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The Citi Prestige MasterCard is better than the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Here’s why

A couple years ago everyone went crazy over the Chase Sapphire Reserve Visa and the 100,000 point signup bonus. It’s a great credit card.

When I previously wrote about the best credit cards, I said the best cards to hold were:

  1. Either the Citi Prestige or Chase Reserve
  2. American Express Platinum
  3. Amazon Prime Visa

Now I more firmly believe that the Citi Prestige is better than the Chase Reserve and it’s what most people should use for everyday purchases.

At a high level the two cards are very similar. They both have a $450 annual fee, travel credits, lounge access, global entry, points you can transfer to other programs, and more. But here’s where the Citi Prestige stands out:

  • 4th night free credit. If you book any hotel anywhere for 4 nights, you get the fourth night free. We used this 30 times on our year of traveling, saving us $10k. If you use this 1 or 2 times a year, that’s $200-500 right there.
  • Extended warranty on all purchases. Chase gives you an extra year. Citi Prestige gives you 2 years. I’m using the Citi card to buy all our baby products, appliances, etc.
  • Price protection. With many credit cards, if you find a lower price for an item within 90 days, they will refund you the difference. With Citi it’s 120 days, and it’s automatic. They scan popular websites for better prices. I bought a 4k TV and Citi refunded me $98 when they found a better price.
  • Damage and theft protection. Most cards will refund you your purchase price if you lose or damage a purchase within 90 days. With Citi it’s 120 days. I broke my iPhone X screen a few months ago and Citi paid $303 to fix it. I don’t buy AppleCare.
  • Travel protection. Many credit cards give you travel insurance, but Citi is more generous than the others. For example, if your flight is delayed by just 3 hours (vs 5 with Chase), you get $500 to use towards hotels, cars, food, or a warm jacket. Our flight over Christmas was cancelled in Philly. I wish I had used the Citi card for the flight. Same with baggage delays: 3 hours with Citi vs 6 with Chase.

Where is Chase better?

  1. Chase gives you 3 points per dollar on dining, vs 2 with Citi. (Both give you 3 points on travel)
  2. Chase lets you transfer points to United. Citi doesn’t have United as a partner.
  3. Chase gives you primary car insurance in the US, vs secondary with Citi. (Both are primary outside the US).

If you only travel on United, then maybe the Chase card is better for you. But generally speaking the added benefits of the Citi card make it the one to have.

FAQ

What card do I use when making a purchase? I have the Citi Prestige, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Amex Platinum, and Amazon cards.

  1. If it’s a large purchase, I use the Citi card so I get the price, damage, warranty protection.
  2. If it’s a flight, I use Amex so I get the 5 points.
  3. For all travel and dining, I use the Citi card. In particular if I’m booking 4 nights at a hotel, I use Citi so I get a night free.
  4. For Amazon purchases, use the Amazon card for 5% back.
  5. For all other 1x point purchases, use the Amex Platinum since they are the best points.

Amazon purchases seem complicated. Tell me more.

It’s easy to say “use the Amazon card for all Amazon purchases” but that’s not actually the best way to go. The Amazon card doesn’t have great purchase protection, so you have to be a bit careful here.

If I’m buying something expensive from Amazon (like a stroller or any electronic), I’ll use the Citi card and NOT the Amazon card. I’d rather have the purchase protections than the 5% back.

Do I still have the Chase Sapphire Reserve?

I do now, but I’ll cancel it before my next annual fee is billed. I find it hard to get enough value out of it to keep it, given the other cards are so much better.

I recently switched to Apple Music. Together with HomePod, AirPods, CarPlay, and Siri, Apple has the strongest end to end music experience since the iPod days.

I signed up for Spotify about a year ago. It worked fine when I had a specific artist or album in mind, but I found the playlists and the recommendations to be weak. I think this was because Spotify didn’t know enough about what music I loved.

Six months ago I bought a car with Apple CarPlay integration. It rocks. I love being able to use Siri to send and receive messages, make calls, control music, and more.

But CarPlay doesn’t play well with Spotify. While you can play Spotify audio through CarPlay, you can’t use Siri to control it. So I decided to switch to Apple Music. I can now use Siri to play any artist, album, playlist, or shuffle.

I love Apple Music so much more than Spotify. I had 10k songs in my iTunes library that I purchased over a 20 year span. Apple Music instantly used that to understand what music I love and build recommendations. I’m now listening to great music, old and new. This reminds me of when I got the first 5GB iPod in 2001. Having all your songs on the go means you are taken back in time. You hear things from your past that you forgot about.

About a year ago I also purchased AirPods. I carry them around everywhere I go. I listen to way more music than I did pre AirPods, and a lot more podcasts. It’s a game changer.

I also bought a HomePod. This was mostly because I wanted to compare it to Alexa. The sound quality is exceptional. It’s not as good as my home theater, but way better than my Echo.

I’m also very impressed by Siri. I can speak to Siri in a much more natural way than I can with Alexa, and Siri often responds with something witty, which I love. It doesn’t feel like I have a robot in my home.

HomePod is also much, much better than Alexa at picking up voice commands. While music is playing, I can be in a different room, facing *away* from the HomePod, say something in a normal volume, and Siri nails it every time. It’s shockingly good.

I care a lot about my privacy, but I’m not overly paranoid. I’m fine using Alexa or Gmail if they are the best product, but I’ll switch away if I can have more privacy. I’m happy to say that HomePod means I’m removing Alexa from my home. It works for music and home automation, which is all I care about.

In 2001 Apple released the iPod and you had every song in your pocket. Today I have every song in my car, home, and on the go. And it’s all controlled perfectly by voice. I’m locked in to Apple Music because it works better than Spotify across all these devices.

This is what great company strategy look like. Apple is making a ton of money because they give me the most killer user experience out there.

Apple’s goal isn’t to make money. Our goal is to design and develop and bring to market good products. We trust as a consequence of that, people will like them, and as another consequence we’ll make some money. But we’re really clear about what our goals are.

– Jonathan Ive, Apple Inc.

The SPG American Express is now one of the worst credit cards to hold. Here’s why I’m cancelling mine

Marriott bought Starwood about 2 years ago. SPG gold status transferred to Marriott so we stayed at the Ritz in Cairo, JW in Phucket, and Marriotts in Brisbane and San Francisco. We got lots of great perks.

This week Marriott announced changes to their rewards program and their credit cards. I’ve had the Starwood American Express credit card for over 15 years. During most of that time it was my go to card for all purchases.

Now I believe it’s one of the worst credit cards available.

What’s changing?

  • Starwood and Marriott rewards programs are merging into a single program
  • When you make purchases with the Starwood credit card, you will earn 2 Marriott points per dollar spent
  • When you transfer Marriott points to airline programs, you get 1 mile for every 3 Marriott points

It’s pretty confusing. But the bottom line is that Marriott points are only worth 1/3 as much as other points or miles. So while it might sound good to get 2 points per dollar, it’s actually a really shitty return.

I really hate how sneaky this is. By creating an inflated points system that doesn’t map 1:1 with other programs, they are tricking consumers into thinking they are getting good returns on their spending.

I loved my SPG American Express card. While I now turn to my Citi or Chase cards for travel and dining purchases, I still went with SPG for everything else. Now I’ll be cancelling this card.

160913_GAL_CCS_TRA_AmexStarwood

How to pay for your iPhone X

It’s that time of the year again! All the Apple fanboys (myself included) will be hitting refresh at midnight for the chance to be the first customer with Apple’s shiny new toy.

There are a bunch of different options for buying an iPhone these days. Here’s my plan and how I arrived at this decision.

Total cost of ownership

First, lets look at the cost of total cost of ownership of owning an iPhone X 64GB for 12 months. (I’m assuming you upgrade your phone every year otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog post).

  1. Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program
    The program is pretty cool. You pay a monthly fee for your phone, it includes AppleCare, and after 12 months you can swap for a new phone. If you don’t swap it, after 24 payments you own the phone. Cost: $50/month + tax. Total = $660.
  2. Full price with AppleCare
    Another option is to buy the phone with AppleCare and pay the entire price up front. After 12 months you can sell it when you upgrade. I estimated the resale value based on current used iPhone prices (-30%). Cost: $1000 (phone) + $200 (AppleCare) + tax – $700 (resale value). Total = $620.
  3. Full price without AppleCare
    I don’t think AppleCare is a good deal (more on that in a second). If you buy the phone without AppleCare, and then sell it when you upgrade, it’s a lot cheaper. Cost: $1000 (phone) + tax – $700 (resale value). Total = $400.

If you want AppleCare, buy via Apple’s program

While you might be able to save about $40 by buying the phone outright and then reselling it after a year, that’s a hassle! If you go through Apple’s program, you can just walk into an Apple store in 12 months and get the newest and greatest.

You also get more optionality: if the resale price of the phone is higher than your remaining payments, you can still choose to pay it off and resell the phone (or give it to someone else). There’s no downside here since the 24 payments you would make to the Apple Upgrade Program total the same as buying the phone with AppleCare upfront.

Is AppleCare worth it?

No!!

AppleCare has an upfront cost and also a deductible for each repair. All repair pricing for the X hasn’t yet been released (which I think is bullshit on Apple’s part since the phone goes on sale tonight), but my guesses are: AppleCare costs $200, deductible for a screen repair is $29, screen repair without AppleCare is $200 (it’s $169 for the 8 Plus).

Lets look at the various scenarios here for broken screens (the most common iPhone issue):

With AppleCare Without AppleCare
No issues $200 $0
Broken screen (1 time) $229 $200
Broken screen (2 times) $258 $400

In most real world scenarios, I’m better off NOT buying AppleCare. I only save money in the scenarios where I break my screen TWO times within 12 months. And even then I’m not saving a ton.

But I want some protection on this expensive purchase!

This is not a cheap phone and not having protection against damage can be scary. Here’s how you get the protection you need for free.

  1. Pay for the phone using a credit card that offers theft and damage protection. Most cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express will give you 90 days of protection. I’m going to use the Citi Prestige card because it gives you 120 days! That means for the first 4 months (1/3 of the time I’ll own this phone), I have 100% coverage on any issues. There’s no deductible.
  2. Pay your cell phone bill with the new Uber credit card that was released this week. As part of the standard benefits of this no-fee card, you get $600 protection against cell phone theft or damage. There’s a $25 deductible.

This coverage is actually better than AppleCare because you are protected for any kind of damage, theft, and even accidental loss!

Summary

Competition among credit cards has been really great for consumers. Taking advantage of the various insurance benefits cards offer means you can save money on purchases like iPhones by utilizing their protection and skipping AppleCare or other third party warranties.

An earthquake emergency kit for our home

I spent some time putting together an earthquake survival kit for our home. Thanks so much to friends on Facebook for the recommendations.

I started out by looking at pre-made earthquake kits on Amazon like this one. It became clear that they don’t have nearly enough water, and the food is pretty gross.

So I decided to put this together myself. Here’s where I landed:

General

  1. I wanted at least 5 days of supplies at home. Who knows what the right number is. Most websites recommend 3 days.
  2. Some friends pointed out that with hurricanes there’s advanced notice so supplies can be moved in before the storm. Not true with earthquakes so you might be without help for much longer.
  3. On the other hand, we live in a dense city in a condo complex. Hopefully we’d get support via neighbors/first responders more quickly than if we were in a less dense area.

Water

  • I decided to go with 1 gallon of water per person. That means 10 gallons for me and Kate over 5 days.
  • I read a lot about the short (6 month) shelf life of water in plastic containers and decided it’s all bullshit. Water has a long shelf life and I’m not going to worry about it.
  • We generally have a bunch of water in our fridge, and a few cases of La Croix on hand (seriously). I contacted La Croix about its potential use as emergency water but I didn’t get a response. I’m assuming it’s great :).
  • To supplement that, we purchased this 7 gallon water container for $15. We might refill it each year, but I’m not going to worry if I forget.

Food

  • Most emergency food rations are expensive and taste like crap. People buy them because they have a long shelf life. So we set out to find a better way.
  • We went through our kitchen and found all the foods we already eat that have a long shelf life and lots of good calories. This included canned soups, canned chili, canned beans, cliff bars, and peanut butter. Buy whatever you already eat at home!
  • By having 30-40 cans of food in total, together with the normal food we keep in our fridge and freezer, we should be good for about a week even if we have no power to cook.
  • While most canned food should have near infinite shelf life, we will try to cycle through the cans and eat the older ones as we replenish with new purchases.
  • Make sure you have a non electric can opener. (And a non electric wine opener but that has nothing to do with food).

First Aid Kit

  • We purchased this 150 piece first aid kit on Amazon for about $20. I can’t say I was too particular about what was in the kit, although there’s a whistle and a compass which I thought was very smart.
  • There’s a solar blanket in our first aid kit, although since this is all at home we have plenty of blankets to keep us warm.
  • Lots of hand sanitizer.
  • N95 particulate respirators. These 3M masks have a valve to help you breath easily while keeping you cool.
  • A supply of pain killers and other medications is good to have. We felt like our general supply at home is probably sufficient.
  • I got a first aid kit for my car.

Lights

  • 115 hour candle and matches.
  • LED lantern. Shines super bright when needed, and up to 295 hours in low power mode.
  • Assortment of different flashlights to keep throughout the house and car. Minimize how many different battery sizes you need. I got a good pack from Costco.
  • Extra batteries for your flashlights and lanterns. I went with Energizers that have a 10 year shelf life (Amazon Basics only 3).

Phone power

Other

  • Hand Crank FM/AM/NOAA Radio
  • You probably want to have a general set of tools if you don’t already. Hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches, etc.
  • We got a fireproof safe box similar to this one to keep important documents like passports, social security cards (why do these exist!!), etc.
  • $200 in small bills to use in case you can’t use credit. Also a hardware bitcoin wallet in case USD no longer exists ;).
  • Fire extinguisher. Something we already owned, generally good to have in the kitchen.

Everyone’s needs are different so here’s a link to a great post that goes into more detail on some other items.

This isn’t fun stuff to think about, but it’s hard not to after seeing the devastation from recent hurricanes and fires. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, and Sonoma/Napa.

Please donate to Puerto Rico disaster relief.

The ultimate guide to credit cards! Which cards to have and how to get the best travel rewards

I love hacking credit cards and airline points. A bunch of friends have been asking me for my recommendations so I wrote up this post.

The credit card game has changed. A couple years ago, if you were getting a 2% return on your purchases you were doing quite well! Now it’s possible to get a 4.5% return with very little effort, and 10% or more with some work. I’ll show you how.

Summary

  1. The best cards to hold are the Citi Prestige MasterCard, the American Express Platinum, and the Amazon Prime Visa.
  2. Get the best return on your points by transferring them to airline frequent flier programs and using to book flights directly with the airlines.
  3. Most premium credit cards give you a sign up bonus that more than makes up for the annual fee. So it costs nothing to try a new card for a year.
  4. If you apply for an American Express Platinum card, please use my referral link.

The basics

  1. When you use most credit cards, you accumulate points in the rewards program with that bank. Every bank has its own program. Basic cards give you 1 point per dollar spent, other cards give you 2, 3, or even more points for each dollar. Goal: use the credit card that gives you the most points for each dollar you spend.
  2. Once you’ve accumulated points, you can use those points for various types of rewards or purchases. This could be cash back, a gift card, or free travel. Different rewards have different exchange rates. Goal: use your points for the rewards that have the best exchange rate.

The best credit cards to have

1. The Citi Prestige MasterCard and the Chase Sapphire Reserve will earn you the most points on everyday purchases. They also offer the best travel insurance and other perks.

Citi Prestige MasterCard

  • $450 annual fee, but you get $250 reimbursed on travel expenses. So the fee is actually only $200
  • When you book 4 nights at any hotel, you get the 4th night free. You can use this perk as many times as you want! On our trip around the world, we did this about 40 times, saving us over $8000.
  • 3 points for every dollar spent on travel, 2 points on dining and entertainment
  • Transfer points to many airline partners
  • Great travel benefits like worldwide rental car insurance, emergency evacuation insurance, and more
  • Two year added warranty on all purchases
  • Priority Pass Select, so you can get into airport lounges for free
  • Free Global Entry
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 75,000 points when you sign up with this link

Chase Sapphire Reserve

  • $450 annual fee, but you get $300 reimbursed on travel expenses. So the fee is actually only $150
  • 3 points for every dollar spent on travel and dining
  • Transfer points to many airline partners including United
  • Great travel benefits like worldwide rental car insurance, emergency evacuation insurance, and more
  • Priority Pass Select, so you can get into airport lounges for free
  • Free Global Entry
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 50,000 points when you sign up

There’s a lot of overlap between these two cards so you probably only need one. Chase points are slightly better. But if you use the 4th night free perk with Citi, that’s definitely the way to go. Travel and product insurance with the Citi card is slightly better.

2. Get the American Express Platinum for status on a bunch of hotel programs, free upgrades, and access to the best lounges. You will travel like a king.

American Express Platinum

  • $550 annual fee, but you get $200 reimbursed on one airline, and $200 reimbursed from Uber. So the fee is really only $150
  • 5 points for every dollar spent on airlines
  • The most airline partners to transfer points to
  • Access to a bunch of lounges including the Centurion lounge (the one in SFO is amazing)
  • Gold status on Starwood, Marriott, Hilton, Hertz, Avis, and other programs. This gets you upgrades, free breakfast at hotels, and more
  • The Amex Fine Hotels program gets you a bunch of perks (upgrades, late checkout, free breakfast, free spa) when you book a hotel through Amex
  • Free Boingo internet
  • Free Global Entry
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 60,000 points when you sign up

This card isn’t about making purchases and getting points (other than the 5x for airlines). This card is about upgrades, perks, and traveling in style. It’s also the coolest card (way heavier than even the Chase Reserve!)

3. If you shop at Amazon, the Amazon Prime Visa is a no brainer.

Amazon Prime Rewards Visa

  • No annual fee
  • 5% back on Amazon purchases

Since Amazon purchases only get you 1 point per dollar with other cards, use this card instead. I don’t use it for anything else. I don’t even carry it.

Which card to use:

The goal is to optimize your return. Here’s how I decide:

  1. If it’s an Amazon purchase, use the Amazon Visa (you get 5% back)
  2. If I’m buying flights, use the Amex Platinum (you get 5 points per $1)
  3. If I’m booking 4 nights at a hotel, use the Citi card (you get the 4th night free)
  4. For all other travel and dining purchases, use the Chase or Citi card (you get 2 or 3 points per $1)
  5. For everything else, use the Amex platinum (you get 1 point per $1)

Redeeming points

Essentially there are 3 ways to use your points:

  1. Trade in your points for gift cards. For example, most credit card programs will give you a $100 gift card to Amazon for 10,000 points. Each point = 1 cent.
  2. Use your points to book travel directly through your credit card’s travel portal. Redemption rates vary, but with Chase, each point = 1.5 cents. So you can buy a $750 plane ticket for 50,000 points.
  3. Transfer your points to an airline frequent flier program and book directly with the airline. This is how you get the best return on your points. I recently booked a $750 domestic economy ticket (last minute) for 25,000 points. Therefore each point = 3 cents. I’ve seen redemption rates of 4 or even 5 cents per point when booking international business class travel on Singapore, Emirates, Etihad, Air France, and other airlines.

When you earn 3 points per dollar on your purchases, and redeem those points for 3 or 4 cents in value each, you can see an overall return of 9-12%!

All this takes a bit of effort, of course, but I save thousands of dollars per year so I think it’s worth it. More important than the money, all the upgrades and lounges make flying and traveling super fun. I don’t dread going to the airport, I show up early.


Appendix/FAQ

1. The annual fees are insane! Are they really worth it?
Remember that with these premium cards you get several hundreds of dollars back each year on travel benefits. You should mentally deduct that from the annual fee. The fee ends up being $150-200 per card, not $450.

2. Everyone is going nuts over the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Why isn’t that your top pick?
It’s a great card for sure. The reason it blew up is last year Chase was offering a 100,000 point sign up bonus. Now the bonus is only 50,000. The Chase and Citi cards are pretty similar, but I think Citi has a slight edge.

3. How do you transfer points to airline frequent flier miles?
You log in to your credit card’s site (ie membershiprewards.com), put in your frequent flier number, and enter a number of points to transfer. Usually it happens instantly.

Here’s a handy chart showing where you can transfer points:

Pasted Graphic

4. I don’t travel or eat out. What should I do?
This post probably isn’t relevant to you. Get a basic free card that gives you cash back, like the Amazon Visa. The Costco credit card is great too.

5. I love my Starwood Preferred Guest Amex card. You didn’t mention it.
It’s a great card. It was my go-to a couple years ago. But it doesn’t give you many benefits other than more Starwood points on stays. So I don’t find it to be worth the annual fee. The Amex Platinum gives you instant Starwood/Marriott Gold, so it’s the card to have if you stay at those hotels a lot.

6. What about debit cards?
Debit cards are the worst. Not only do they not give you the same perks and benefits as credit cards, they are not safe to use. They don’t have the same level of fraud protection as a credit card. I literally don’t feel safe having one.

How I automated my home lighting with Lutron Caseta switches

I recently replaced all the light switches in my living room with Lutron Caseta smart switches. This allows me to create scenes (combinations of lights on or off) and control my lights via voice or an app.

Overall I’m very happy with the experience. Installing the Lutron switches was easy (same as normal switches), the Lutron app is great, and I can control everything via Alexa.

Why replace switches?

There are a lot of smart light bulbs out there. I decided to replace my switches instead for a few reasons:

  1. I have a lot of bulbs, so replacing the bulbs would have been more expensive
  2. Some of my bulbs don’t have a smart bulb equivalent. Replacing the switch means it works with any light type
  3. If you replace a bulb and not the switch, your switch will cut power to the bulb, breaking the system
  4. If I move I can take the switches with me and use them anywhere

Lutron Caseta P-PKG1W-WH - In-Wall Dimmer and Pico Remote Image

Why did I go with Lutron?

  1. They work in all the applications I need (dimmable, non dimmable, 3 way, halogen, cfl, led)
  2. They have great reviews. Everyone said they are very reliable
  3. The hub is compatible with Alexa and HomeKit. While HomeKit isn’t great today, I’m hoping it will be one day. I worry about Alexa listening to everything I say at home. When HomePod comes out, I might stop using Alexa

Here’s the basic setup:

  • Plug the hub into your router and set it up via the app
  • Replace the switches. If you can do basic electrical work, you can replace them yourself. The only hard part was stuffing the new switch and wires into the electrical box because there isn’t a lot of space
  • Add each switch in the app
  • Create scenes like “Movie” or “Cooking” and tell the app which lights you want on/off/dimmed, etc
  • Link your Lutron account with Alexa to control your lights via your Echo, and with HomeKit to control your lights via Siri

I can now control my lights in a bunch of different ways:

  1. Talk to Alexa or Siri
  2. Use the Lutron app or iOS widget (swipe right on your home screen for quick access)
  3. Create a geo-fence in HomeKit and have my lights automatically turn on when I get home
  4. Connect to IFTTT and Harmony to create even more sophisticated triggers and scenes
  5. Use Pico remotes to activate scenes or turn off all the lights. I have one at our front door and one on our coffee table

The biggest problem with all this home automation is that there are too many ways to do everything. Lutron, HomeKit, Alexa, and Harmony all want to be the control center, but each system has its faults. Here’s a diagram I drew up of the various systems I have and what can talk to what:

But don’t let this diagram scare you. The Lutron system is great. Configure everything in the Lutron app, and then control it via Alexa/Siri and you’re good to go.

Questions? Post in the comments or Tweet at me.