The Cool Way One Small Business Uses Credit Card Rewards

Use a business credit card with a high rewards rate and rack up points to finance a trip for a deserving employee.
Claire Tsosie
By Claire Tsosie 

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Delta Cockins in Paris

Betabrand, a crowdfunded clothing retailer, uses its business credit card rewards to send employees on international trips. Inventory manager Delta Cockins, above, got to travel to Paris in April through the company program.

To paraphrase Derek Zoolander, there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good at running a small business. Put your operating costs on a business credit card with a high rewards rate, and you could quickly rack up enough points or miles to finance a vacation for a deserving employee.

That’s what managers at Betabrand, a crowdfunded online clothing retailer, realized last year. So they thought, why not?

"It was the company saying, 'How do we retain and reward employees?' " says James Tagliani, Betabrand’s head of finance. In January, the company started its Flyaway program, which sends an employee on a trip each month using the previous month's credit card rewards. Employees have journeyed to Ireland, Japan, France, Iceland and, most recently, New York City.

The program has been a hit in the workplace. It’s also put Betabrand, a 60-employee San Francisco startup, on the map as a functional fashion destination and a fun place to work.

If your small business is booming, and you want to get more out of your credit cards, here’s how you can follow Betabrand’s example.

Centralize spending

Generally, centralizing spending on one business credit card is the easiest way to earn points with a single issuer more quickly. Start by finding a card that doles out bonus rewards for your company's biggest expenses and provides flexible redemption options. Put as many expenses as you can on the account.

"We reached out to vendors and said, 'Hey, can we put that on our credit card?' " Tagliani says. "Some of them say no. Some of them say, 'Sure.' " The company’s rewards earnings quickly lifted.

Betabrand puts those costs on the Capital One Spark Miles for Business credit card, redeeming miles as travel statement credits. The flexibility of the card allows the company to use its Expedia Gold status to get deals on flights and hotels, thus maximizing the value of the rewards, Tagliani explains.

Once you get your expenses on plastic, it's also important to pay your credit card bills in full each month. That way, you won't be paying interest. If you have a 0% APR card, you can pay less than your total balance without putting a dent in your rewards earnings, but once the introductory APR period is over, be prepared to start paying in full again.

Plan and redeem strategically

Before you book a rewards trip, here are a few ways you can make sure your business is getting the most value for its points or miles:

Prioritize business needs. Often, rewards trips aren't refundable. Before booking one, carefully consider your business's staffing needs. Betabrand typically schedules trips starting on Thursdays and ending on Tuesdays, so they have minimal impact to the overall business.

If your small business isn't making enough in rewards to send an employee on vacation each month, find out what you can afford, and adjust your plan to fit your resources. Alternatively, find out if there's another way you can redeem your rewards to more effectively serve your business.

Join a loyalty program and start racking up points. By focusing spending on a single airline, hotel chain or travel provider, you can soon start qualifying for even better deals. Learn more about how much a point or mile is worth by checking out this chart.

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Send someone who will get a lot out of the experience. Betabrand makes a point of sending employees who haven't traveled much before. In April, the company sent inventory manager Delta Cockins, 41, to Paris. It was the first time she had ever been out of the country. She came back inspired, eager to use her experiences to develop new products.

“I love really good printed fabrics, and they have some of the most amazing printed fabrics in Paris,” she says, noting that she wanted to design a printed fabric based on the Pont des Arts, a footbridge decorated with “love locks” — padlocks that lovers have affixed to the guardrail.

Aside from giving her product ideas, the five-night trip also inspired Cockins to travel more.

“When I got home, I started saving, little by little,” she says. “I want to go back.”

Track credit card purchases

Although some companies split expenses onto different cards by department, making it easier to generate profit and loss statements, others, like Betabrand, choose to consolidate purchases on one card. If you plan to follow suit, be prepared to spend some extra time on accounting.

"I now have this giant credit card bill each quarter that I have to break up through the different expense accounts," Tagliani says. It takes longer than usual, he says, but to him, it’s worth the effort.

It's generally OK to spend rewards from a business credit card on personal trips as well as business trips, since rewards usually aren't taxable.

Earning rewards is a different story, though. If your business is a corporation or limited liability company (LLC), don't use your business credit card for personal expenses, such as haircuts or clothing. That may be considered “piercing the corporate veil," or commingling business and personal funds. That can threaten your liability protections, meaning that if your business is sued, your personal assets — not just your company's assets — might be at risk. Set ground rules about what can and can't be charged to the company card before giving your employees access to the account.

Keep in mind that money spent on business costs is tax-deductible, but rewards currency spent on business costs isn't.

Getting the most out of your business credit card rewards can be a job in itself. But if you use those points and miles carefully, you’ll be able to bolster your business, foster a sense of community among your employees and — in some cases — get really, really, ridiculously good at booking breathtaking getaways.

Says Tagliani, “My favorite part of the month is planning the trips.”

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Claire Davidson is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @ideclaire7.

Images of Delta Cockins in Paris, courtesy of Delta Cockins.

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