Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.
Are the raises you’re getting at work keeping up with inflation? My guest this week is Robb Engen, from Boomer and Echo. Robb explains how he uses side hustles to increase his income, including selling items he no longer needs, and maximizing his credit card rewards for travel.
Whether you work in the public or private sector, it can be difficult to get ahead, With the cost of living constantly rising, a one or two percent annual raise definitely won’t do the trick.
The good news is that today there are more ways than ever to make extra money. Traditional jobs are giving way to online-based income opportunities, from driving an Uber in your spare time, to renting out that extra room in your house through Air BnB.
Robb and I discuss one of his favourite ways to make extra money, through maximizing credit card travel rewards. This side hustle earns his family thousands of dollars each year, and allows them to travel to incredible destinations, even as his 9-5 income remains stagnant. It’s an episode you don’t want to miss.
Our sponsor, Borrowell, helps you find personalized product recommendations, from mortgages to credit cards from trusted partners, in addition to providing you with a free credit score. Head on over to Borrowell to get your free credit score today.
- Are your annual raises keeping up with inflation?
- Nowadays, there are so many ways to make money online.
- How to make money by selling your unwanted items.
- Take stock of all of the stuff you’re holding on to.
- Using credit card rewards to make money.
- Take advantage of credit card sign up bonuses.
- Cash back credit cards can help to supplement your income.
A lot of us have been in the same situation getting raises under two percent each year. You’re likely not even keeping up with inflation which means you’re falling further behind every year. Robb Engen from Boomer and Echo shares with us how he creates his own raise through his side-hustles selling things he no longer needs and spending wisely with credit cards to gain free travel.
Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Our sponsor Borrowell allows you to find personalized product recommendations from credit cards to mortgages and loans from trusted partners tailored just for you. Head over to Borrowell to get your free credit score and more at maplemoney.com/borrowell. Let’s chat with Rob.
Tom: Robb, welcome to the Maple Money Show.
Robb: Thanks for having me, Tom.
Tom: I read a post recently on your goals for the New Year and one thing that seemed really similar to my situation is the idea that you haven’t really had a raise in five years.
Robb: Yes, it’s been five years now.
Tom: You are basically keeping up with inflation, right?
Robb: Not keeping up with inflation. No CPI adjustments or anything. It’s held steady. I’m in Alberta. It’s a public sector job so it’s under a lot of scrutiny with the recession in Alberta and we’re one of those employee groups that gets tossed around a little bit. It’s been five years now and they keep extending it so now it’s September 30th 2019, at least.
Tom: I’m in the corporate sector but it is still very much the same. I haven’t even looked back at the past five years but I’m pretty sure I was probably getting two percent in a year. It might even be worse than that. I’d have to look back in all the past raise letters to see how that works out.
Robb: Just like you, I’ve got kids and a growing family so the cost of inflation when stats Canada says it’s one or two percent, for a growing family that could be easily four, five or even 10 percent when you talk about all the expenses that go into your household budget. So you’ve got to come up with some creative ways to combat that.
Tom: Tell me more about this work situation. I think you’ve mentioned the idea of getting other things in place of a raise.
Robb: It was fortuitous that I started a blog on the side. That’s led to lots of different opportunities. I do some freelance writing and picked up a gig writing a bi-weekly column for The Toronto Star. That gives me some profile and adds a little bit of income to top-up my employment. And, of course, the blog earns a bit of advertising income. We’re able to leverage some of those opportunities into extra income for our family. My wife stays at home full-time and helps me out on the blog, building the online business but we don’t have the employment income or that two-income family so we do what we can to kind of hustle and make those opportunities work on the online side.
Tom: Again, we’re very similar. My wife stays at home. She does a bit of makeup and doing eyebrows (whatever that’s called). She does that on the side. But otherwise, it’s the same thing. If you’re trying to be a family of four or more and you’re making one income it’s not easy anymore. Especially, like you said, if your raises aren’t even keeping up with inflation and you’re just living off the career you’re kind of heading in the wrong direction every year.
Robb: Well, the online income is a bit of a lifestyle choice too. It allows my wife to be at home and when we had kids that were pre-school age, it was really important to us as a family so we made that choice. Now there are opportunities for her to work at home and really help out on the online side that will hopefully continue to grow. Our online business has grown every year. We’re in year nine, right behind you. It opens up opportunities that don’t exist in just the 9 to 5 cubicle world.
Tom: When I think of my office situation, there are hundreds of employees in the office and the majority of them don’t have a thing on the side. Of course, there are a lot of them with both partners working. That’s very common. Your wife might be one of the few that I know who is able stay at home because it just doesn’t seem to work. You can’t have a family on one income nowadays. Almost everybody I know, especially in the town I live in, they’re all basically in their 30s and both partners always work. It’s just the way it is.
Robb: There are career sides to that where both partners want to keep their career growing. But there’s also lifestyle choices that we make that kind of put ourselves in that bind whether that mean two brand new cars in the driveway or more house than you can afford. You sometimes put yourself in a situation where you both have to work or that spouse who takes the parental leave has to come back right away as soon as those benefits expire. We’re conscious about those choices as well so we have to pay off the cars and we’re working to pay off the house. We try not to overextend ourselves in other areas like our neighbors who are buying trailers and vacation properties, timeshares. It’s just adding to the monthly expenses. And that just keeps the treadmill of 9 to 5 working.
Tom: Yes. That’s a good point about choices because I see that too—the working couple with the bigger house and everything. And that’s fine if that’s their choice. But that certainly could be part of why they have to work. We both say that the blog has allowed us to be able to do this. I normally suggest to people that starting a blog actually isn’t one of the better ways to make money. There’s a lot of bloggers that do this and get burnt out pretty quickly because it’s certainly not a make money fast thing. Like you said, you’re around the nine year mark and I’m hitting 10 years in February, actually. So it’s that “overnight success” that kind of took a decade kind of thing.
Robb: And quite frankly we’re the two survivorship bias of that. We made it work whether through hard work and luck and all those combination of factors. But you’re right, just starting a blog and having this income stream is probably not realistic. But there’s so many other side-hustle opportunities as you know that’s just kind of getting a little bit outside of your comfort zone. For example, a lot of people could be struggling to pay their bills but would they consider renting out a spare room in their house? Would they consider dropping down to one vehicle? Or would they consider dog walking? There’s just so many other ways to apply some skills. Like, if you have some graphic design skills. There’s all kinds of needs online, as you know, for that. But a lot of us just feel trapped in this cycle of the 9 to 5, come home and flip on Netflix and order my Uber-eats—you just get trapped in that cycle. So it does take some creativity to work your way out of that, especially if you’re trapped from paycheck to paycheck. We’re hustling in the five years of no raises and the salary freezes. It’s not as detrimental to me but it’s annoying. And, of course, you want to be rewarded for the work you do but it’s not as detrimental to our household budget and our income because of these other opportunities we’ve opened up. But I can totally see for a lot of working parents who are struggling to get by, years of salary freezes really hurt really. They hurt the wallet. Maybe it is time to have a look at some of these other opportunities. If it’s not writing like what we do it may be photography or any one of 100 plus side-hustle options that there are out there.
Tom: That’s just it. We the internet now— I’m making myself sound like an old guy now saying, “With the internet”… There are so many ways to make money. There was a time where if you weren’t doing well enough in your own job, your options were really delivering pizza or something like that. It was just the traditional part-time stuff.
Robb: Yeah, like stocking shelves at the grocery store late at night or whatever, right?
Tom: Exactly, and it’s still that same sacrifice. You’re still saying, “I’m not going to watch TV and just have “me time.” I’m going to go and actually do something. But now it’s so much more convenient. You could be an Uber driver and just turn the app on whenever it fits your schedule. You don’t have to balance a full-time job and a part-time job where they conflict with schedules and everything. You can make your own schedule with a lot of these online services.
Robb: And there are jobs that exist that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Have you ever heard of a social media manager back in 2007? And there are lots of small businesses around your local community that could stand to use a social media manager that they’re maybe not going to pay a full-time wage too, but if you get a couple of those clients and manage their Twitter and Instagram, and Facebook for them, you could turn that into a pretty decent side-hustle.
Tom: I agree. I’m in need of one right now. But, enough about me. Are there any other side-hustles that you or your wife are doing beyond just the blogging and writing for The Toronto Star?
Robb: Well, one that anyone can do that we’ve had a lot of success the last couple of years is just selling some of the stuff we have. We have two daughters so, of course, we had to go out and buy one of those big double strollers where we could push them around and carry the entire day’s worth of bags and everything that you need to take your kids out. They’re expensive but they also hold their value. So we went on to Kijiji— I think we had the most success on Kijiji but there are your local Facebook swap-and-buy sites too. So we posted things there and, I kid you not, we probably made a good $800 in the first year and then another $500 or $600 this year. It’s just getting rid of that stuff that piles up in your basement or in your garage that’s actually pretty useful to some other young parents who don’t want to go out and spend $500 on a stroller. That way we can recoup $200 too. We did that with a lot of their baby toys, games, strollers, other kinds of baby gear, toddler gear they’ve just outgrown. Skate, all kinds of things that they’ve worn three times and outgrown. We’re lucky we have two girls so we can pass along at least one time. But if things are still in good shape, you sell them. I go back to the salary freezer or the cost of inflation that we’re not getting, but that’s really only about $2,000 at the end of the year. We’ve already got halfway there through just selling our unused stuff on Facebook or Kijiji and we’ve got the side-hustle opportunity. But, we really only need to make another $500 or $1,000 a year to get that inflation back so we’re not just treading water but at least swimming a little bit in trying to improve our situation.
Tom: That’s a good point about how much that raise really is. Even when I get my two percent I try to be positive and think of it as at least paying one bill. It’s around a couple hundred dollars a month so, okay—
Robb: Yeah, that’s true. I look at a lot of places around my area where people can’t even park their car in the garage because there’s so much stuff in there. If it’s stuff that you’re using like a workshop or something, that’s okay. But, if it’s just stuff that you’ve accumulated and don’t know what to do with then it’s just becoming a storage unit. It’s not good for your vehicles just to leave them outside all day. There are thieves that come by and check your doors and want to rummage through your car. And, of course, there is the weather here in Alberta and the wear and tear. So we’ve made a conscious choice in our house to keep our basement clutter-free and to keep our garage so we can fit our cars in it. Those are pretty simple goals but it forces us to have some real mindfulness when we bring something into the house that may maybe something has to go too.
Tom: I’m sure I’ve said this on the podcast before but I’m guilty that half my garage is kind of storage. But I do find now, when I buy stuff I’m doing it very purposefully. I know it’s something that will add some value in some way. But, what I’m stuck with is stuff from my college days that I just can’t get rid of. You brought up Facebook. I actually had great success at selling a bunch of used video games on Facebook. I’ve only sold maybe a quarter of them so far. And, I had made over $2,000. This is about a year ago. Right now I don’t want to think about what I originally paid for them because I’m losing money but at least I’m—
Robb: Sub-cost fallacy, Tom. It’s already spent.
Tom: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. It’s been two and a half years since I’ve moved so if it’s still sitting in a box, anything that meets those criteria is probably good to go. I’m totally good with the idea of getting rid of it but it’s a lot of work as well. Like I’ve got a comic book collection from the mid-90s probably—early 90s even. I would love to sell it. It’s just going to take some time to make sure I get a decent value for it. I don’t have to get top dollar for it because it’s also just the benefit of getting rid of it. But in general though, I agree but the Facebook groups. I’ve never actually tried Kijiji but with the Facebook groups I was literally in a video game, Calgary—
Robb: A specific genre, right?
Tom: Yeah. It’s local and all video games. I was able to find a price guide online so I knew what the games would sell for. I wasn’t trying to up the price. I literally just listed them for the value according to this list. I had good success there and I’ve still got more to go when I have the time.
Robb: My wife and I read a really good book called, Getting Things Done. It’s pretty old but it’s more like a productivity tool. Talking about selling your comic book collection, this book forces you to write out the steps. So, what’s the next step? If it’s going to take you less than five minutes, just do it. If there’s steps required, write that down. What are the next steps? And if the next steps are to value this somehow, you’ve got to research what these books are worth. You may even have to contact a dealer or something like that. Just make that plan and start marking off the tasks. Suddenly, it doesn’t become so daunting, that you’ve got to do all these things because you’ve got a written plan. That’s the whole point of the book, getting things done.
Tom: I think I’ve heard of that but I haven’t read it. I’ll make sure I check that out. Speaking about these comic books and a plan, I think a simple first step would just be to pull the ones that I think have any value. It’s pretty obvious stuff, certain special issues or whatever compared to three quarters of it that probably isn’t worthwhile. I could probably just take it to a comic bookstore any day and let the low-ball me and just walk away. Sell them, I mean. There are certain ones though that I would at least want to check the value of to make sure I’m not giving away something ridiculous. I like the idea that you can make money from it. Yes, I’m losing money from the original cost, but like you said, it’s a “done” cost and you’ve just got to move on.
Robb: I’m sure you enjoyed it at one time. And, obviously, if you don’t look at them anymore or don’t intend to pass them down to your kids then they’re not bringing you any value at this time so they’re only worth what they’re worth.
Tom: They didn’t even bring me much value back then even because there were certain comics I would read and there were some comics I would just put under the term “collection.” It’s like I’d buy them just to hold them in mint condition. That’s why I think there could be some of value. But at the same time, I think everybody was collecting comics and hockey cards and stuff in the 90s so they might not be worth much at all. It’s another Beanie Baby, really.
Robb: Yeah, exactly. Who knows. You do the research and you might find that hidden gem that pays for it all.
Tom: I hope so. Just like with the video games when I said I sold $2,000 worth, one game alone was worth $200. Just a Nintendo game.
Robb: That’s a rare find.
Tom: Yeah, exactly. You can find some surprising things in your box of junk sometimes. Okay, so let’s go back to—you had three main ways you were making money. We kind of covered Kijiji and Facebook and we covered your blogging pretty much. So the third one was how you use reward points to get the most for your money.
Robb: Yeah. This has kind of been an evolution over the last few years that I first got into credit card rewards. First of all, most Canadians use a debit card for everything and our banks charge us for that premium. There are no limits on how much we can use it. And if you want to unlimited use then you pay $10 or $15 a month for that privilege, so I clued in pretty early that if I use a credit card that pays me some cash back, grocery rewards or whatever it is then I can get a little bit back for all my purchases I do all the time that I’m going to spend anyways. That began my evolution towards using cash-back credit cards. It’s got to a point where I’m a little obsessed. My wife will probably be rolling her eyes right now but I have probably have about 14 credit cards on the go. That’s all for the signing bonus. A lot of cards offer first year free where they don’t charge you an annual fee. They’ll give you 20,000 or 25,000 points that can be used for travel rewards. What I use these for, Tom, is, when you don’t get a raise and you’ve got this growing family—and I don’t know about you but, when my kids were little, we didn’t travel much. Maybe the odd trip to the mountains and whatnot. But now they’re getting a little older and we want to go explore and so we flew the family to Victoria this year where we explored the West Coast, and that was awesome. It was the first flight. We paid for that flight with Aeroplan points. So it only cost me just over $100 with the fees and taxes. I rented a car on points. Now we’ve got a big trip planned to Europe next year. We’re going to Scotland and Ireland for over 30 days. You’ll probably fall off your chair when I tell you this—we’re flying there and four tickets (there and back) all together is about $600. And that’s just in fees and taxes.
Tom: Nice. Which type of points is this on?
Robb: That’s Aeroplan. It all comes down to doing the research. A lot of people, even if they do collect points will say, “Oh, I’ve got all these points,” whether it’s Air Miles or something like that, “So I guess I’ll cash them in for a toaster,” or a Christmas gift. And that’s the absolute worst value for your money. Sure, you can get a new toaster. That is a way to get something for free, I guess.
Tom: It’s still better than the debit card.
Robb: Yes, it’s still better than the debit card but there is so much value to be unlocked and that’s what I’ve been learning over the last couple of years. A lot of programs like Aeroplan or American Express are very valuable in terms of their membership rewards currency because it can be transferred in a lot of different ways. To give you an example, America Express has a lot of credit cards that offer really generous signup bonuses. Take advantage of those and you can do it in a way where, let’s say your house insurance bill is due. Ours is due in August so we pay it upfront in advance. It’s almost something like $1,500 this year. So, if I know I have a $1,500 spend coming up, since I have to spend it anyways, what’s the most value I can get for that spend? Well, I look for a credit card that’s offering something really lucrative that says, if you spend $1,000, $1,500 or up to $3,000 in the first three months we’ll give you 25,000 points or 50,000 points. Those points are super valuable because what I end up doing is, I sign up, get the points and transfer those to Aeroplan. This is all systematic because we knew we wanted to book this vacation and I needed to book the flights. So, for a year we saved up Aeroplan points. What’s the best way to get Aeroplan points? We found it was by using an American Express card with American Express membership rewards and then transferring those points to the Aeroplan program. Once we had enough saved up to buy four tickets, then I began doing all the research on how to unlock the most value from Aeroplan. It’s not flying Air Canada like everyone seems to think because Air Canada charges huge premiums for fuel surcharges and fees. What I didn’t want was a flight from Calgary to Edinburgh on Air Canada and have to still end up paying probably $2,500 in fees and taxes for your FREE flight reward. It’s not a milk run, but you just have to get a little creative. We searched other flights and found Calgary to Chicago on United Airlines. And then from Chicago to Edinburgh on United Airlines. That total cost us $300 instead of $2,500. And that was just one way. We found the reverse trip—because we leave from Dublin with just about the same route back to Chicago back to Calgary for another $300. We got our family to Europe and back for $600. And so what’s next? Well, we needed some hotels to stay in. We won’t stay in hotels in every single city but we do in Edinburgh and we will in Dublin. And those could be expensive cities, especially in the summertime. That could cost up to $300 or $400 Euros a night to stay there. Well, I don’t want to pay that. I’m a frugal personal finance blogger. American Express also has an ability to transfer their points to the hotel loyalty program for Marriott. Marriott has just bought Starwood Hotels and they’re just a massive hotel chain, internationally. Next time I want to fill up my points, I’m still looking at American Express and I’m looking at Marriott Rewards. I’m transferring those points to Marriott and I’m able to book hotels and supplement our stay that way.
Tom: With these credit cards, have you worked back what sort of percentage that would give you? I often use a cash-back credit card where I’ll get 2 to 4 percent. Sometimes I’ll use Air Miles. But, I get that you have to be careful with how you’re booking to get the most valuable but do you have an idea what that value is? I guess it’s basically the price of the trip divided by the amount is spent?
Robb: Pretty much. With Aeroplan that can be as lucrative as about 10 percent. It really depends on the flight you get, how many points it costs you and how much you have to pay on top of that for fuel surcharges, fees and taxes. But this one to Edinburgh and back through Dublin is probably close to 10 percent. So it’s worth the time to look at it. Because again, the toaster I think is worth about .7 percent. That’s the return when you redeem it for a gift card or when you redeem it for some merchandise and things like that. I was with you raising kids and along the lines not getting a raise so you can supplement your income using a cash-back credit card without any of these fancy schemes that I’m talking about. Because there’s nothing wrong with getting 2 or 3 percent back on your spending and supplementing your grocery budget for example. There’s PC MasterCard or Costco MasterCard or whatever it is that pays you back on all the spending you are going to do. Now, as we’re starting to get a little more adventurous in our travels, we wondered how we could take a nice vacation when our income isn’t increasing but still do it in a creative way? Almost obsessively, as I mentioned, we’re kind of getting into these credit card rewards opportunities. And there’s lots out there. I mean, there are not as many as down in the States where they have a ton of options but they’re here in Canada too. You’ve just got to make absolutely sure that you pay off your credit cards. I mean, there’s not a credit card rewards scheme in the world that’s worth missing a payment and paying 19 or 20 percent interest, frankly.
Tom: The other thought I had was, you mentioned 14 cards right now. Is this all under you or is this split between you and your wife?
Robb: Well, my wife’s getting into it. She’s got a couple cards because I think the SPG Marriott, the hotel rewards, just released a new card that gave us a bunch of bonus points so she got in on that as well.
Tom: You both signed up for the card?
Robb: Yeah so we could both get our points and have an opportunity to combine them into one household and then we were able to book our trip. She’s getting there—but certainly not wanting to be as obsessive as I am with it.
Tom: The other thought I had here was, of these 14 credit cards, how often are you applying for cards? Is there a certain amount per year that you apply for? And are you closing some? Or are all 14 of these alive right now?
Robb: No, they’re not all alive. They’re not all active. I have a main card I use that you can’t get right now. They’ve discontinued it but still has grandfathered benefits that I continue to use. It’s the Capital One MasterCard Aspire Travel. It pays 2 percent back. It does charge an annual fee of $120. But it also gives you 10,000 points every year on your card anniversary so it works out to about $20 a year have this 2 percent back card. That’s my go-to card if I don’t have any kind of weird promos going on. But there’s no limit, really. People wonder if your credit score going to take a dip. And it does. I think with each inquiry you maybe lose 10 points on your credit score.
But of course, if you pay your bills on time and have another card that you use a lot and you don’t go crazy on your utilization, your credit score will come right back. Mine is still over 700. That’s not impeccable because of the activity but it’s nothing that would ever get me turned down for a loan from a bank. How it typically works is I’ll look for a card that has an opportunity. I have three rules. One is, the first year has to be free because I don’t want to pay an annual fee if I don’t have to. That’s not a deal breaker but I’d rather not. Two is, the sign up bonus has to be worth it. If the signup bonus is 5,000 or 10,000 points, that’s only around $50 or $100 so I may not go to the trouble. But, if it’s $200 or more, then I consider that free money so I have to maybe adjust my spending a little bit and use this card for a month, but that’s a way to earn $200. I look for those opportunities whenever they become available. It could be twice a year. It could be eight times a year just depending on how the credit card landscaper is working out. And three, is there a minimum spend bonus? Is that attainable? So if it’s something like $5,000 in a month, then that’s going to be a little tricky. I don’t ever want to spend more than I typically would just because of it just because of a credit card. I don’t want it to impact how our household finances are. So if the first year is free, the sign is worth $200 or more and the spending is not unreasonable then I’ll go for it. Then it just depends on how many of those opportunities are out there. This year it’s really hard because we’re booking a lot of trips and whatnot so we really utilize those benefits. If I was just collecting them and they were kind of sitting in an account I could probably give you good concrete number of what I think that value is. I would say it’s probably at least $3,000 dollars worth of either rewards that are sitting there waiting to be used or that I’ve utilized for hotels or flights this year. Again, when you talk about supplementing your income, we got $1,000 on Kijiji and Facebook and about $3,000 worth of credit card rewards. That’s an extreme example but I think most households could easily do $500 in credit card rewards just with a simple cash-back card. Then, of course, you’ve got the side-hustle which I think has unlimited opportunities. We’ve got an online business now so it’s set up where we withdrawal dividends. If the business does well and we think we need to take out more money from the business then, of course, we could do that. I know a lot of people don’t have that opportunity. Of course, the business needs to do well and we need to hustle to make that happen. That’s what we’ve found ourselves doing over the last few years. Especially over the last five years as my employment income has stagnated. We’ve increased those opportunities and got creative on selling stuff and carrying on our own spending for credit card rewards.
Tom: Well, this has been great. I think if you’re in a public sector and private sector and we’re still both not getting any raises that means it probably applies to a lot of people. So this is giving people a few different ideas to make their own raise. Can you let people know where they can find you?
Robb: Sure. I blog at Boomer and Echo. That’s where I’ve been blogging since 2010. Then I write the Smart Money column for The Toronto Star and I write that bi weekly. You can find out at The Star. I’m also at Rewards Cards Canada. Speaking of credit card rewards, I’m obsessed enough that I have my own blog about it.
Tom: Okay, thanks for being on the show.
Robb: My pleasure, Tom. Thanks for having me.
Thanks to my friend Robb for joining us this week. You can find show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/robbengen. We’ve been running the show for half a year now. If you’ve joined us more recently, I suggest you look back in the archives in your podcast player or at maplemoney.com/show and check past episodes. Some of my favorites from early on include chats with Pat Flynn, Barry Choi, Philip Taylor and J.D. Roth. Thanks for tuning in. I’m looking forward to more episodes with you in the New Year.