6 Mistakes That Can Cost You a Signup Bonus

Mistakes That Can Cost You a Signup Bonus - picture of credit cards falling like dominos

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Traveling can be expensive. We know. Over the last few years, we’ve made over 30 trips to Europe, the Caribbean, and all over the U.S. There is no way we could have done it without using credit card rewards.

For travelers in the know, the best ways to nab tons of points quickly is to earn a signup bonus. These enticing offers help you travel for less, redeem gift cards, or provide a nice cash option. Frankly, we love ourselves a good bonus!

Of course, credit card companies don’t give these bonuses away for free. To earn a signup bonus, you’ll first need to complete a few tasks. And while the rules for the best travel rewards credit cards are usually pretty straightforward, there are a few items that could trip you up. Here are 7 mistakes that could keep you from earning those bonuses you crave.

6 Mistakes that Could Cost You a Signup Bonus

Not Spending Enough

If you’ve ever earned a signup bonus before, this might seem a wee bit obvious. If you haven’t, not so much.

Here’s the deal: Most signup bonuses have a minimum spending requirement attache, which you need to meet in order to qualify for the bonus. The amount of money you’re required to spend varies widely from card to card. For instance, some may require you to spend $500 while others may have a requirement of $4,000 or more. In fact, we recently completed a minimum spend on a business card that required us to spend $10,000 in just 90 days. Which brings us to mistake number two…

Not Completing the Minimum Spending Requirement on Time

To earn a signup bonus, you must complete the minimum spending requirement within an allotted period of time. Again, the amount of time varies by card; but, in most cases, you’ll earn the bonus by spending the required amount within the first 90 days of opening your new account. Fall just a dollar short or complete the spend a day late and you won’t get the signup bonus.

It’s important to note that you need to hit your minimum spending requirement within the first 90 days of opening the account – NOT activating your card! This is an important distinction, and you need to follow it closely. A good friend of ours made this mistake…and it cost them a buttload of points! (BTW, that’s the technical term for 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points.)

Assuming Your Annual Fee Counts Toward the Spending Requirement

Some credit cards offering a signup bonus have an annual fee attached to them. Unless that fee is waived for the first year, you’ll usually pay it on your first month’s bill. But, paying an annual fee isn’t always a deal breaker. Sometimes the signup bonus or the card benefits outweigh the fee itself.

What you don’t want to do is assume the annual fee counts toward your minimum spending requirement. It doesn’t. Paying the annual fee is a separate requirement from any spending you do on the card to earn the bonus. So, if your minimum spending requirement is $3,500 and there’s an annual fee of $99, you’ll actually end up spending $3,599 to meet the requirement.

In the same vein, interest charges and balance transfers also don’t count toward meeting spending requirements. Remember, minimum spending requirements must be met by purchases only.

See Also: Our Favorite Travel Card – The Chase Sapphire Preferred Review

Redeeming Travel Credits Too Early

Some of my favorite travel credit cards offer “statement credits” that can be used on travel expenses. I use these credits all the time, and they’re a huge perk of holding certain cards.

That being said, you have to be careful about redeeming your travel credits while you’re still meeting your minimum spending requirement. Using them too early could cause you to lose your bonus. For example, let’s say you use your new card to book $1,000 in airline costs. You then use a $500 travel credit from your card to pay for half of it. Because you used your travel credit on a purchase needed to meet a minimum spending requirement, you only get credit for spending $500 on that $1,000 purchase. Make sense?

Returning a Big-Ticket Item

When pursuing a signup bonus, it’s fairly common to use your new card to purchase big-ticket items. In fact, I’d argue the best time to apply for a card is right before taking on a major expense or project! That being said, you’ll only earn the points if you keep the item.

Returning a large purchase could disqualify that purchase from the minimum spending requirement. And don’t try to get cute either. If you return the item after being awarded points, you’ll almost certainly lose the points you earned on the amount you spent. Worse yet, they could take back the signup bonus too.

Paying Interest

When chasing a signup bonus, failing to pay your balance and incurring interest charges is pretty much the worst mistake you can possibly make. Unfortunately, it’s also the most common. The whole goal of earning signup bonuses is to use the cash or points to save money. The last thing you want to do is rack up debt, accrue interest, and pay more than you should’ve in the first place!

If you can’t pay cash for an item, you shouldn’t put it on your card. Period. You’d be far better off saving your money in a separate travel savings fund and avoiding the points game all together. Credit card debt isn’t something to play around with, and it can quickly destroy your financial stability.

Seriously, be honest with yourself. You know your spending habits and financial limitations. If you aren’t prepared to pay your card in full each and every month, please stay away from this hobby!

Wrapping Up

Although some card issuers are making it harder to land a signup bonus (see the Chase 5/24 rule), these huge point hauls are still well worth chasing. When you qualify for a card, just be sure you follow the rules. If not, you could end up missing out on some pretty sweet deals.


OK, it’s your turn! Have you ever had your points rescinded? What other mistakes should others avoid?

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  1. It pains me to think of people paying interest on big rewards cards. I think our Chase Sapphire is 17%?! That being said, we’re definitely having to be far more mindful of the first two. I originally thought I’d be able to put my grad classes on my credit card (it’s how we’ve funded two Master’s programs — hello, rewards!), but this school didn’t disclose the 3% service charge. No, thanks. So now it’s time to get creative!

  2. Good tips to know–I’d never thought about having points rescinded, I suppose because we’ve never run into that. I think timing is an important issue. Sometimes we’ve planned well and earned the sign-up bonus points in time for a trip. Other times we’ve planned travel without a lot of notice and missed out on rewards. So I definitely appreciate your point about making sure you give yourself time to meet the minimum spend in the required time frame.

  3. Man, Greg – that would suck to go to all that effort to then miss out! We haven’t signed up for any cards like that, so we haven’t yet missed any bonuses. But when we do we’ll be sure try to avoid these pitfalls 🙂


  4. We’ve never had the points rescinded, but have had to be very diligent about tracking the money spent to secure the bonus. Usually it’s around $3000 in 3 months (or something similar), so we make sure all of our purchases go on the card we’re working on. A couple of times we’ve opened the cards when we knew we had a large upcoming expense that would put us further ahead on the required spending.

  5. Good list Greg! We’ve thankfully never dealt with any of these, though we did have to return a fairly big ticket item a couple years ago and were afraid we’d lose out on a bonus, but we were able to make purchase that made up for it prior to the return. That being said, our main mistake was redeeming points for cash and not redeeming for travel when we started a number of years ago.

  6. Thanks for the tips Greg! One that could definitely be confusing is redeeming points too early. I love those cards though when it’s easy as just reimbursing yourself for travel expenses. So versatile!

  7. #2 hits a little too close to home for me! I’m relatively new to the travel rewards hobby, and last year I signed up for the Sapphire Preferred and earned the signup bonus by putting all my holiday travel and gift expenses on it (and by coercing some family members into letting me pay for their items with the card, then having them pay me back!). After I’d met that spending requirement, I signed up for the Freedom card as a nice partner card and thought I was golden — the spending requirement was ridiculously low ($150 cash back for spending $500). I thought there was no way I wouldn’t make it… but I guess I didn’t prioritize using the card, because I missed the deadline by a day or two! It was so frustrating; even a secure message to Chase didn’t help. Moral of the story? Even if the MS is low, track it and make sure you reach it! I’m still kicking myself for that one.

  8. Haven\’t lost them yet, but I always like to message the card companies to ask if I look like I\’m going to get my points and when about 2 months into the period

  9. These are all great tips! When we got started with credit card rewards for travel, I would read blogs over and over to avoid these mistakes! Any post like this is incredibly helpful – because sometimes it takes reading them a few times to make sense of everything! We totally would have thought the annual fee counted toward the spending requirements!

  10. One of the reasons I sign up for credit cards is for the signup bonuses, I make sure that I meet the requirements to get the bonus, always! Sometimes I try to time my expenses so that I don’t spend more than the minimum requirement, and I was barely able to meet it with 2 weeks to spare. (had to spend $500 to get a $150 bonus) and I was afraid I wasn’t going to get it. Things have a habit of working out though!

  11. Great point about the date the account opened vs. when we activated the card since there was a gap of 10 days between those dates for our latest card. I’ll have to see how that impacts our spending plan. Thanks!

  12. Thanks so much for all the tips! I will definitely keep them all in mind!

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