Pretend to Be Spendy: How to Churn Credit Cards with Low Expenses

We earned a free plane ticket to Hawaii!

We earned a free flight to Hawaii–and stayed with friends. (2009)

“We don’t spend enough to churn credit cards.” If this is you, congrats! Not spending enough to rapidly rack up rewards is a great problem to have.

Despite maintaining fairly low living expenses, we’ve always used at least once credit card in order to benefit from its rewards. We’ve earned many free plane tickets and hotel stays through credit card rewards, all without paying a penny in credit card interest. But only in the last year have we tried “churning” credit cards to increase the number of rewards we earn.

Credit card churning refers to opening one or more credit card accounts, spending enough to get the rewards, and then moving on to the next card. Many cards offer the largest bonus to new members, often after spending a minimum amount within a given period.

Disclaimer: we hope this site helps you manage your money wisely and credit card debt is a dangerous snare. Please don’t use credit cards unless you know you can do so responsibly, without paying interest. Of course you shouldn’t buy things you can’t afford. But you also need to have emergency savings in place to use credit. Otherwise, you’re one emergency away from falling into the vicious cycle of consumer debt.

Obviously it doesn’t pay to spend extra to earn the rewards. But if you can reap rewards simply by paying your normal living costs, why not? We only churn one card at a time. We’re not going to accumulate enough points for a jaunt to Europe any time soon, but rewards do help defray our less glamorous travel costs.

We’ve earned rewards from cards such as Marriott Starwood Preferred Guest, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and PNC Points Visa.  Below are our strategies for meeting the minimum spend as a frugal churner. Some require you to “buy ahead” by making purchases you will definitely use in the future. This tactic won’t allow you to churn cards indefinitely. You can’t artificially inflate your spending forever and still save money through the rewards. However, if you are trying to earn a specific reward, such as free plane tickets for an upcoming trip, it’s worthwhile to meet that minimum in ways that fit your low-cost lifestyle.

1. Buy gift cards that can be used for your normal expenses. Think grocery stores, gas stations, or other retail stores you may frequent, like Target. We’ve purchased discounted gift cards on eBay.

2. Stock up on staples and household goods. Buy extra staples like pasta, rice, beans, sauces, or canned goods. Stock your freezer with meat or frozen vegetables that are on sale. Stock up on toiletries, cleaning supplies, paper products, or other household items you’ll definitely use.

3. Build an emergency supply kit. If you’ve been putting off creating an emergency supply kit, meet that minimum spend by stocking up on first aid supplies, canned goods, candles, and other items recommended on this supply list.

4. Shop at ALDI! You may have heard that last week, ALDI started accepting credit cards nationally. They are expanding and building more stores, so if you don’t have one near you, maybe you will within the next few years. Although I’m used to using my debit card there, if I need to meet a minimum spend I will absolutely use a credit card, since ALDI is where I do the majority of my routine shopping.

5. Charge business travel to the card. If you book work travel on a personal credit card, sign up for a new card before your next trip.

6. Time churning with travel. Before booking a trip, open a new card to earn travel rewards. Once you earn those rewards, open a new card to cover any additional expenses before and during the trip. Since you’ll spend more than normal on a vacation, it’s a great time to start accruing your next round of incentives.

7. Time with other big expenses. It makes sense to open a card before funding a major home or car repair, remodeling project, or if you’re anticipating other major expenses.

8. Buy gifts. What gifts will you need for upcoming weddings, birthdays, showers, or other special occasions? Instead waiting until the week before to purchase the gifts, buy them ahead of time. And stock up on cards and wrapping supplies at the same time.

9. Contribute to a charity. The vast majority of our charitable giving comes from our checking account, but when we wanted to give to a special cause recently, we used the card instead. Don’t get me wrong—credit card rewards are not a good motivation for giving to charitable causes. But if you’re planning to make a donation anyway and online credit card payment is an option, it’s a good way to meet that minimum.

10. Choose cards carefully. Select cards that offer rewards you actually plan to use. What good are free plane tickets if you don’t want to fly? Also, some cards offer incentives without a minimum spend. Other cards have lower minimums that will be easier to meet. Find the offers that make sense for you.

Ultimately, if you have low expenses, you don’t need a ton of rewards. You are able to fund your lifestyle, and any rewards you receive are icing on the cake. We’ve found a happy medium of enjoying a certain travel rewards without devoting much time to churning, and without inflating our spending.

Do you churn credit cards? What other ways can frugal churners meet the minimum spending? 

Tags: ,

46 Responses to “Pretend to Be Spendy: How to Churn Credit Cards with Low Expenses”

  1. Tonya says :

    I’ve definitely done it before and I’m actually doing one now with a southwest card, but I’m getting to the point where I’m on the fence because I’m actually trying to simplify my finances, and keeping track of when I opened things and annual fees—well, I’m not that organized. So I wonder when it crosses the line and becomes a hassle, ya know? Some people are really on their game when it comes to churning though, and it certainly does feel pretty good to not have to pay a lot for things like travel!

    • Kalie says :

      I agree–it is more of a hassle. That’s why one card at a time works well for us. We do use a spreadsheet to keep it all straight, but for those super-churners, there is definitely some time and brain power involved.

    • Xyz says :

      I just keep track of them all with mint, then keep track of the dates on my calendar. I think it’s worth the hassle 🙂

  2. Emily says :

    Great tips! We’ve just started doing this a little bit and we’ve run into that low-spending problem! Like you, we’re thrilled Aldi takes credit cards now, and we do most of our giving the same way. It’s kind of a complicated game, but we’ve had some real wins!

  3. Mr. PTM says :

    You may also be able to prepay utilities like electric. Also, thanks to the convenience of services like Venmo and Square Cash, you can offer to cover payments for friends or family on the card you’re trying to hit the minimum spend on and then “invoice” them.

    • Kalie says :

      Great tip on prepaying utilities. We’ve never done this but it’s an expense you’ll pay for sure either way.

  4. Hannah says :

    Almost every bill that we pay (except Rob’s cell phone bill) is an annual bill or paid directly to a person, so I prefer to pay it directly from checking.

    However, now that Aldi accepts credit cards, and we can prepay our utilities from a credit card, I applied for a Southwest Credit Card. With a baby being born and those regular expenses, we should hit the $6K mark pretty easily.

    For a while Home Depot had some nice credit card rewards, but their program changed to 0% financing, so we haven’t tried for any rewards recently.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes–while expecting a baby or other major medical expenses, plus the incidentals of a baby, makes it a great time to churn a card.

  5. Abigail says :

    As you know, we picked up the Sapphire card. It looks like our day-to-day spending is working — as long as I keep up with transferring the money out of our account each time we use it. But if that fails, I’m going to remember the GCs idea. We can combine that with Fry’s GC rewards and get a whole lot of fuel points in the process!

    • Kalie says :

      The gift cards & fuel rewards would be a double win! We also like to keep our checking account as close to reality as possible.

  6. Melanie says :

    I’ve churned American Airlines cards as well as the Chase Sapphire Preferred. I’m happy with the results! Going to Italy in a month for $70!

  7. DC YAM says :

    Timing your cards is the biggest piece of advice I can give. I have failed at this multiple times the past couple years. I didn’t open one up when we get the retaining wall supplies and that could have nearly churned a card all by itself!

    • Kalie says :

      We’ve failed on this front as well. Sometimes in the midst of overwhelming events it can be hard to remember details like this.

  8. Amy says :

    I haven’t done this in the past, but my husband is planning to replace our deck this summer. I was going to try to use discounted gifts cards for the supplies, but it might be worth considering this, too…

    • Kalie says :

      I think it would be worth it. We did a big exterior wall/deck project last summer that put us way over our normal spending.

  9. Our Next Life says :

    I definitely admire folks who have the diligence for credit card churning. The Freedom 35 couple also get a ton of free travel through churning. The thought of trying to keep track of a bunch of different cards completely stresses me out, so I stick with piling up all the benefits from work-paid travel (which is pretty significant, since I travel every week). But glad it’s working for you!

    • Kalie says :

      We only do one card at a time, so it’s not too overwhelming. We wouldn’t hit the minimum for multiple cards and that also sounds stressful to manage them. I’m sure traveling for work every week racks up the rewards pretty quickly!

  10. Holly says :

    These are definitely good tips! We’re able to churn so many cards because we are able to spend $1,400 on credit each month – that is partly because we can now pay our health insurance with credit. We keep things in check and from getting out of hand by mostly working on one card at a time.

    • Kalie says :

      It’s great to hear from a churning guru! Sounds like you’ve optimized what expenses you can put on credit. I didn’t realize you mostly did one at a time.

  11. Emily from evolvingPF says :

    We also have low expenses so we have had to be selective about churning credit cards, and really have only done it a few times. We used #7 mostly… We signed up for cards only when we knew we had some large upcoming irregular expenses that would help us meet the minimum spend. Of course, we were saving for those expenses in advance, and our predictive budgeting system helped us see that churning was a possibility in those time frames!

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, it’s definitely important to time those churns and be sure that you’ve got the savings to actually cover them!

  12. Fen says :

    Great post! Thanks for the useful tips. We don’t have ALDI in our City, but I’ve heard great things about this store. I’ll definitely check it out.

    We don’t ever spend enough to get rewards from credit cards, at most is $20-$30 a month. Which credit card would you recommend for flights rewards? thanks in advance.

  13. Kyle says :

    Wow, you two look really young.
    I’m in that same boat of I don’t spend enough to really churn cards, but I’m sure I could do better with churning a bit.
    I love ALDI’s
    I might have to think about the gift card idea, does that help churn cards?

    • Kalie says :

      Buying gift cards to gas stations has helped us meet a minimum spend, though you can only do that so often before you have more gift cards than you can actually use.

  14. Prudence Debtfree says :

    Our debts were mainly line-of-credit debts as opposed to credit card debts – but I still have a strong aversion to credit cards. I read that since the 60s, when credit cards became common, consumer debt has gone up by 600%. I wonder how many rewards points credit card companies would be in a position to offer if they didn’t profit from those stuck in the minimum payment trap? No churning for me. I appreciate your warning about credit card debt. For some people, it’s as much a struggle as alcoholism or an addiction to smoking.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point, Prudence. I would never advise someone with a bad past with credit to use credit cards! Unfortunately, I’m not going to stop people from using credit cards irresponsibly so I feel comfortable reaping rewards. But I appreciate you bringing up the point.

  15. Brian says :

    I’m a big believer in using credit cards to get rewards by buying stuff I’d normally buy anyway (and paying them off every month to avoid interest). Last year, we went to Mexico for a week and the flight both ways was free thanks to our Bank of America rewards card. I’ve also remodeled parts of the house, bought computers, meals out, and more with credit cards rewards – all for purchasing stuff I’d normally buy anyway!

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, it makes sense to get rewards for your normal purchases, so long as you don’t pay interest. A week in Mexico sounds great!

  16. Julie says :

    Years ago we used the Disney Chase card to pay thousands in medical bills (we had the money in savings but ran it through the card first and then paid it off immediately) and we were able to get one Disneyland annual pass and pay for a Disney tour with the rewards. We also got movie tickets. The Disney Chase card allowed us to have a private audience with Chip and Dale which only lasts five to ten minutes because they can’t talk and gestures only go so far. I would caution you about paying utility bills with a credit card though. When I looked into it, at least in my area, the utility companies added a 1 1/2% surcharge. I didn’t want to pay that just to get rewards. Now I’m using Capital One and not charging much at all but they have cash rewards. So I’m accumulating those.

    • Kalie says :

      Wow, free Disneyland passes sounds fun! Great tips and thanks for the warning. I would not want to pay an extra fee to use credit, either. Cash rewards are great since they don’t require a minimum spending.

  17. The Professor says :

    I’ve been churning cards for the past few years now. You have to be disciplined and keep track. I do it in a simple Excel sheet. About a year or so ago I took out a US Airways card because I knew they were going to soon merge with American. The 40,000 pts I got with US Airways merged into my AA account. Add the 50k I got with an AA card and minimum spending, etc…I am now taking my two daughters and I to Hawaii.

    • Kalie says :

      We keep track of cards in an Excel spreadsheet as well. That’s great you can fly to Hawaii for free. Have fun!

  18. Ditching The Grind says :

    We’re going to take a family trip to Chile this summer so I need to figure out which card will be the best to open to offset the huge cost of 5 plane tickets while also allowing us to bank the miles from this trip. I’ve done a little research, but I need to act soon! This post was a great reminder.

  19. Ernie says :

    I’ve been churning cards for a couple years now, but I’m starting to rethink the whole thing. I’m very debt adverse, and I realized that I was using my cards as short-term credit. I always pay them off in full each month, but it still bothers me that I’m using someone else’s money for 30 days for something I have the money for right now. It also started bothering me how rich these credit card companies are getting. Sure, they weren’t making any money from me via interest charges or fees, but every time I swipe that card they’re collecting a small transaction fee from the merchant I am doing business with and it’s a safe bet that those merchant fees are then getting passed onto me the consumer. That’s why I’ve started using my debit card more because it saves the merchant money. I particularly enjoy doing this when I shop locally knowing that more of my dollars are staying in the community. And as these rewards programs continue to grow in popularity, the transaction fees associated with all these swipes will continue to go up and be passed on to the consumer. So all of that and more has me rethinking the credit card churning thing. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer! I’m by no means saying that credit cards or rewards programs are bad. Not at all. And I’m not saying people shouldn’t use cards or these rewards programs. I’m just trying to figure out all of this for myself. And as I think about the other side of this credit card industry, I’m not sure if the principals it’s built on align with the principals that are starting to evolve in me. This is new territory for me, and I’m still thinking the whole thing through and doing my research.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Ernie. These are all good points to consider. We used credit cards (and their rewards) very nominally for years because we were figuring out if we wanted to “play with snakes” as credit cards have been called. I can definitely understand why someone would not want to participate in such an industry.

  20. Tia says :

    Great post! I have never heard of the term credit card churning.

    I did have a question. Once you finish a credit card and move on to the next deal to you keep the card open? Have you had cards close out on your for not using them?

    • Kalie says :

      Cards generally have a one year grace period on their hefty annual fees. We always close the cards before the first year to avoid the fees. Credit cards will not close on their own.

    • Kalie says :

      We have closed some cards and kept others open, depending on the details of the offer. We haven’t had any closed on us.

  21. Xyz says :

    We started a few years ago and easily find 5 or 6 cards with large welcome bonuses without any minimum spending! Some have some time restriction (3 months active) or a single purchase minimum (just put $20 on it and then leave it collecting dust 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *