Category Archives: finance

Booked air ticket to China using United miles and Chase UR points: some tips

I used the UA miles for my own ticket, it’s not UA saver economy all the way, but I felt it’s ok. The full ticket price was about $1100, and I spent 115000 miles (80k + 35k). Since I was short for about 1200 miles, initially I was worried shell out $75 for those miles, but my Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) points came to rescue, I did 2000 miles transfer, and it completed the transfer instantly.

Some tips looking for mileage ticket
Initially I thought all the tickets were out as I searched a few months ago, and could not find any for the date I wanted. This time when I search, it showed me the ticket was available for Tuesday instead of Saturday. Since I also need to buy tickets for my wife/kid, I checked the ticket price on Expedia too (United website was not always working). And I found a ticket/schedule could work in both cases. The only downside is the start time was a bit early (5am), but it’s still manageable. So I did all 3 purchase in a hurry, and by doing that I left out the “lap child” my younger daughter.

Buy award ticket for the right person
Today when I tried to add her, since I only have an award ticket, I could not. And probably due to I bought my wife’s ticket via Expedia, it took almost 2 hours to add my younger daughter. So lesson learned here, next time I should use award ticket for my older daughter. Another reason is the miles accumulated will be more meaningful for me instead of her (I could accumulate miles by flying the China round trip). But anyway, I am going to get Frequent Flyer number for my older daughter, since she is starting travel with us. Actually next week we are travelling to Disneyland, so she will earn some miles in Southwest.

Chase Sapphire with Ultimate Rewards
BTW, if you are interested in getting Chase UR points, it has 50,000 points promotion as of now. I’d appreciate if you could use my referral. More details below.


who gets and uses the card, up to 50,000 bonus points
Let your friends experience the exceptional rewards and service you enjoy by recommending Sapphire Preferred. They’ll get a welcome offer.

Here’s how it works:
You can invite as many friends as you want by February 5, 2016.1
Each friend will receive an offer for 50,000 bonus points after they spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
Receive up to 50,000 bonus points. You’ll get 5,000 bonus points for each friend – up to ten friends – who gets and uses their card.

Here is the ultimate plug from me, if you use my referral and I receive 5,000 points, I will split the bonus with you, via a $25 Amazon GC or other GC of your choice (email delivery only). Sent email to to get started.

Continue reading Booked air ticket to China using United miles and Chase UR points: some tips

A few Checking account promotions

(Update 11-05-2015) Citibank Gold Checking account offer: 50,000 AA miles or 50,000 ThankYou Points (doctorofcredit has a detailed explanation and step-to-step guide). This seems like good deal even consider $90 monthly fees (3 months). Also, a top on checks. Sometimes it cost money to get beginning checks for a checking acct. One way to workaround is to use PayPal as a conduit. I recall I used it long time ago when I sold stuff on ebay. Almost forgot about it as I have not done it for years. One drawback compared to check is PayPal is a bit slower because it adds a layer.

(Update 10-16-2015) Two more checking account offers. Santander and TD Bank (expired 11/05/2015, per hustlermoneyblog). Both offers $150 for opening account and direct deposit for (Santander), 15 debit transactions for TD Bank.

(Update 10-08-2015) Hunnington Bank is doing a $200 checking account offer. Here’s all it takes to get your $200: Open a new Huntington 5 Checking account using the link below by November 24, 2015. Make at least $1,000 in deposits within 60 days of account opening. It’s really that simple. We’ll then deposit $200 into your new account within 14 days of meeting the requirements. Read more about waiving monthly fee from here. (hint: $5000 account balance for one). Also note: This offer is only available to online applicants residing in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia.

(Update 10-01-2015) More checking account opening bonus, this one from First Tennessee Bank, offers ends on Oct 31st, 2015. “To receive your bonus, you must open the checking account online and ensure the code ONLINE appears in the online application where “Offer/Promo code” is requested. You must have an opening deposit of at least $300, and at least one direct deposit must post to your account within 60 days of account opening…” (11-03-2015) I received their bonus shortly after meeting their requirement. That’s fast :-)

Also useful links: Doctor of Credit List Of Methods Banks Count As Direct Deposits (not super scientific, but still useful if one plan to use Paypal instead of employer paycheck); My Money Blog Applying for Multiple Bank Accounts: Can You Apply For Too Many?

(Original 09-27-2015)
Fifth Third Bank
53 Bank offers $150 for opening Checking account with qualifying activities. Link here. Note this is direct link (not affiliated link, in other words I am not taking any commision from the bank. Same below). Qualifying activity includes three online bill payments, using Fifth Third Bank’s online bill payment service, and direct deposit. Don’t know when the offer will ends. Last time I got a $200 offer from them and enrolled at the last day (July 26, 2015). They were very quick to deposit the bonus money after I met their requirement.

Note: Fifth Third Bank will also donate $150 to “Stand Up to Cancer”. Keep in mind there are many cancer related charity ripoffs according to Anderson Cooper, it seems SU2C is legit.

BMO Harris
Back to topic. BMO Harris is doing $200 offer for new checking account with direct deposit. Link here. Offer (account opening) is valid between July 27, 2015 and January 22, 2016. (11-3-2015) Just opened an Everyday Checking account with them today.

PNC Bank
PNC is offering up to $400 for opening new checking account with qualifying direct deposit. Offer ends 12/31/2015. Link here. (11-3-2015) I received their bonus about 28 days after meeting their requirement.

1) The bonus overall is not as general as some credit card offer (more than $500 opening bonus with qualifying spending). But keep in mind opening credit card usually means a hard pull on credit record, while opening checking account does not. One thing keep in mind is one has to be US citizen or permanent resident for opening checking accounts, due to the new laws and regulations in this new era.

2) Also the bonus from checking account will usually reported as interest income or ordinary income. It will be taxed when we file the tax next year, this is different from the credit card promotion, which usually billed as rebate or points (and there is no tax implication).

A map (or a chart) is worth a thousand words

airlines miles award chart

Complete map of Starwood SPG hotels

award map (hotels points and map)

British airways avios map

Car rental primary insurance

PS (09-24-2015): booked Westin Lake Las Vegas via BA Avios points. It cost about 11,000 points for the premium room ($81 + taxes). The room there starts at 7,000 SPG points, note 7,000 points is for traditional room (I got a premier double room). I feel it’s a decent deal as SPG points are usually worth more.

Westin Lake Las Vegas

PS2 (09-25-2015): more hotels booking. Last night I also booked Hilton Anaheim both via BA Avois (about 18,000 points) and Chase Ultimate Rewards (about 10,500 points). The hotel was very close to Disneyland. And today I booked one more night Hilton Anaheim via Chase UR (now we have 3 nights total), it seems the UR points for the hotel increased overnight, but the dollar price stayed the same. The next step is to get the Disneyland (and California Adventure) tickets booked.

Hilton Anaheim

PS3 (09-26-2015)
Other nearby hotels, both cost HHonors 20,000 points : Double Tree Anaheim (this one does not have free breakfast, parking cost is similar to the Hilton above, about $16 per day).

Double Tree Anaheim

Another one: Hampton Inn Los Angeles-Orange County-Cypress. Hampton Inn has free parking and breakfast compared to Double Tree. It’s a bit farther away from Disneyland.

hampton inn los angeles orange county Cypress

Discover Apple Pay 10% cash back until end of year

With $10000 as spending limit. The prerequisite: iPhone 6, 6+, 6s, 6s+; iOS 9; in store purchase, no giftcard.

Stores support Apple Pay

Here in St. Louis, Schnucks, Dierbergs, WalGreens, St. Louis Bread Co. (Panera Bread) all supports Apple Pay. Though on Sept. 17 I tried at Schnucks counter, it failed, note this is the 2nd day of Discover Apple Pay launch, so it could be a glitch. It worked on Panera Bread (Sept 18, 19). I will also try Trader Joe’s as I saw it’s coming soon from the Apple website.

Why iOS 9 for Apple Pay
It’s a bit more security. Previously one can add a card to Apple Pay just from the physical card. So basically if a card is stolen, technically it can still be added. Obviously the card issuer usually has fraud detection system in place to catch those. But iOS add a two factor authentication when adding a new card, which is definitely a great idea. We catch the problem earlier this way. A thief cannot add a stolen card as easily as it used to be.

Btw, I saw the fingerprint based authentication get popular as BoA app and other apps (e.g., Apple’s own iTunes connect) use that for authentication. Save some typing work and more security.

(Update 09-20-15) It appears Discover Apple Pay still does not work on local Schnucks store. It prompts “do you want cash back”, I said “No”, then the transaction got declined. Something at a miss at Schnucks or their payment processor. Because it does work at Panera (St. Louis) Bread since Sept 18. I guess one way to test it is to swipe Discover Card directly to see if it works :-)

(Update 09-25-2015) Used Apple Pay with Discover at Subway for lunch today, it worked flawlessly.

(Update 09-27-2015) Worked in Trader Joe’s too.

(Update 11-07-2015) Discover Apple Pay works in Schnucks now. 

Fuel Rewards Network, eBates

Fuel Rewards Network offers about 1% for shopping online, e.g., I bought $36 worth of clothes from Load and Taylor via their shopping mall, it gave me 10 cent. The calculation goes like this: $36 * 3 / 1000 = $0.108 rounded down to $0.10 which is 10 cent per gallon gas discount. If I buy 10 gallon of gas, that’s $1.00 discount. $1 divide by $36 which comes out by 3%. Note typically shopping mall earning rate is 1 instead of 3, so in the example above, I will earn 3.6 cent per gallon gas discount, instead of 10 cent.

Another example, I shopped at gap via FRN, bought $50 apparel. It gave me 10 cent also (2x earning rate instead of 3x at L&T). This is lower than the gap rebate one can get from ebates right now (typically 2%, now at 8%). I mean 3% or 2% vs. 8%. So the bottom line is we can use this calculation to maximize the cash back (rebate).

Btw, FRN is free to join, and as a minimum it offers 3 cent discount for gas purchase, so in other words about 1% in addition to whatever the credit card offers (in my case, I use Sams Club mastercard or the Pentagon Reward visa, both offer 5% cash/points back).

Back to the topic, I think it’s worth to join FRN since we already spend money on shopping or dining, and those activities adds up to gas savings, in addition to the regular credit card cashback/points we get. Don’t spend to get the points though :-)

(Update 09-20-15) Other two ways I got discount for gas purchase. I use both Sam’s Club MasterCard and PenFed Rewards visa card, both gives 5% cash (points) back, which is unlike some of those rotational 5% reward cards (e.g., Chase Freedom, Discover Cash Bonus). Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of those quarterly rotational promotion. This is also higher than 3% cashback from Amex Costco Card. PenFed also offers 3% for supermarket and grocery shopping. And Sam’s Club MasterCard offers 3% on restaurant purchase.

Got CT Scan yesterday

I have been coughing for over a year. It’s very hard to get insurance pre-authorization to get CT scan in the US, according to my primary care doctor. She said if I am willing to self-pay, it’s not too expensive. So yesterday I took the plunge, I went to Metro Imaging directly, paid the fee from my credit card, and got my scan. I used to see this CT scanner on movie/TV, and see my daughter Yoyo did it once. Now it’s my turn. A bit of mixed feeling though as I did not want to hear the bad news. The scanner looks something like this. It’s also interesting I used to work for Siemens :-)

Siemens CT Scanner

The good news is the results is negative (I got results right away, I think this is the way medical testing should be). The bad news is I still need to figure out why the cough persists? There are two theories: allergy or acid reflux (from stomach to throat).

    Trying to be frugal, ready for Kindergarden

    I have been in “austerity mode” since late Sept., and so far my main approach is “shop at Aldi, and global food market”. I found Aldi has most of the grocery and basic daily stuff, while global food market has the fresh veggies and sea food. Occasionally I shopped at Sam’s club, Target, Trader Joe’s and Chinese grocery store for specific stuff: bottle water, paper towels and fruits at Sam’s, Hawaii King rolls and baby diapers at Target, pot sticker and beans at Trader Joe’s.

    Aldi has changed quite a bit in recent years, when I first came to the US as a “poor” graduate student, sometimes we joked Aldi is for the “poor people” (it seemed we excluded ourselves”). Not anymore. I found a lot of people shop at Aldi nowadays, in the Aldi near our home (Olive and 270), which is previously a Borders’ book store. It was mostly busier when I go there. Sometimes I go there too much (like 3 times in one afternoon). It was almost like some people indulge on the trip at Costco. I do have the Costco membership, but found myself have not been there for months :-)

    On a separate note, my elder daughter is 4 years and 9 months old, and we are getting ready for her to go to kindergarden in public school next fall. The school will be very close to our home (school boundary map). Our younger one, is already 4 and half months, and can stand her head up. In this holiday season, there are always friends gatherings, and we always talked about kids, education etc.

    Not an easy week

    It’s Friday again. I had to admit this is not an easy week for me. After a lot of back and forth, I finally decided to withdraw my elder daughter from Montessori school, mostly due to financial reasons. As a father, I felt I am giving up something for my daughter due to my limited earning power. Both of us liked the school, and we have been there for a little over 3 years since she was 1.5 years old. From toddler house to pre-school. She had some good friends there. My original plan was to bite the bullet and stay there until next May, but due to some costs associated with new baby, I decided to look elsewhere. I don’t feel comfortable to put all this in a credit card, and begin to pay back until next summer. This also bring up another point, about emergency savings, and life style choice. I felt I did not do my best job in this aspect during last 3 to 4 years. Now I learned the lesson the hard way. I guess there are two sides of an equation, save more (which is usually more meaningful), and increase earning power (not as efficient as government took a cut from any increase in paycheck).

    I will share more when I give it more thought on this topic.

    (11-5-14) Yesterday was serenity’s day 2 at new school. My wife already had second thoughts on this :-( But we think at this moment let’s stay put, rather than rush to conclusion. There is an old Chinese saying that is applicable here: it’s easier to get from poor to luxury, rather than the other way around. (need better translation here :-)

    Small changes coming to collegeFund app

    I was listening/reading two stories on the college debt (source: NPR) and the financial well beings of millennials (source: fortune/cnn), which lead to to add some new features to the collegeFund app. The app was essentially a college savings (529 plan) and I did not thought too much of this college debt problem at the time the app was conceived 3.5 years ago. At the time I opened 529 plan for my daughter, and started put some money into it.

    A lot has changed in my personal finance and to the economy in general. Now I felt for a lot of people, college debt is like a mortgage, it’s just something they have to bear with, and manage while go on with their lives. Btw, I saw another good resource for college debt here.

    I just updated the app, submitted to the app store, it’s under review now. Here is the screenshot. Let me know if you have any questions. Email me at minjie dot xu AT gmail dot com.


    (Update 05-10-2014) I made couple more updates to fix bugs I introduced when adding this “debt free” tab/screen. It’s mostly settled now. I am thinking other enhancements, along with myNestEgg app.