How Credit Card SUBs Messed with My Brain

How Credit Card SUBs Messed with My Brain
Photo by Paul Felberbauer on Unsplash

You can earn or lose $$$$ depending on your discipline and self-control.

Late last year I was introduced to the world of consumer credit cards. It was fascinating!

I learned about different ways to get a 5% discount on almost everything I buy, rack up millions of points for free travel, get free travel insurance, phone insurance, and so much more!

Growing up in Bangladesh, I was always taught about the dark side of credit cards. And don’t get me wrong, there are horrible paths you can go down if you are not careful.

However, if you use credit cards responsibly, you get so much value that the mere thought of using debit cards will make you want to throw up.

With a strategic setup of multiple credit cards, every year you can save thousands of dollars and earn tens of thousands in free flights and hotel stays.

So, to create a multi-card setup, you need to start applying for new credit cards. That’s where SUBs come in.

What Are SUBs?

Most credit card companies give you SUB or “Sign Up Bonus” when you get approved for a new credit card.

These SUBs can take many shapes and forms. To explain it better, here are a few examples:

  • AMEX Platinum: Spend $2,000 in 6 months to earn 25,000 MR Points
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred: Spend $4,000 in 3 months to earn 60,000 UR Points
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited: Spend $500 in 3 months to get $200
  • IHG One Rewards: Spend $3,000 in 3 months to get 140,000 IHG points
  • Hilton Aspire: Spend $4,000 in 3 months to get 150,000 Hilton Honors Points

As you can see, the spending requirements, time limit, and reward points vary from offer to offer.

The end goal, however, is the same: Spend X dollars in Y months to get Z rewards.

The SUB Tactic

Now that you know what SUB is, let’s look at the textbook strategy to quickly rack up credit card rewards by signing up for credit cards with SUBs.

The strategy is quite simple. It’s so simple that I can summarize it in 5 points:

  1. Apply for a new card with SUB
  2. Put all your purchases on the new card…
  3. …Until you hit the SUB requirement
  4. Apply for a new card with a different SUB
  5. Repeat (1) through (3)

This is the fastest way to earn credit card points.

If you compare it with the more conservative strategy — core setup of 3–4 credit cards — the clear winner is the SUB tactic.

Why? Let’s quickly run some numbers.

Strategy 1: Core Setup

Let’s say through your limited number of credit card setups, on average you earn 4X on everything you purchase.

Let’s also assume that you spend $25,000 every year (breaks down to $1,500 every month).

Points Earned: 25,000 * 4 = 100,000

Strategy 2: SUB Tactic

If you look at the SUB examples above, you will see that most SUB time requirement is around 3 months.

So let’s assume you go through 4 new credit cards every year — one every 3 months.

For the sake of keeping the math simple, I will only more popular issuers like AMEX, Chase, Capital One, and Citi.

Eyeballing a few current SUBs from these issuers, I think a fair assumption is each new card will give you 40,000 points.

Points Earned from SUB: 40,000 * 4 = 160,000

Points Earned from Spend: 25,000 * 4 = 100,000

Total: 260,000

As you can see, you get more than twice the points with the SUB tactic.

The Mind Games Begin

Being a numbers geek who loves spreadsheets, this was a straightforward decision for me.

I started applying for new credit cards for their SUBs.

The plan was simple: Only get credit cards with SUB requirements that align with my regular spending.

If I need to overspend to hit the requirements, that defeats the purpose.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Not really. That’s when my mind started playing tricks on me.

At my core, I am a frugal person. I don’t like spending money. I think this mentality was instilled in me from a very young age.

Instead of spending money on unnecessary material things, I like saving up for a rainy day or investing for my future self.

This mentality clashes directly with the mindset of credit card SUBs.

The latter encourages consumer spending while the former encourages saving and investing. This was never going to be easy.

What I realized just a few months into implementing the strategy was when making a purchase decision, I was split. Should I spend the extra few dollars on a better monitor so that I can hit the SUB? Or should I save $50 because clearly, I don’t need HDR on my work monitor?

The monitor is just one example. I started having internal conflicts with almost every purchase.

It gets worse…

Dopamine Turns It Into a Losing Battle

Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter released in the brain that makes you feel good and crave the things that made you feel good before.

It’s part of the body’s reward system.

According to the Cleveland Clinic:

When you’re doing something pleasurable, your brain releases a large amount of dopamine. You feel good and you seek more of that feeling.

Here’s how it applies to SUBs:

  1. Most credit card issuers give you a tracker to track your SUB progress
  2. With every dollar spent, you see the progress bar move to the right
  3. You get a small hit of dopamine
  4. The more you spend, the more you see progress, and the more dopamine is released
  5. Finally, you hit the SUB requirement, and your points tally shoots up
  6. You get a big boost of dopamine
  7. Now your body associates completing SUBs with lots of pleasure
  8. You crave that pleasure, so you apply for more credit cards
  9. The process repeats

As you can see, it’s a self-fulfilling mechanism with spending at the heart of it.

To crave this dopamine cycle, you need to spend. There’s no alternative.

Even though we are creatures of free will, it’s still difficult to fight against our body’s dopamine system. These chemical messengers can subconsciously bend your will against you.

In my case, this dopamine system is directly at odds with my frugal mindset.

It’s Not All Bad Though

Chasing SUBs is not all bad.

If you are careful and strategic, you can earn thousands of dollars. To achieve that, however, you have to be very mindful and at times fight against your own free will.

It can be a good idea to align the SUB strategy with major life events or big annual expenses:

  • Moving to a new country or city
  • Paying taxes
  • Moving to a new house or apartment
  • Big one-time expenses such as house remodeling, International flight tickets, contractors for repair jobs, etc

Even with these examples, you will still need to be mindful. But at least, the hope is with these events, a couple of big purchases will take you over the SUB requirement. Afterwards, you won’t have to force yourself to spend for the sake of SUB completion.

The Future

As you can see, the SUB credit card strategy can be both a blessing and a curse.

You need to be disciplined and organized enough to not go down a spending spiral.

There’s one way though, in my opinion, you can get the best of both worlds — get good rewards while not veering away from your regular spending habits.

I will write about it in a future blog post.

Until then, I think I will still chase SUB, but only when it makes sense for me. I know it will be difficult, and sometimes I might be fighting a losing battle.

But the hope is, I will win more than I lose.

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