I wasn’t always good with money. Back in college, I violated just about every personal finance rule you could imagine. My biggest offense was misusing credit cards. I racked up over $5,000 in credit card debt between my junior and senior year; making brilliant decisions such as bringing my credit card to the bar, taking out cash advances, and committing the cardinal sin of using one credit card to pay off another.

I got my financial act together a few years later and paid off my credit card debt. I was scared to fall back into the credit card trap so for the next few years I stuck to a budget and paid for everything with cash or debit. Here’s how I took that bad experience with credit cards and turned it into something positive:

No-fee 1% rewards cards

Once I had some breathing room financially I looked for ways to optimize my finances by cutting fees and earning more income. I learned about credit card rewards and decided to sign up for the PC Financial MasterCard. It paid 1% back in the form of free groceries; perfect for a growing family who shopped for groceries and diapers at The Real Canadian Superstore.

I was hooked. Every month I was able to redeem at least $20 worth of PC Points to help supplement our grocery bills. I started to funnel more and more of our family spending onto the credit card to earn extra points. Careful to use credit responsibly this time around, I made sure to pay off my balance in full each month and not put frivolous purchases on the card just to earn more points.

Switching to Smart Cash

A year or two later I discovered a better rewards credit card – the MBNA Smart Cash Platinum MasterCard. Before MBNA was bought out by TD Bank, its no-fee Smart Cash Platinum card was the best cash back card on the market. The card had a great bonus period where you could earn 5% back on groceries and gas for the first six months, then 3% cash back thereafter. As much as I love redeeming PC Points for free groceries, simple math said to make the switch to Smart Cash.

MBNA would mail a cheque whenever you earned $50 cash back and so now I was getting a cheque every other month. This was great!

Unfortunately, that gravy train ended when TD decided to change the Smart Cash card and reduce the benefits that it paid. Since I wasn’t earning the most cash back anymore I had to go back and research my other credit card options.

A new cash back king

Enter the Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite card. I cut ties with MBNA and its watered-down Smart Cash card and signed up for Scotia’s top cash back credit card; one that I still use to this day for all of my grocery and gas spending.

This was the first time that I had paid a fee to use a credit card – the Momentum Visa Infinite comes with a $99 annual fee – but I did the math and determined that the 4% cash back earned on grocery and gas purchases more than offset the annual fee.

Hacking my way to even more rewards

Bigger cash back incentives led to bigger earnings. Even after factoring in the annual fee I was still cashing in on close to $500 per year in rewards with the Scotia card alone.

Now this was becoming a game to see how much cash back I could earn on my everyday spending. Instead of funnelling all my purchases onto one card, I realized that the best way to boost earnings from credit card rewards was to use two, three, or even four cards.

Related: The best credit cards in Canada

Optimizing credit card spending meant using one card for groceries and gas, one for dining and entertainment, one for travel, and one for everything else. Last year I used six credit cards to earn over $1,500 worth of rewards.

I’ve come a long way since college, when my credit card hacks involved cash advances and balance transfers instead of hunting for sign-up bonuses and travel perks. Using credit cards this way isn’t for everyone, but I’m happy with how my experience with credit cards has changed for the better.

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6 Comments

  1. Big Cajun Man (AW) on November 8, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    We all learn from our experiences in life, some learning experiences are more expensive than others (as you have learned). Credit Cards are neither Good nor Evil, they are a tool, how you use it is what gives it… character?

  2. Dan @ Our Big Fat Wallet on November 8, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    I use the Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite for all my gas and grocery purchases as well. And I also use the Capital One Aspire Travel World Mastercard for everything else. The annual fee is $120 but it pays 10,000 reward miles annually which means the annual fee is essentially $20. As you know they changed the tiered rewards system which means its the best card I’ve ever had. Right now I’m getting 4% back on gas/grocery purchases and 2% on everything else, with no limits. It looks like this year will be around $1,100 in cash back which is great. Credit cards (when used correctly) can pay off in a big way

  3. Tom on November 9, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Years ago, the PC Mastercard also had a travel component. We earned a trip to France on it and a few years later had accumulated another million points only to discover that they had done away with the travel benefit. So, we ate free for several months.

  4. Daniel @ SaveWithDan on November 9, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Nice one, Robb!

    I started playing with credit cards rewards this year and I am still a bit confused on how to get organized in the sense of “what card was the best to pay for drug stores purchases again?”
    How do you do it?

    Thanks!

  5. nat on November 22, 2015 at 10:44 am

    I have been using the Petro Points Master Card and get 2 cents off on gas purchases as well an additional 10 cents per litre I get using a gas card purchased with my points. I would like to know how this translates in to savings per year and how it comes to other cards that you mention. thanks

  6. nicolehli on November 29, 2015 at 3:12 am

    @daniel To keep track what cards does what, maybe keep a note (on masking tape?) right on the card. Write something short like “Gas 3%”.

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