Friday, March 14, 2008

And The Tuna Says (in response to "A Good Offer?")

Dear GridMaster,

Master of the Excel spreadsheet, manipulator of numbers - You are wise and there is no need to be confused. My answer, as usual, is the same...


To determine whether the PenFed Credit Union Rewards Card makes sense for you, there are two calculations you need to make. First, you must calculate your “earn rate”. Then, you must calculate your “burn rate”.

Your earn rate is easy – look at average % of money you spend in each of the categories (that’s ca-TE-go-ries to you and me), and calculate your weighted “earn rate”. To give you an example, I used my own situation over the past 3 months.

Here’s how it breaks down…

If I were to have a card with PedFed Credit Union, my earn rate would have looked like this over the past three months…

Pen Fed


% of







All other






You can see that since I spent 18% of my purchases on groceries (which give 2% back), 10% of my purchases on gas (which give 5% back) and 72% on everything else (which gives 1.25% back), given my combination of spending categories over the last three months, I would have averaged 1.76% earn rate (i.e. 1.76% of my purchases are given back to me in points).

Contrast that to my current hotel rewards card…

Hotel rewards


% of











all other






With my hotel rewards, card, assuming the same % of spend in each category as above, with the separation of the 5% back on my hotel purchases, I end up averaging a 2.2% earn rate – a full 125% better than what I would have received if I had a card with PenFed. So, in other words, for me, the hotel rewards card I have is the better card strictly because of my lifestyle. But that’s me. Compare the PenFed card against a typical rewards card like Bank of America’s WorldPoints which offers 1 point per $ spend on everything, and you’ve got one stellar program – a full 176% better!

Now, I had to do some research on the redemptions side of the equation (i.e. the “burn rate”) and what I found is that the PenFed card appears to be rather competitive in terms of redemptions. For example, I can redeen 25,000 points to get a free airplane ticket in the contiguous 48 states – this is pretty typical of most card programs. Similarly, I could get a top-notch hotel room for less than 35,000 – which appears to be on-par with my own program. Merchandise, as with most other programs, translates to a poor redemption value. For example a $900 dishwasher can be had for 140,000 points - a pathetic $0.0064 per point exchange rate (remember you should be aiming for at least $0.01 per point!)

So, my dear friend – since you’re the master of the grid, you should be pretty good at finding the best card for yourself. It’s easy. Follow my lead above, and you’ll be able to determine what makes the most sense for you. If you’re not doing a lot of one particular thing, like staying in hotels or flying on major carriers, you may just very well benefit from a card like PenFed’s because it offers a great average earn rate. I appreciate your questions, and I welcome the opportunity to help. All you readers out there, just send us a note by way of comment on and we can address your questions.

Happy Credit Card Shopping,


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Good Offer? And the Tuna Says...

Oh great Card Tuna, swami of credit cards. I have a dilemma and don't know what to do, can you help me?

Today, I received a mailing from Pentagon Federal Credit Union. Inside, it had a great offer for credit card. At least I thought so. But I'm so confused about credit card rewards, that I'm not sure what to do.

So here's what they're offering me, oh great tuna, and I ask you what should I do?

It's a Visa platinum cash rewards credit card, which has historically given you 5% cash back for gas paid at the pump. It's also had 1.25% cashback for all other purchases. And those cashback bonuses are paid on a monthly basis to PenFed members. The new twist on the offer is that it now includes 2% cashback on supermarket purchases. Again, awards are paid monthly.

The interest-rate offers sound pretty good as well. Balance transfers get a 5.99% APR for the life of the transfer. The current interest rate for the credit card is a 13.99% APR. While I know that's not the greatest rate, since I pay my balance in full each and every month -- as you preach, oh great tuna -- I'm not worried too much about that rate.

So, what do you think? Deal, or no deal?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Heck no to HELOC cards

Have you somehow been able to build up some of that nasty equity in your home through hard work, thrift and paying your bills on time?  Also happen to have a HELOC (home equity line of credit) on your home to allow you to tap the equity for emergency purposes, college loans or something similarly worthwhile?

Leave it to the credit card industry to figure out a way to add plastic to that unholy (for them) situation.  According to CardTrack, there's an interesting credit product that's now available that ties a credit card to your HELOC.  The "good" folks at Harris bank have made a product available that lets you use a credit card to tap into your HELOC.

That's right.  Liquidate your equity with lattes.  Grind your net worth as you gas up.  Destroy as you dine.  You get the drift.

Let's be clear here.  If you tap your home equity in today's market, i.e. declining home values, EXCEPT IN VERY DIRE CIRCUMSTANCES, you need to have your head examined.
Consider this--what happens if you tap the HELOC you set up a couple of years ago when your home was worth $10 or $20K more than it is now.  Then something happens like, oh, losing your job?  Suddenly, you need to get rid of the house and downsize.  (Because you'll do that instead of living off credit cards, right dear reader?)  

Oops.  You're now upside down and bankrupt before you know it.

Think maxing out your HELOC is a good idea?  Just remember this--if the credit card issuers thought of it, somebody's getting the shaft.  Oh, and it ain't them.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Donator's Fallacy

Many of you altruistic, do-gooder types have found that you can make pain-free donations to your favorite charities such as your alma maters, animal rights groups, etc. just by enrolling in their credit card. Typically 1% of your purchases are then donated to your charity, and you never feel the pinch. It’s a brilliant and easy way to feel good about yourself and to give something back. But I have just one question for you…


So, your parents spent thousands for you to get a great education at a top-notch university. Then you pay them back by showing them how stupid you can be. Why would you a) allow a multi-billion dollar corporation such as your bank get the tax deduction on YOUR money b) why would you donate less than you actually could? Or, in this materialist society of ours c) why would you forfeit the opportunity to get something for yourself (via credit card rewards)?

Let me illustrate this logic by way of a simple example…

Simon, a University of Higher Learning graduate, receives an offer in the mail for the UHL Rewards Credit Card. He learns that 1% of his purchases on the card will be donated to UHL. This makes Simon feel warm and fuzzy. He gets the card. He spends $25,000 on the card in the first year.

Simon’s bank turns around and donates $250 to UHL. The bank gets the tax deduction. Simon gets a notice that the donation was made. Simon feels warm and fuzzy.

Simon then bumps into CardTuna, I splash some salt water into his face and I force him to think about things. I point out to Simon that had he donated $250 of his own cash to UHL, he would have been able to take a deduction on the donation of about $75 (given his tax bracket). That means Simon would have really only been out of pocket only $175 on the $250 donation OR it means he could have actually donated $357 if he chose to be out of pocket $250 after his tax deduction. So, I force Simon to see that a) either HE or his alma mater are getting screwed and b) the big corporation wins.

I then rush Simon over to the nearest cross-cut shredder so he can chop his UHLRewards credit card to pieces. I advise Simon to apply for one of many credit cards that offer 1% cash back on purchases. He complies. In the next year, he takes the 1% cash back, donates it to UHL and pockets the $75 tax deduction. Now, Simon concludes that he wins, UHL gets the same benefit it would have with his now-destroyed UHLRewards card. Simon still feels warm and fuzzy, but he also feels like his UHL education was actually worth something.

Rock on Simon. Rock on.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What the $&^% is in the Water Cooler at Bank of America?

Okay – these guys are nuts. If you have a Bank of America credit card, you might have been unlucky enough to recently receive a mailing that tells you they’re about to raise your interest rate by an exorbitant amount (some cases more than double!)

First off, they’re a FORMER business partner of mine, and I think I can say they’re nuts especially since my identity remains rather anonymous. I could tell you stories, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you if you got one of these mailings, don’t worry – it’s not because of anything you did or didn’t do (like not pay a bill). It's based on some secretive level of targeting that no one outside of the corporate walls understands.

They did this ballsy move because they told you they could, and you gave them your permission by way of accepting the terms and conditions that you unknowingly agreed to when you decided not to read your terms and conditions. The language you missed went something like this:

As required by law, rates, fees, and other costs of this credit card offer are disclosed here. All account terms are governed by the Credit Card Agreement. Account and Agreement terms are not guaranteed for any period of time; all terms, including the APRs and fees, may change in accordance with the Agreement and applicable law. We may change them based on information in your credit report, market conditions, business strategies, or for any reason.

This paragraph can be found at the very top of the terms and conditions, in itsy-bitsy type right above the interest rate section. The first part that bothers me is the part that says terms are not guaranteed for any period of time. But also note the last sentence, “We may change them (i.e APRs) based on information in your credit report, market conditions, business strategies, or for any reason“. Does anyone else find the last four words as haunting as I do? or for ANY reason? I can imagine the conference room at Bank of America now…

Well, the kids have been hitting the lollipops a little too hard at our branches and it’s been hurting our bottom line. Jack, what do you think we should do about it?” “Well, Jim, why don’t we just double all of our cardholders interest rates? That should just about cover it!”

In all seriousness, there’s a lot of speculation about why they pulled such a stunt – they’ve got to level out their reserves after the sub-prime mess, they’re fattening up for their purchase of Countrywide, they’re trying to dump their dead-weight cardholders they inherited when they purchased MBNA (Mothers Brothers Newphews Aunts – a story for another day).

Whatever the reason, Bank of America is not only going to lose a lot of credibility in the marketplace. They’re likely to lose their shirts too when consumers catch on and plan a mass exodus when some other card company positions themselves as the savior by coming out with some offer that implies “Did Bank of America take advantage of you like a cheap whore at a bachelor party? How dare they. We’ll never do that to you. Sign on the dotted line and we’ll guarantee your low fixed rate for life”.

If you’re a victim of Bank of America’s seedy practices, I encourage you to visit our friends at where you can choose between 1,217 different cards to suit your needs. Choose carefully though – 26 are listed as Bank of America cards, and there’s a bunch more that are former MBNA cards. The good news is, there’s plenty more than one fish in the Cardfish sea. Finding what you need is like, well, shooting fish in a barrel.


Monday, February 11, 2008

To Fee Or Not To Fee? That Is The Question.

I recently read that about 70% of all credit cards do not carry annual fees. Whether or not that’s true, I have no idea. But let’s assume it is. If that’s the case, it’s quite a departure from the days of old when just about every credit card out there carried an annual fee. I imagine that savvy marketers gained a competitive edge by being able to advertise “No Annual Fee”, underwriters found new ways to make up for the quick buck and eventually, I suppose, the laws of Malcom Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” took charge and most banks followed suit.

But what about the remaining 30%? In a world where annual fees appear to be optional, why would anyone in their right mind stick with a card that continues to stick it to them right back? Well, for many, they sadly just don’t know any better and probably haven’t done their shopping. But for others, the annual fee can be a friend, bringing lower rates, better rewards and more earning power.

You’d think that a guy who knows a thing or two about credit cards wouldn’t use one that carries an annual fee. But, guess what my dear school of fish - I do. And I’m proud of it - because it makes financial sense. Here’s why:

As you know from previous posts, my card of choice belongs to a big hotel chain and a major bank. That big hotel chain has two credit card products. One that earns users 3 points per dollar with every stay at said hotel chain’s properties. This “basic” card carries no annual fee. The other (the one I have) carries an annual fee of $65. For that $65, I earn all this:

  • 5 points per dollar with every stay at the hotel chain’s properties instead of 3
  • A certificate for a “free” night’s stay upon every account anniversary
  • Double points on airfare, dining and rental car purchases
  • A 15-night credit towards their Gold member status (which requires 50 nights stay per year, so in other words, I only need to stay 35 nights to reach Gold status).

Of course, the $65 annual fee is automatically worth it since it gives me a free night’s stay. But even if it didn’t it would still be worth it to me because I’m a heavy user. From my hotel stays alone I rack up about $6,000 in charges a year with the hotel chain. On the basic card, that would earn me 18,000 points. But on the premium fee-based card, it earns me 30,000 points. The difference of 12,000 points is enough for one night’s stay at one of their mid-tier locations – the equivalent of about $150. Plus with my airfare, dining and car rental bonuses, I’m well on my way to a second free night. So, you can see, I can easily justify paying the annual fee.

But enough about me. What about the average Joe who revolves a balance and is paying 14.99% on a card with a $7,500 limit? Does an annual fee of $50 make sense? Let’s see…

If Joe uses runs through his limit in a given year, his $50 annual fee is the equivalent to tacking on 0.67% in interest ($50/$7,500). So, his 14.99% APR really becomes 15.66%. Joe has to simply ask himself (or prospective creditors) whether or not he can get a card with a $7,500 limit and an APR of less than 15.66% all with no annual fee. If Joe can, Joe should. But if he cannot, then he should sleep soundly knowing that in his case, life with an annual fee is as good as it’s going to get.

It always comes down to the basic rule I’ve preached before and will preach again: Do the math! If you’re no good at math, have someone do it for you. And if you don’t know anybody that’s good at math, we feel for you. Your life isn’t easy. If that’s the case, just give us a shout here at We can help. And the best part is, there’s never an annual fee!

Until next time,


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

How Low Can You Go?

The month of January 2008 was a tumultuous one, with the market bringing some huge upsets followed by a double dose of welcomed news by the Fed. First, to prevent a very ugly day on Wall Street, Uncle Bernanke cut the Fed Funds rate by ¾ of a percent after a bout of global panic that was brought on by fears of impending doom in the US financial markets. Then, during the Fed’s regularly scheduled meeting, Bernanke delivered what consumers and investors alike were expecting – another ½ percent cut to the current 3.0%.

So, what does that mean to all you credit card wielding fiends? When will your credit card’s interest rates fall and by how much?

First of all, your card interest rates are tied only loosely to the Fed Funds rate. They’re more directly tied to the Prime Rate, which as of my authoring of this article, is 6.0%. The Prime Rate, by definition, is the rate that banks charge their most creditworthy customers. Banks borrow the money at 3%, and loan out at Prime or Prime plus x%, y% or z%.

What this means for you and your credit card interest rate is dependent on a few things.

1) Do you have a variable rate card or fixed rate card?

2) What is your creditworthiness (or lack thereof!)?

3) And, do you have a floor? (Newton sure hopes so)

First, if your card is a fixed rate card, you can stop reading and go find yourself a variable rate card, unless of course your fixed rate is so good that a variable card can't currently beat it. Being tied to a high fixed rate when rates are decreasing at a time like this is just irresponsible, unless of course you’re paying your bills in full each month and you get some really great benefits from your card. By switching to a variable rate card when the Prime Rate is on the down-low, you’ll likely be able to find a better rate than what you’re paying now on a fixed rate card.

Next, many credit cards have tiered rates based on their various customers’ creditworthiness. So, if you’re a goody goody and are doing everything right, you’re probably in the “Prime plus x%” category. If you’re good but not perfect, you’re “Prime plus y%” and if you stink at paying your bills, you’re a “Prime plus z%”. Here’s an example of what I mean, straight from the pages of the Toys ‘R Us & Babies ‘R Us Mastercard (yeah, I’ve got rugrats).

Variable rate information

The following APRs may vary monthly based on the Prime Rate:c

Purchase and Balance Transfer APR: The Prime Rate plus, as applicable, 6.99%, 10.99%, or 15.99% for outstanding and new balances after the introductory period.

cThe "Prime Rate" is the highest prime rate published in the Money Rates column of The Wall Street Journal two business days before the Closing Date on the statement for each billing period.

So, if you’re a Prime plus x%, you’ll be paying 6.0%+6.99%, or 12.99%. If you’re Prime plus y%, you’re shelling out 6.0%+10.99% or 16.99%, and if you’re a credit-challenged, you’re forking over 6.0%+15.99% or 21.99% APR.

As for my third point, “Do you have a floor?”, I’m not talking about that questionable carpet that is host to 25 different beer stains, toe jam, dirt, dust, and a menagerie of invisible insects trying to keep warm. I’m talking about a rate floor. Simply put, a rate floor is a way for your credit card issuer to make more money when interest rates fall. They do this by limiting the amount they will reduce your interest rate when there is a decrease in the Prime Rate. My understanding is that about a third of the credit card programs out there have rate floors. Here’s an example straight from the published Terms and Conditions of one of the co-branded credit cards that I manage in my day job (to remain nameless):

Variable Rate Information. Your APR may vary. The rate is determined monthly by adding the Prime Rate and:

  • 3.74%, 7.74%, or 13.74% for Purchases and this rate will not be lower than 11.99%, 15.99%, and 21.99% respectively.

The information above was published back in September of 2007 when the Prime Rate was at 8.25%. That’s how the issuing bank arrived at the various rates above.

Now if we were working with today’s Prime Rate and no rate floor, the three rate tiers would be 9.74%, 13.74% and 19.74%. However, because of the additional language “and this rate will not be lower than 11.99%, 15.99%, and 21.99% respectively”, the bank just locked in a 2.25% APR raise for themselves! So, while consumers who use this card are eagerly waiting for their interest rate to drop, it just ain’t gonna happen. Instead, the bank will pocket the spread and, well, take it to the bank!

The overall point I’m trying to make here is that you need to understand the Terms and Conditions that your credit card publishes. They’re usually printed in mouse type and they’re intentionally written to cure insomnia. Plain and simple, the banks don’t want you to read them but, by law, they have to give them to you. So, take the time to understand how your current cards work, and make changes if you’re not happy with them. And if you’re not in the mood for heavy reading, just pick up the phone and call your bank – they have to tell you how your interest rates are calculated. If they tell you that you have a high fixed rate or a variable rate with a floor, tell them that CardFish sent you, then tell them to go pound sand!

Good Luck!