The Critical Points: 10 Loyalty Programs & Tools You Don’t Know About, But Should
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If you head online or do business in person with a merchant, there’s a high likelihood you’ll find that establishment now offers its own loyalty program. To me, it almost feels like 2018 is the year of the loyalty program, with everyone from my local wing restaurant to diaper companies offering something in exchange for my repeat business.
While many of these programs are far from spectacular, equating to a return of 1% or less, a handful of programs and tools actually earn either extreme value in return for your business or, at the very least, something in return where traditionally there’s been nothing. I hope to use today’s column to enlighten and excite you by sharing 10 loyalty programs and tools I currently use, in no particular order, that you probably don’t know about.
This is a pretty revolutionary green energy company that essentially acts as an intermediary between you and your power company. I use it primarily because it allows me to pay my Georgia Power bill with a credit card, but charges no fee for doing so, saving me a $2.25 monthly transaction fee that the power company itself would tack on for using a card. On top of that, Arcadia guarantees 50% of my home’s power will come from renewable sources.
This is a pretty complex business relationship, but here’s what you need to know about using Arcadia Power to pay your power bill with a credit card and earn points for no fee:
- This is not a third-party energy provider — your bill and power company will stay the same as it currently is.
- Arcadia Power has a free membership program where it buys Renewable Energy Certificates (REC) on your behalf, guaranteeing half of your home’s power comes from green sources.
- There is no up-charge — your bill is still based on your exact monthly usage.
- You can opt-in to a premium membership for $5-$10 per month if you want to ensure 100% of your home’s power comes from renewable sources.
You can check on the Arcadia Power website for your power company’s availability, and sign up for free in order to start paying your power bill and earning credit card points or cash back for no fee.
I’ve taken a lot of grief over the years about my travel, points and miles strategies. However, the one thing I probably take the most grief over from folks who know me is my love of an ice cold Coors Light. I’m a simple Georgia boy, so I’ll start out with this quote from none other than Anthony Bourdain:
“I’m also no big fan of the judgmental barista and beer nerds. I mean, I like a good craft, but don’t make me feel bad about my beer choices. You know what kind of beer I like? I like cold beer.”
I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Bourdain, so before you give me grief, you need to understand the legitimate value I’m receiving from my habit of drinking a silver bullet — or three — during the Braves game.
The beer company’s rewards program offers roughly 100 points for every 12-pack of Coors Light you buy when you enter the code from the inside of the box into the app. You also receive a 100 point welcome bonus, as well as 25 points here and there for things like completing your profile and taking an online pledge not to drink and drive. There are trivia challenges to complete when you’re at a restaurant or bar that serves Coors Light and occasional challenges that pop up.
Without really trying, I’ve bought a couple 12-packs and amassed 775 points in the app over the last month or two.
The rewards? Well they’re pretty attractively priced. For only 400 points, you can get a $10 Uber gift card — perfect for that ride home from the bar. There are also an array of Yeti cooler products, Coors Light apparel and my favorite: Braves lower-level game tickets. There are even status levels in the program: Member (0-999 points), VIP (1000-3,999) points and Elite (4000+ points). The higher your status, the more rewards and targeted offers you have available to you. It might be time to rethink your beer choice.
I had to put a single credit card on this list because it’s perhaps the unsung hero of Citibank. This no-annual-fee card has rotating 5% cash-back categories much like the Chase Freedom, but does limit you to $300 in cash back per year.
The Citi Dividend card isn’t open to new applicants, but I’ve easily been able to convert Citi ThankYou cards with annual fees, like the Citi Prestige and the Citi Premier Card, to a Citi Dividend card. This allows me to save my credit lines with Citi, as well as giving me another no-annual-fee option to earn 5% cash back. Just as an example, this quarter’s Citi Dividend bonus category includes 5% back on airfare — pretty darn handy.
4. Fuel Rewards
Shell and the third-party operated Fuel Rewards program have made it fairly easy to never pay full price for fuel at participating Shell stations. Sign-up for the program and you’ll earn instant Gold status, which gives you 5 cents off per gallon on fill-ups for three months (up to 20 gallons per fill-up). You can then maintain Gold status with six fill-ups over the course of three months.
On top of Gold status, there are a plethora of ways to earn Fuel Rewards, which all stack to lower the price of fuel on your next trip to a Shell station. Shop at local participating merchants, shop online through the Fuel Rewards shopping portal, book travel through Priceline, link your grocery store rewards to Fuel Rewards, stay at IHG hotels — the list of ways to earn is pretty all-encompassing, enough so that almost anyone should be able to significantly discount the cost of filling up the tank. I’ve saved $420.30 on gas since November of last year with the program.
A brand new program for Marathon gas stations, Make it Count, has some potential, though it’s not nearly as lucrative as Fuel Rewards. New sign ups currently receive 20 cents off per gallon on your first fill-up of up to 20 gallons. After that, the program has targeted offers in its app that reward you with My CentsOff points, which you can redeem for cents off per gallon on your next fill-up. Most offers center around buying a specific grocery item in the convenience store at participating Marathons, and each offer seems to be good for four uses.
I went to a few different Marathon stations in my local area to try and maximize some of these offers. With two Core Power shake purchases, you’d earn 1,600 points, enough to redeem for 10 cents off per gallon on your next fill-up. A price check showed it’d cost $6 for two shakes in order to save a maximum of $2 on gas. If you were going to buy the shakes anyway, it could make sense, but it’s not a particularly enticing offer.
For Labor Day, the app did offer double points on everything, which made picking up a few packs of Tic Tacs a worthwhile endeavor, as I like to keep them in my car anyway.
The largest problem with this program is that none of the three stores I visited even knew what I was talking about with the app or entering my phone number at the register. The point-of-sale software had been updated and worked, but I had to convince each cashier that the app was legitimate and what I was trying to do was above board. I’m watching for this program to evolve, or for a lucrative offer to show up that makes a trip to a Marathon worthwhile.
This program has been around a few years and isn’t awe-inspiring, but it’s better than nothing. You earn anywhere from 10-144 points per package of wipes or diapers depending on the diaper size, how many diapers are in the package and the line of Pampers diapers or wipes you bought. Sweepstakes entries start at 20 points, and free diapers and baby toys cost 2,100-4,000 points.
If you’ve got a little one in diapers, you know how quickly you go through them. So while you may not think you’ll earn enough points, I can tell you that after almost four years of having at least one in diapers, the points add up. So you might as well be getting something in return if you use Pampers products.
For as long as I can remember, GasBuddy has been a popular website to research local gas prices and prices along an intended driving route. The website also offers Pay With GasBuddy, a way to pay for gas at the pump that also offers rewards, either in cash or Shop Your Way points (which we’ll discuss in a moment).
GasBuddy will issue you a physical card to use at the pump, which is pin-protected and linked to your checking account (see here for security information). GasBuddy then rewards you with 10 cents back per gallon of fuel pumped, or up to 30 cents per gallon pumped in Shop Your Way points. The 30 cents per gallon I earn in Shop Your Way points when using Pay With GasBuddy equates to ~10% back in rewards, which is higher than the best credit card rewards you’ll earn when paying at the pump.
Shop Your Way is the loyalty program of both Kmart and Sears, but if you think it’s not useful, you’re probably mistaken. There are a plethora of ways to earn Shop Your Way points and you can redeem the points online for thousands of items from Kmart and Sears, which can be shipped anywhere in the country. If you happen to have a store nearby, you can even use points for same day in-store pick up.
I currently earn Shop Your Way points with the Pay With GasBuddy program, as well as earning $2 in points for every Uber ride I take. In the last month, I bought a house and redeemed my Shop Your Way points for smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, a fire extinguisher and all sorts of other odds and ends that a new house requires. Shop Your Way offers rather generous points during promotions and partnerships, but tags them with short expiration dates, relying on breakage to continue offering such generous bonuses. So make sure you use your points before they expire.
9. Thanks Again
This Atlanta-based loyalty program has partnered with airports around the country to offer you points worth essentially 1% cash back on all your purchases at airport retailers, restaurants and airport-owned parking lots. I haven’t received phenomenal value with this program, but getting 1% back from all parking at the Atlanta airport (ATL) on top of credit card rewards is better than nothing.
You can redeem Thanks Again rewards for gift cards, giving you 1% value, or redeem them for airline miles at a ratio of 2-to-1 for most programs.
The app has always had a place for “special offers,” but in over two years of using it, there’s never been a single offer at any airport I’ve visited offering more than 1 point per dollar.
I don’t know why this handy app centered around saving on gas hasn’t received more attention. You take a picture of your receipt from almost any gas station, and earn 1-2% back on what you spent for gas in the form of points which can be used at participating merchants for free gas or convenience store items. You can also cash out your rewards to PayPal for 50% of their value.
The app also has deals on grocery items at local gas stations based on your location. Typically you save less than a dollar on coffee or snack items — not worth a trip but if you happen to be in the store anyway, it can be handy to take a quick peek at the app.
The Lethal Gas Triple Dip
By using Fuel Rewards, Pay With GasBuddy and TruNow, I’ve been making a profit roughly half the time I head to the pump. Fuel Rewards drops the price per gallon, Pay With GasBuddy gives me 30 cents in points per gallon (regardless of what the cost per gallon is) and then I scan the little bit I paid into Trunow for 2% of that cost back.
Here’s a recent example where I pumped 20 gallons of gas and made a $3.08 profit:
- 20 gallons of gas at 14.9 cents per gallon cost me $2.98 (yes, $2.98) when I used Fuel Rewards earned via shopping portal and restaurant linked purchases.
- I paid with my Pay With GasBuddy card, which earned me 30 cents per gallon in Shop Your Way points, worth $6.
- I submitted a picture of my $2.98 receipt via the TruNow app, which gave me another 2% cash back on gas purchases for a whopping 6 cents.
So for 20 gallons of gas, I paid $2.98, got a $6 credit in points plus 6 cents in cash back, for a total profit of $3.08. Not a bad day.
The value of points is certainly no longer limited to travel. If you’re like me, your brain is now conditioned to look for value in almost every transaction you undertake. Sometimes it’s worth the hassle and sometimes it isn’t.
Frankly the above programs aren’t even necessarily the best ones hiding in plain sight. There are other retailers you use everyday that are making it too easy to get outsized value from their loyalty programs or from a combination of several different programs. So make sure to keep your eye trained at the register for a merchant’s loyalty program and then dig in to the fine print. Happy shopping!
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