
- Everything else: 1.5% base rewards * 1.75 = 2.625% cash back with platinum “preferred rewards” status.
Disadvantage: $95 annual fee, though the card provides $100 statement credit on travel incidentals which can be used to purchase an American Airlines egift card which I sell on Raise.com for $85. You are able to do this once per calendar year. After this nonsense, the annual cost of the card is $10. If you truly incur $100/year in airline incidentals, then you wouldn’t need to jump through this hoop. What airline incidentals get reimbursed? Check out this link at Doctor of Credit.
I hit the $100 benefit this year through the purchase of a $100 American Airlines E-Gift Card.
Here is the after-commission sale of the $100 gift card on Raise.com for $86.
Advantage: In addition to the $100/year in airline incidentals, there is a Global Entry / TSA precheck credit every few years (which we’ve taken advantage of through my wife’s Global Entry membership). Other benefits, such as no foreign transaction fee, are described here (link).
Current sign up bonus: $500 (not amplified by 75% bonus).
Credit Card #2: Get some BoA Cash Rewards cards (link)
The BoA Cash Rewards card comes in a bunch of different forms, all of which are absolutely identical in function. When I initially signed up for the base “Cash Rewards” card shown in red above, it was a Visa. For some reason it is now a Mastercard. If you prefer Visa (as I do b/c of Costco), then simply pick out a different card.
- Your choice of: gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drug stores, or home improvement/furnishings
- 3% base rewards * 1.75 = 5.25% cash back with platinum “preferred rewards” status.
- 2% base rewards * 1.75 = 3.5% cash back with platinum “preferred rewards” status.
- All else:
- 1% base rewards * 1.75 = 1.75% cash back with platinum “preferred rewards” status. Note that this portion of the card is inferior to the above Premium Rewards card so it makes no sense to spend in this region.
Advantages: No annual fee.
Disadvantages: $2.5k/quarter spending cap on these good rewards. After hitting the cap, the credit card bonus on all subsequent purchases within the quarter reverts to 1%*1.75=1.75%.
Current sign up bonus: $200 (not amplified by 75% bonus) is the promotional rate, though this bonus is normally $150.
Hoop #3: Defeat the $2.5k/quarter BoA cash rewards cap by getting multiple Cash Rewards cards
Each BoA Cash Rewards card has a $2.5k/quarter spending cap on the 3%*1.75=5.25% and 2%*1.75%=3.5% categories. If you are single, you are able to get multiple BoA cash rewards cards so long as they have a different picture on front. If you are married, you can repeat this activity for your spouse as well. There is essentially no reason (other than the $500 sign-up bonus) to get a second BoA Premium Rewards card. However, there are huge incentives to getting multiple BoA Cash Rewards cards.
I own 1 red card + 1 tigers card + 1 breast cancer card.
My wife owns 1 red card + 1 eagle card.
We are both authorized users on each other’s cards.
The net effect of the above is $2.5k * 5 = $12.5k/quarter in spending eligible for 5.25% cash back, in up to 5 different categories at one time.
Hoop #4: Buy Costco Cash Cards Online for 5.25% cash back there
We shop a lot at Costco. I may have an unhealthy obsession with the place. While the base 3.5% cash back from the Cash Rewards card at Costco are indeed better than any card on the planet I can think of, I have an obsession with optimization. So, on a monthly basis I purchase a $1k Costco Cash card online and have it delivered via snail mail (usually takes at least a week). Why would I do this nonsense? Because the most lucrative Cash Rewards category is the generous “Online” category. Costco.com counts as online, resulting in 5.25% cash back in-store via the “backdoor” Costco Cash Card.
To put the “hassle” into perspective, the online transaction takes about 2 minutes and the activation of the card takes about 1 minute. I reason that a $17.50 (=$1k*(5.25%-3.5%)) tax-free return for 3 minutes of labor is not a bad trade-off.
For months, I would also use the Costco Cash Card for my gas purchases. In recent months, however, I’ve dedicated one of my cards as a “gas” card and started using that instead. Why? To limit the hassle of reordering the Costco Cash card and to better utilize credit card float. Further, when paying for gas via the Costco Cash Card I lost the ability to easily track my gas spend. The dedicated “Gas” card remedies this.
If you misplace the Costco Cash card, they can reissue it at the help counter at Costco.
And a few random observations I’ve made over the past many months.
Random Observation #1: The Online Category is the best
It’s been my experience that booking a hotel through Expedia counts towards either Online or Travel, which begs the question why anyone would select Travel as their category if most Travel also counts as Online….I’m still looking into this. Need something from Home Depot? Buy it online and pick it up in store. In-store Walmart counts as “online” for me so long as I use the Walmart app to pay. Use your “online” category to purchase gift cards at Raise.com for 5.25% cash back in addition to whatever the Raise discount is (good for retail, travel, restaurants, etc). Ebay, Amazon, etc are all obviously Online as well.
Edit 5/21/20: I document how I use Raise.com to earn ~8.25% at Walmart and ~9.25% at CVS here.
Random Observation #2: You Can Change Categories on the BoA Cash Rewards Category relatively freely
So long as you haven’t already changed the category in your BoA Cash Rewards card in a given month, you may do so at any time during the month. Let’s say that you have a card designated as your “gas” card but are about to spend $200 on medication at the end of the month at a pharmacy. On the 31st of the month you could change your card to “pharmacy”, make the $200 pharmacy purchase, then revert the card back to a “gas” card the very next day on the 1st. If you do this, be aware that you’ll be unable to make subsequent changes until the 1st of the following month. It’s a pretty interesting strategy.
The below screenshot shows how easy it is to choose a new category. It also shows the historical spend on the card across all categories. Unsurprisingly, I only used our “online” card for online purchases.
Random Observation #3: Having many of the BoA Cash Rewards card is great
Between my wife and I we have 5 Cash Rewards cards. 2 are permanently designated as “online.” 1 is permanently designated as “gas.” The remaining two card can be whatever we want.
Random Observation #4: BoA’s website is frustrating
The bill pay portion of the site is almost bad enough to not be worth thousands of dollars of tax-free money per year. Luckily the Finance Buff has a great guide on how to navigate it: https://thefinancebuff.com/autopay-bank-america-credit-card.html. The good news is that once autopay is set up (much easier said than done), you’ll never have to log onto that god-forsaken site again.
In the process of signing up for autopay, I screwed up a few times (it’s really easy to do) leading to some late payments. Luckily BoA forgave my mistakes. Their website really is horrific.
Random Observation #5: If you want to change the statement dates of your credit card (to align with your paycheck, for example), you have to call them
Most other banks will allow you to do this online. It’s annoying that BoA requires a phone call.
Random Observation #6: There are no 1099s
Like credit card miles, there are no 1099s generated by the cash back (same as any other bank’s credit card reward system).
Random Observation #7: It adds up
Over the past 12 months, I’ve redeemed $3,687.04 in rewards (admittedly, some of those were deferred). The little stuff adds up. And unlike miles or hotel points, I’m able to vacation how I want (by sleeping on the ground for weeks for near-free) and pocket the difference. I’m not compelled to stay in swanky hotels to use points.
Random Observation #8: My avg cash back across all purchases is higher than any other strategy I’m aware of
Average Cash Back % = 5.25%*(Fraction of Spending on Gas + Costco + Online + Travel + in-store Walmart/Sams) + 3.5%*(Fraction of Spending at Other Grocery) + 2.625%*(Fraction of Spending on All Other Categories).
Given the large amount of spending we have in the 5.25% categories, when I plug in my numbers above I get a number around 4.5%(ish) as the weighted average cash back across all spending.
Here’s an entire blog post dedicated towards the calculation of the above: https://frugalprofessor.com/another-boa-efficiency-post/
Random Observation #9: The one-time bonuses aren’t too shabby either
$250 Merrill Edge transfer bonus
$500 BoA Premium Rewards Card (Spouse 1)
$200 BoA Cash Rewards Card #1 (Spouse 1)
$200 BoA Cash Rewards Card #2 (Spouse 1)
$200 BoA Cash Rewards Card #3 (Spouse 1)
$200 BoA Cash Rewards Card #4 (Spouse 2)
$200 BoA Cash Rewards Card #5 (Spouse 2)
$1,750 total rewards.
Random Observation #10: Despite the underlying complexity of owing 5 BoA Cash Rewards Cards + 1 Premium Rewards Card, the wallet is pretty simple
Since “online” and “travel” categories are used with online purchases, there is no need to lug those cards around in the wallet. I simply carry the Premium Rewards Card + the Cash Rewards Card (the “gas” one) in my wallet. If I make an online/travel purchase, the info is saved in Lastpass so there is no need for the physical card. The only reason I hold the Costco Citi card is to get into Costco. Now that Costco offers digital cards, I’ll be left with the mathematical problem of whether the few megabites of data (times $0.02/mb) to access the digital card is worth not having to lug around the otherwise unused card. My intuition is that the digital card won’t be worth the hassle. Unpictured below is the Costco Cash card because my wife is the one that does most of the shopping.
On the topic of simplicity, all billing cycles are perfectly aligned and autopay on the 1st of the month. The underlying complexity does not making paying the bills any more difficult.
Random Observation #11: BoA Doesn’t alert you when you’ve blown through your $2.5k/quarter spending cap
This is annoying, but solvable with a pivot table in Excel with output from Personal Capital. Below is our quarter-to-date spending on each of the 5 BoA Cash Rewards Cards. Quarters follow the calendar (Jan + Feb + Mar, etc) and are independent of billing cycles.
Random Observation #12: Given the above strategy, the BoA Premium Reward Card is somewhat impotent
Given how generous the 5.25% categories of the Cash Rewards categories are, the premium rewards card is somewhat impotent. The 3.5% travel & dining categories are dominated by the Cash Rewards card. The only reason I retain this card is to get 2.625% on all other expenditures, which admittedly are large (property taxes, doctors offices, utilities, insurance, etc).
Random Observation #13: BoA gives additional random bonuses away if you click to activate
I think this is largely a gimmick, but I think I’ve used it once or twice. Unfortunately, it’s not automatic and requires a few mouse clicks. The only one that is remotely appealing to me in the below list is the 5% Airbnb discount. Curiously, my offerings are more generous than my wife’s.
Random Observation #14: The platinum honors bonus is now awarded at time of purchase rather than at time of redemption
Last year you used to be able to defer the redemption of the cash back until you hit the platinum honors status. This strategy is no longer viable, as the credit card bonus multiplier (1.25, 1.5, or 1.75) is now applied at the time of purchase.
More free money is better than less free money.
The above setup is as good as any I’ve seen in the past decade and a half of my adult life since I started paying attention to credit card rewards. I can’t really think of how it could realistically be improved upon, though admittedly I may pick up a 6th Cash Rewards Card because why not? If I go down this path perhaps we’ll get a BoA Premium Rewards for my wife, harvest the $500 bonus + $100 global entry bonus + $100 airline incidental – $95 annual fee then “product convert” it to a Cash Rewards card. Doing so would produce a net sign-up bonus of ~$405 higher (500+100+100-95-200) than going the straight Cash Rewards route.
If you have $100k of investments laying around (even if it’s in IRAs), you might want to consider following suit.
The setup costs are non-trivial (i.e. transferring the $100k and getting autopay worked out properly), but once you’ve got it figured out it is smooth sailing.