Credit Cards

I found out it’s pretty hard to use my American Express card regularly

By: Alexandra Bosanac on February 2, 2018
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My brand new no-fee American Express SimplyCash credit card arrived in the mail recently, following weeks of hand-wringing about whether I should sign up for a second card.

But wait, let’s back up. Why get a second credit card in the first place? I am, after all, a frugal person who’s terrified of hurting my credit score.

My first credit card offered nothing in the way of rewards. I signed up for it more than half a decade ago, when I was still in school, and it’s clear it was time to move on to something better.

After comparing the market, I discovered that the SimplyCash — both the no-fee and preferred version, which carries an annual fee — offer one of the most competitive introductory offers on the market: 5% cash back for the first six months (up to $250) and 1.25% on all purchases thereafter.

And while my credit score dipped slightly because I opened a new credit account (which made me a little sad), I didn’t let it deter me. I was way too excited by my newly-expanded spending power.

That was, until I learned how hard it was to spend money on an American Express credit card.

First, you don’t earn cash back on balance transfers

When I applied for the card, I chose to transfer my balance from my old card to the SimplyCash card, about $400, which I was able to do for free. For some reason, I thought I’d be able to earn about $10 in cash back from my new balance. Not so, said the customer service agent I spoke to (who, coincidentally, made the same assumption when she opened her own Amex account).

I didn’t read the fine print

I also thought I’d be earning 5% on all my purchases made on the card, as advertised. Again, not so! That offer only applies to the SimplyCash Preferred Card, which carries a $99 annual fee. I chose the no-fee SimplyCash Card, which only lets me earn 5% back on certain ‘spend’ categories: groceries, gas, and restaurants.

A lot of places don’t take Amex

Nevertheless, I was stoked to start using my card and earn up to $250 in cash back for spending I was going to do anyway.

But then I tried to actually use my card.

The grocery stores I normally shop at, No Frills or Loblaws, don’t accept American Express.

Also, I just subscribed to a meal delivery service because I can’t plan a week’s worth of meals to save my life. The American Express customer service rep told me food-based subscriptions aren’t eligible for 5% cash back; only in-store purchases are.

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Getting gas is an easy way to rack up cash back — except I don’t drive. I do use the TTC, which accepts American Express, but I’ll only be earning 1.25% cash back on my monthly Metropass, which costs $146.25.

As for dining out? I’ve budgeted $50 a week to spend on fun activities. You can’t be an avid foodie in Toronto on a budget like that. Plus, it’s hit or miss whether a restaurant will take Amex. The sushi joint my colleagues and I hit up on Fridays doesn’t accept it. But I was able to use it when I went out for noodles in the Annex.

At least the card looks awesome — it’s completely translucent save for the blue holographic square in the centre. When I used the SimplyCash to pay for ramen the other night I felt like a boss as soon as I threw it down.

The only way to get ahead is to spend more

I’m facing a bit of a paradox: I have to spend a lot more on this card to really take advantage of the cash back offer, but few of the retailers I frequent accept Amex.

I won’t earn the stated $250 in cash back unless I increase my spending in the three main categories.

In order to do that — and really make this card worth my while — I would need to spend at least $1,025 in total, every month, for the next six months.

I thought that this was going to be a compliment to my primary card, a TD Visa Card. But instead, I discovered I need to make my Amex my primary card. I was not expecting that. I’ve thought about some ways I could change my spending habits:

  • Hook up all my subscription services to my SimplyCash card and earn 1.25%
  • Possibly shop at more expensive stores and pharmacies that take American Express
  • Get used to rejection (most retailers don’t take it, but I need to take every opportunity to try)

The SimplyCash card offer does incentivize spending — but the $250 I could hypothetically earn just isn’t worth it. I risk spending hundreds of dollars I didn’t need to spend just to earn the maximum cash back. I’m not going to change my priorities to suit this credit card.

To sum things up

At the rate I’m going — spending at most $250 a month on the SimplyCash — I stand to earn a grand total of $30 in cash back within the next six months.

After 12 months, I’ll earn the mind-blowing sum of $48.

American Express does live up to its reputation as being a more elite credit card provider: it’s clearly for people who are used to paying for higher priced goods and services and who commute by car. They’re the ones who will probably reap the most benefits from their products.

I probably won’t be able to juice my card’s rewards program the way experienced credit card churners do, but it’s not totally black and white. I have more access to credit and I’m finally earning some cash back, even though it may be a miniscule amount. That’s never a bad thing.