Whether it’s credit card rewards points, airline miles or grocery and drugstore rewards, tracking dozens of loyalty programs and their rules can be overwhelming. Even if you love a discount or freebie, you simply may not have the time and attention for it all.
“My head only has so much room, so I keep my rewards strategy simple,” said Emma Johnson, founder of Wealthysinglemommy.com and author of “The Kickass Single Mom.” She carries just two cash-back credit cards, one for business expenses and one for personal. And when it comes to airlines, she pays attention to frequent flyer miles on Delta Air Lines. If she flies another airline, she doesn’t worry about missed miles.
Loyalty overload is a problem. More than half of loyalty memberships in the United States — about 54% — are inactive, according to a 2017 report by Colloquy, a marketing research firm. Indeed, 28% of consumers it surveyed have abandoned a program without ever redeeming a point or mile.
Job one for consumers: Give yourself permission to ignore low-value loyalty pitches, experts say. “Just don’t stress about it,” says Annette Economides, who with her husband, Steve, operates MoneySmartFamily.com. “Use the ones that work for you.”
Loyalty program strategies
Here are real-world strategies for winning with loyalty programs without losing your mind.
Feel the “earn and burn.” Loyalty programs typically let you accumulate value through repeat purchases — earn — and then redeem that value — burn. Others give you a discount on a purchase or offer some benefit regular customers don’t get. In weeding out programs, think with your wallet. Brands may try to connect on an emotional level, but let dollars and cents guide you.
Curb the complexity. Airline frequent flyer programs are complicated but potentially valuable enough that accumulating miles might be worth it to you. Cash-back credit cards are popular because they can be the best of both worlds — easy to understand and potentially lucrative. They also use a valuable currency: dollars. A complicated sandwich-shop program? You’re probably better off saying, “No, thanks.”
“For us, it’s the combination of good rewards and ease of use,” Steve Economides says.
Court the better currency. Give preference to rewards currencies you will use. Whether its points, miles or some other cutesy name the brand uses for loyalty currency, measure its value against cash and note expiration rules. If points take a long time to add up to something meaningful or don’t last long, they might not be worth the effort.
Create a buffer. While many retail loyalty programs issue wallet or keychain cards, some will tie your membership to a phone number. Don’t want to disclose that? You can get a Google Voice number for free that rings whatever phone you choose. Keep your “real” number for real people. Ditto for email; set up a disposable account specifically to receive marketing offers.
Dive into digital tools. Smartphone users can maintain loyalty programs digitally by downloading retailer apps, trying free third-party loyalty-card aggregators — such as Stocard and Key Ring — or using the built-in digital wallets that come with Apple and Android phones. The card then resides in your phone, which you can scan at checkout.
Play on your terms. “Brands want you to increase the frequency with which you spend money with them, but I look at whether the loyalty rewards will matter to me with my current shopping,” savings expert Jill Cataldo says.