Last year I took advantage of three credit card promotions to help boost my rewards. Two of the cards – American Express Gold and Scotiabank Gold American Express – had offered big welcome bonuses and waived the annual fee in the first year.
With the one-year anniversary of the Scotia card coming up this month, I made the decision to cancel the card before incurring the $99 annual fee for the second year. Its benefits are similar to the Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite card, so I’d prefer to funnel my core spending into just one card rather than pay an annual fee for two cards.
The American Express Gold card was a pure point churning play. The promotion paid 25,000 bonus points after spending $500 in the first three months. I put a large expense on the card and paid it off immediately; collecting the 25,000 bonus points and cashing in – never to use the card again.
The card anniversary wasn’t until August, but I thought I might as well cancel this card, too, before I forgot about it and got stuck paying $150 for a card that I don’t use.
Cancelling an American Express card
I first called American Express to cancel the Gold card. The automated answering service picked up and slowly led me through a variety of voice-command options that had nothing to do with cancelling a card.
I pressed ‘0’ to speak with a representative – but that led me to a menu that didn’t exist. Finally I reached a live human being, but when I told him that I wanted to cancel my card he claimed that his system was down and that would prevent him from closing the account.
Fine. I hung up and tried again the next day. Same slow automated process. Finally, after 15 minutes of listening to how my call was important, I got through to a live representative who proceeded to try and convince me to keep the account open.
He said that, since the anniversary wasn’t due until August that I should keep the card open a little longer and call back then. Not wanting to spend another day-and-a-half trying to get through to someone who could help me, I told him to just cancel the card today and be done with it.
Cancelling a Scotia credit card
My experience at Scotia was a little different. A live person answered the phone right away and was empathetic with my situation. I told him that I had two rewards cards with similar benefits and that it didn’t make sense to pay an annual fee to keep both cards. He understood, but from there launched into a sales-pitch for every other credit card that Scotia offers – from the no-fee Scene Visa, to a low-interest card, to a balance transfer option.
I mentioned that I wasn’t interested in these other products because I don’t carry a balance. I’d keep the Scotia Gold American Express card if he could somehow find it in his power to waive the annual fee. He said he could do that, and so I asked him to close the account.
It had been a few years since I had to cancel a credit card, but I was reminded of the time when I cancelled my MBNA Smart Cash MasterCard and faced a litany of questions from a customer service manager who had a rebuttal for everything I said. This happened in 2013, but the conversation is worth sharing again:
Painfully Cancelling my MBNA Smart Cash Card
MBNA: Hi, this is Jason. How may I help you?
Me: Hi Jason, I’d like to close my account please.
Jason: I’m sorry to hear that. May I ask why?
Me: Well, after the changes you’ve made to the Smart Cash card I’m no longer getting the most cash back with this card.
Jason: I understand. Okay, I’ll have to transfer you to another agent to close your account.
Me: (waits five minutes on hold)
MBNA: Hi, this is Jeff. I understand you want to close your account because you’re no longer getting the most cash back. You realize that you have the Smart Cash World card and so there’s no limit to how much cash back you can earn, right?
Me: Hi Jeff, yes I do realize this but with my spending habits I can get more cash back using the Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite card for groceries, gas and drug store purchases along with recurring bill payments.
Jeff: True, but the Scotia card is only for really high income earners.
Me: Well, you’ll need $60,000 income to qualify for the Visa Infinite card but that’s not an issue for me.
Jeff: But you’ll only get 1% cash back on the other spending categories. Why don’t you keep the Smart Cash card as your secondary card and use it for other purchases?
Me: Because I can get 1.5% cash back using the
Capital One Aspire Cash World MasterCard on any spending category.
Jeff: You’ll only get 1% cash back with Cap One Aspire Cash.
Me: No, you get 1% cash back on your purchases, PLUS a 50% cash back bonus at the end of the year. So effectively you’re earning 1.5%, which beats the 1% that Smart Cash pays. I also get a $100 bonus for my first purchase.
Jeff: With the introduction of our new e-mall you’ll get more cash back when you shop online with our preferred partners. That’ll beat what you get back with Cap One Aspire Cash.
Me: I’m aware of the e-mall but I prefer to focus on my core spending. I don’t shop with a lot of your e-mall partners so the cash back you offer there doesn’t really matter.
Jeff: But with the e-mall you can earn 6-10% cash back on hotels and rental cars. That’s a lot more than you’ll get back with the other cards.
Me: We have two kids under the age of four. We don’t travel.
Jeff: So why not just keep your account open and then use the Smart Cash card on the odd occasion when you do travel?
Me: I think I’ll manage to find a good deal when the time comes. I’d just like to close my account please.
Jeff: MBNA has some of the lowest interest rates of all the rewards credit cards on the market.
Me: I don’t care about interest rates because I always pay off my credit card balance in full each month.
Jeff: I’m not sure if you’re aware, but we have a promotion where you can get 0% interest for up to 20 months. If you leave your account open I can convert your card to our MBNA Platinum Plus card so you can take advantage of this promotional rate.
Me: I don’t need a balance transfer credit card. I’m not interested in credit card arbitrage.
Jeff: Okay, but have you considered using it to take out an interest free loan to make an RRSP contribution? You won’t get a 20-month interest free RRSP loan from your bank for up to $20,000.
Me: (Pauses: that’s actually not a bad idea). No, no. I’m not interested.
Jeff: Why? Is your RRSP maxed out or something?
Me: (Damn, this guy is persistent). I’m not interested.
Jeff: If you leave your account open you’ll avoid a hit on your credit report. This could impact future credit applications.
Me: I’ve already been approved for the other credit cards so I won’t be opening any new accounts for a while. I just want to close my account please.
Jeff: (Defeated). Is there anything else we can do to convince you to stay?
Me: You could re-instate your previous cash back rewards system.
Jeff: Unfortunately the old 5%/3%/1% cash back model was not sustainable so we had to make the changes.
Me: Well, I guess that means I’ll have to make changes too.
It’s easy to sign up for a rewards card when there are bonus points to collect and no fees to pay. But then inertia can be a powerful force – the financial services industry counts on you accepting the status quo and so when that anniversary date rolls around and you get charged $99 or $150, you figure that you might as well keep the card for another year since you’ve already “paid” for it.
I get that there are tremendous incentives for the banks and credit card issuers to get you to keep your credit card open and active. It’s why they make it so difficult to cancel a credit card – for example: there’s no option to cancel the card online, you have to speak with someone. Then they arm their customer service staff with a playbook of rebuttals designed to prevent you from closing your account.
The lesson for customers is to set reminders for when a product or service is about to increase in price – or a fee is about to kick-in – and then do the research to determine whether the fee is worth paying. More often it’s not, and so you need to be willing to take the time to cancel products and subscriptions that no longer add value to your life. Most businesses won’t make it easy, so you need to make more of an effort to avoid getting burned.