I have a credit card that gives me rewards. I get a nice 5% cash-back on purchases from Amazon and a lower cash-back rate on other purchases. Sometimes, there are promotions that provide a rate of 10% or even 15%. But what are these rewards worth?
To simplify, there are two reward options:
Option 1 adds to my Amazon gift-card balance. It’s attractive. When I’m checking out at Amazon, it shows me my reward balance and it also shows me what the total cost of my purchase could be if I applied the gift card. It’s like they’re trying to pressure me to redeem my rewards in this particular way.
Option 2 is simply to transfer my rewards as a payment on my credit card or as a credit to my bank account (for the current purposes, they’re identical). Either way, the rewards translate to the same number of dollars.
Say that I spend $1,000 at Amazon. Whether I choose option 1 or 2 has value implications.
The calculation is simple. If I spend $1,000 at amazon this month, then I can spend another $50 in gift card credits at Amazon next month. That’s the end. There are no more relevant cashflows. I used my credit card one month, and then was rewarded the next month. The only detail worth adding is the time value of money, which at 7% per year*, yields a present value of rewards at $49.72. Option 1 is nice in the moment. It’s so enticing to have a lower Amazon check-out balance due.
But you should never select Option 1.
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Recently, I’ve been buying a lot more non-durable goods when they are on sale. Whereas previously I might have purchased the normal amount plus one or two units, now I’m buying like 3x or 4x the normal amount.
What initially led me here was the nagging thought that a 50%-off sale is a superb investment – especially if I was going to purchase a bunch eventually anyway. I like to think that I’m relatively dispassionate about investing and finances. But I realized that I wasn’t thinking that way about my groceries. The implication is that I’ve been living sub-optimally. And I can’t have that!
If someone told me that I could pay 50% more on my mortgage this month and get a full credit on my mortgage payment next month, then I would jump at the opportunity. That would be a 100% monthly return. Why not with groceries? Obviously, some groceries go bad. Produce will wilt, dairy will spoil, and the fridge space is limited. But what about non-perishables? This includes pantry items, toiletries, cleaning supplies, etc.
Typically, there are two challenges for investing in inventory: 1) Will the discount now be adequate to compensate for the opportunity cost of resources over time? 2) Is there are opportunity cost to the storage space?
For the moment, I will ignore challenge 2). On the relevant margins, my shelf will be full or empty. I’ve got excess capacity in my house that I can’t easily adjust it nor lend out. That leaves challenge 1) only.
First, the Too Simple Version.
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