Senior year in college: What’s in my wallet?
As a college kid, I know just how overwhelming credit cards can be for the first time. What is a good credit score? Why should I use a credit card instead of a debit card? All questions can be answered in TPG’s beginners guide.
But the biggest question that I get from both adults and my friends is: What credit cards do you have in your wallet?
Travel can be costly — especially for college students. However, it really doesn’t have to be draining on your bank account. I have traveled to 40 states and 20 countries in the past two years alone — partially thanks to a sound credit card strategy.
As I started college, my awesome parents (thanks Mom and Dad) added me as an authorized user on their Chase Sapphire Preferred Card account. Fast forward three years, I now have 13 cards and have been using points and miles to see the world.
So, what’s in my wallet as I start my senior year of college?
On my first card, I really went for gold (or Platinum). Because I spend so much on flights as a travel photographer, earning 5x back on airlines (when booked directly with the airline or via Amex Travel; up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year) has been one of my biggest point generators. The big question I get from family and friends is whether or not the Amex Platinum is worth the annual fee.
While the $550 annual fee is steep (see rates and fees), I regularly get a ton of great perks from this card. As a college kid who eats out a lot, I use the Amex Platinum’s annual Uber Cash to order food on Uber Eats in the U.S. Plus, I get a complimentary Uber Eats Pass for a year*, which puts some money back in my pocket. However, the biggest justification for me is the Priority Pass lounge membership that comes with the card and allows me to enjoy the comforts of an airline lounge before my next flight. Enrollment required for select benefits.
Being a college swimmer, I need to eat a ton of food since I burn calories rapidly. With lots of food consumption comes added expenses and since I travel weekly, I frequently grab quick meals at Priority Pass lounges all over the country. In 2019, I managed to hit 30 Priority Pass lounges and maximized the Amex Platinum’s lounge perk.
Assuming I would have spent at least $15 on food either at the airport or outside, it would total $450 worth of meals, which cuts into the Platinum Card’s $550 annual fee. This benefit has been hugely beneficial to me while traveling on a budget. Unfortunately, lounges have looked slightly different in the past 14 months, but I fully expect to maximize this perk again this summer.
Other great Amex Platinum perks include up to a $100 statement credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, complimentary Hilton Gold and Marriott Gold status and purchase protections, which have made the Platinum Card from American Express a mainstay in my wallet since my 18th birthday. Enrollment required for select benefits.
Apply here: The Platinum Card from American Express
The American Express Gold Card, with its $250 annual fee (see rates and fees), has also been a pillar in my wallet for more than three years, and I use it more than any other. With an impressive 60,000-point welcome offer after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first six months of card membership, it’s a great first card for students who don’t travel as much but want to get into the Amex camp.
As many college students can attest, our biggest expense (besides tuition and lodging) is food. Earning 4x back at U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 spent on purchases per calendar year; then 1x) is huge and the Gold Card is also one of TPG’s best cards for dining at restaurants. So, if you’re a college student, I definitely recommend doing the math on your campus dining plan to decide if it’s worth it for you.
I did the math on my dining plan and it wasn’t breaking even on what I was paying, so I opted out. Along with the rewards I am earning from paying for all my food, not using a dining hall also let me look at what I was really eating and learn to eat healthier.
Check the CardMatch tool to see if you’re targeted for the 75,000-point American Express Gold Card offer (offer is subject to change at any time).
The American Express Gold Card also offers up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Boxed and participating Shake Shack locations. Add the up to $120 annual U.S. Uber Cash ($10 monthly credits) and the Amex Gold is the most used card in my wallet. Card must be added in the Uber app before receiving the Uber Cash benefit. Enrollment required for select benefits.
Apply here: American Express Gold Card
I truly believe that Amex’s Blue Business Plus card is one of the most underrated credit cards available. It doesn’t come with a flashy bonus, so it often gets overlooked. However, the 2x back on every purchase (on up to $50,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x) is a big winner in my books. You don’t have to memorize any bonus categories (simplified earning rates for a college kid) and there’s no annual fee (see rates and fees) to worry about.
As a professional photographer, most of my big purchases center around equipment and helicopter rentals. Unfortunately, these purchases do not fall under any bonus category. But with the Blue Business Plus card, I’ll earn 2 points per dollar on all my equipment purchases and helicopter rides. I managed to earn close to 80,000 points — without factoring in referral bonuses — on this card in 2020. That’s not bad at all for a no-annual-fee card.
Apply here: Amex Blue Business Plus Credit Card
The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card is the newest addition to my wallet. At the time of my application in November 2020, Chase offered a whopping five free night awards, up to 50,000 points each, in exchange for spending $5,000 in the first three months of account opening (offer no longer available). That generous offer was on top of the annual free night certificate included with the card, valid for a one-night stay at a Marriott Bonvoy property with a redemption level of up to 35,000 points.
The card is currently offering the ability to earn 3 Free Night Awards (each valued at up to 50,000 bonus points, for a value of up to 150,000 total points) after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. Plus, earn 10X total points on up to $2,500 in combined purchases at grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations within the first six months from account opening.
Already having Hilton Diamond elite status, I decided to spend this year going for Platinum Elite with Marriott. One of my favorite perks is the 15 elite qualifying nights credited to my account each year. Thanks to The Platinum Card from American Express, I already earned Marriott Gold Elite status, which gives me 28 out of 50 nights towards Platinum Elite. In addition to my six free night certificates that I plan to use this year, I’m already well beyond the halfway point toward my goal of earning Marriott Platinum Elite status.
Apply here: Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card
Credit cards can be overwhelming and not easy to grasp for a college kid. But with a little reading, there are so many perks from credit cards that benefit a college kid like me. I’ve spent countless hours educating myself on travel rewards and that’s why the American Express Platinum, American Express Gold, American Express Blue Business Plus and Marriott Bonvoy Boundless are the main cards in my wallet going into my senior year of college.
*Must enroll for Uber Eats Pass by 12/31/21 and Uber Eats will auto-bill starting 12 months from the initial enrollment in this offer, at the current monthly rate. *For Uber Eats Pass terms and conditions, click here.
Featured photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy.