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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