EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post SaturdaysToday’s guest post is from the omnipresent dawnzerly from ShareTraveler.com.


When I first got involved in travel hacking I thought it was a hobby primarily of information. You have to find the best opportunities (research information), and keep track of what you’re doing (track information). Over the years I’ve learned there’s a lot more to it. One skill I’ve come to realize is important for success in this hobby is social networking and social engineering.  (Subtitle for this post might be: “Don’t be an asshole.”)

Social Networking for Information

We’re all out there trying to find the next great exploit. The thing that’s going to generate big spend for a $0 fee. The fintech that’s paying 50% cashback on debit (there is one, but it’s a scam). The trick to generate big NLL SUBs. Trying to find these things is time consuming. But you don’t have to fly solo on all this research. Build up a trusted network of people with whom you can share knowledge and information.

How do you find this network? You cultivate relationships. A lot of this info sharing happens in smaller private groups. And to get into these groups you need to meet people.

There are a lot of ways to find travel hackers. Online you can join public discussion groups (WhatsApp, Slack, Discord, various forums, etc.). In person I’m a fan of local groups. It’s easier to trust people you meet in person. Lots of networking and information sharing happens at local and national meetups.

Once you join some groups you need to build yourself a good reputation. For starters, when you have questions in any written forum, try searching through the history before asking. No one wants to spoon feed you answers that you could have easily found for yourself. And find ways to contribute. Maybe you don’t have any big tricks to share (yet), but when you notice people mention the need for a spreadsheet to keep track of something you could volunteer to create and maintain that spreadsheet. Rule of thumb: Don’t be an asshole, be helpful.

Social Engineering for Smoother Transactions

Some people can walk into a Safeway and be best friends with the manager in 5 minutes. Resellers make friends with store staff so they get texted a heads up about useful closeout sales. Gift card liquidators bring coffee to their local post office employees.

Social engineering might be the wrong term, because most of the time we’re not being manipulative. (Though knowing when to deploy your young child to throw a strategically distracting tantrum could be considered manipulation.) Cultivating these good relationships makes the in-store MSing so much easier. And I’d argue it’s also much more pleasant to operate this way.

I’ll admit this one is hard for me. I feel awkward. But I know from experience that chatting up the staff while MSing, and even explaining what I’m doing, can make the transactions go smoothly. At the very least, don’t be an asshole, be nice.

A pretend doctor social engineers his way into a stack of money orders at Walmart.

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post SaturdaysToday’s guest post is the second post in a series of at least two from the witty, inspiring, and definitely-not-a-giga-chad irieriley, his first post can be found here.

When to share the wealth

My grandfather was a gregarious man who loved more than anything to pass life advice down to his grandchildren. A lot of it centered around outlandish ways to get noticed in the job search (he once told me to send a pineapple with my resume inside to a hiring manager), but he also loved advice in the form of a good adage. His all time favorite is one we’re all familiar with: “irieriley, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

We’ve all accepted this as the truth, although MS and travel hacking allows us to get a consistent 90% off lunches, provided you are ready to decide on what you want to eat 355 days in advance. Therefore, it’s only natural to want to share this steep discount with family and friends. 

Chances are, you’ve long been known as the “points expert” among your friends group and family. In my case, it’s so extreme that it’s generally the sentence after explaining my relation to the bride and groom in a wedding party bio. 

And who can blame them? They see you agonizing over the choice of the Western or Japanese menu on ANA first or relaxing in the “base room” aka “bigger than a McMansion” at the Waldorf Ithaafushi and decide they want in on it. 

However, most bright-eyed travel hackers aren’t going to hit the SUB on their first card, achieving breakage just like your favorite coupon book vendor intended. So, how best to set others in your life up for success? Here are some strategies that have worked well for me:

Provide starting direction

Not everyone is cut out to get super deep into the game, and that’s completely fine. There’s a plethora of reasons why it makes sense to target a SUB or two max a year. And thanks to the generosity of Chase and Amex, there’s generally always an elevated offer worth going for when your coworker Slacks to ask what card to get. 

It’s a perfectly even exchange – you help people get a couple of free flights a year, and in return, you get fodder for Frustration Friday when they forget to use your referral link. 

Add a partner in crime

Because of the collaborative nature of the hobby, helping your friends and family with the savvy to handle it can be a win-win. 

I have a friend that I knew could make it as an advanced travel hacker, so I gave her some helpful hints a few months ago. I couldn’t be more proud of her progress, as she dove in head first and has already redeemed RT tickets to Asia for her and her P2.

If you have friends or family that can handle it, you’d be surprised how nice it is to have someone you know IRL to swap stories with.

Add P3, P4, P5 and so on

Most MEAB readers that are in a serious relationship likely count their significant other as their P2, since miles and points can be earned quite easily without all that much active participation. 

It doesn’t need to stop there – some of us are earning and burning for much more than 2 players. This is more complicated than helping a friend and is a better fit for immediate family since it requires SSNs and financial trust, but it’s an amazing way to spread the wealth for those that have the time for it. 

For what it’s worth, my P3 and P4 get stressed out about opening cards or the idea of MS, but they sure weren’t stressed when they flew Emirates first to Milan. 

Book for them

For the truly advanced (or truly risk averse) earners out there, you can sidestep involving your loved ones in your shenanigans entirely and just let them enjoy the spoils. 

Being able to treat family and friends to shared bucket list adventures or arrange emergency flights and hotels in a pinch are truly the most fulfilling way to use points. 

This option can also be fantastic for things like group travel with your friends – a multi bedroom Vacasa is no big deal even post-devaluation when you’re earning 8x Wyndham on all of your “gas purchases”. 

I’ll end by channeling my late grandfather with an adage – teach someone to use TPG referral links, and you’ll feed them for a day. Teach someone to responsibly MS, and you’ll feed them forever.

– irieriley

Pictured: DALL-E’s nightmarish rendition of my grandfather and I preparing the well regarded ‘resume in a pineapple’ method of standing out in the job search

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post Saturdays. If you’re interested in contributing, please reach out! Today’s guest post from community member George, who excels at automation, charity, and is an expert at bridging gaps. Donations for the 501(c)(3) non-profit Girls on Fire can be made online.

One thing I like to do in my free time, when I’m not working at my 9-5, churning, MSing, writing and sharing automation scripts for MSing, or going on trips because of churning and MSing, is mentoring student robotics teams. 

Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this, and it’s probably not where you think.

You may or may not be familiar with FIRST, which is a global robotics community preparing young people for the future. My favorite thing about it isn’t the robots or the coding or the competitions but how diverse the program attempts to be in what it teaches. They say they are “more than robots,” and that’s definitely true. 

One concept I particularly have learned to love is coopertition, which fosters innovation by promoting unqualified kindness and respect in the face of intense competition. I have been inspired by watching teams help each other during competitions and by helping other teams myself. Imagine Duke helping Carolina in the middle of the Final 4. Anyway, if you want to learn more, get in touch.

Now, here’s where I’m going: we should be more like these kids. We should cooperate.

Yes, there are reasons to be secretive in this game. It’s possible that if you give too much away, your plays will die out. However, have we run out of plays yet? Don’t new ones pop up all the time?

I’m not recommending radical transparency, but I do think we should share more. Certainly the more private and insular the group, especially if they are paid groups, the more information there is being shared. However, what credit unions were good for PPBP or what banks take credit card funding are still the kind of thing people often hold close to the vest. And again, yes, one just stopped allowing $15,000 in credit card funding pretty quickly after offering it, and that was probably our fault. But was that going to last forever without us? At least one person reports they were told that it was offered because of us.

Personally, I’ve found that at the right time and in the right venue, revealing sensitive information has come back to me positively multiple times over. Indeed, isn’t that the usual thinking when it comes to charity? Maybe you believe sometimes what you receive in return is some kind of “karma,” but sometimes, you get a new play from the person you helped.

Here’s what I recommend: next time you see someone, maybe someone new, asking for help…. help them. Oh, and if it isn’t obvious, this doesn’t just relate to churning.

Establish trust, then maybe give them a tidbit you wouldn’t share publicly. Even if they share it later, the chances aren’t so high that it will get out into the DOC comments or Reddit or wherever and ruin it, and if nothing else, you will have done a good deed. You may even get something better in return.

Waiting for a Chase Ink card application to stop spinning already.

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post Saturdays. If you’re interested in contributing, please reach out! Today’s guest post from community member Hank, who’s least memorable travel experience was flying 70 hours of AA economy with an unknowingly broken kneecap.

Continuing our “study the past to know the future” theme lets see how the miles world has evolved over the last 15 years.

  • Affiliate marketing payouts. Banks pay hundred of dollars per credit app a website can lob their way. That’s actually quite new. Historically there wasn’t any money in blogging, so the tiny crowd in it did so as a passion project. Ben was a broke college kid with an insane tolerance for mileage runs.  Brian Kelly was still a marketer at Morgan Stanley.  Gary was…. pretty much exactly the same.

    Because there was no financial incentive to spell out deals they lasted years, not weeks or days. There were no spoon feeding mega blogs, just arcane hints on Flyertalk. There were under 1% the current number of people in the miles space because everything was smaller…
  • Scale. Back then earning 1.2 million miles got you written up in the WSJ and a movie deal https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Phillips_(entrepreneur) For some people nowadays that’s a bad month. The highest signup bonus was 20,000 miles, not 200,000. All that means…
  • Award space everywhere. There were 20+ interesting ways to go to Asia every day. Cathay Pacific had 6 daily flights from NYC by itself, usually with F award space. No one had any miles. That means if you did you likely enjoyed some amazing travel experiences because…
  • Things were harder to monetize (a good thing). If you had 120,000 US airways miles you were heading to Hong Kong in first class for lunch because there wasn’t anything else to do with them. They’d be devalued in a year, award space was plentiful and liquidation wasn’t a serious option.

    Now that same trip is costing you 300,000 Amex or Chase points. Those have real cash value, at minimum $3,000. Would you spend that on a lark for weekend lunch? A passionate hobby has evolved into a successful business, but as is often the case the magic and allure sadly begins to fade.

– Hank

“A duck looking sadly back at a small pond with a Lufthansa first class duckie in it, while a giant ocean filled with dollar signs fills the background.”

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post Saturdays. If you’re interested in contributing, please reach out! Today’s guest post is from a new travel blogger but seasoned financial hacker, Graham, who offers a unique insight in many aspects of the hobby. His prior post on applying churning to changing jobs can be found here and should probably be required reading for any churner switching W-2 jobs.

Traveling for work doesn’t need to be a break-even operation. There are plenty of won’t-get-you-fired tricks to earn a little extra personal return when jet-setting your way to Lubbock Texas to get your barrels cleaned at Scrub-A-Dubb Barrel Company. Here are a few that I’ve found:

  • Meeting Credit Card Sign Up Bonus Spend: Many companies allow you to put corporate travel spend on a personal card, and then reimburse that expense. This is one of the ways I meet my minimum spend requirements for sign up bonuses. I consistently manage to get a few thousand dollars of spend per trip (mostly from hotel stays, occasionally from having the privilege of expensing team dinners).
  • Loyalty programs: Many companies will allow you to put your personal hotel, airline, and rental car loyalty program numbers on work reservations. If your company uses Concur, you can even add those programs to your profile and have them automatically added when you book travel. If your personal travel portal doesn’t support adding the program during booking, you can usually add it after the fact on the provider’s website.
  • Credit Cards Offers: If you can put corporate travel on a personal card, you can take advantage of offers from your bank for spending money at a given company. The more cards you have, the more offers might be available. Instead of looking through the offers on every one of my cards individually, I use offer.love to look up the hotel and rental car companies I’m considering using. After filtering by companies that meet my requirements and are within corporate policy, I pick the one with the highest offer. For example, right now Hertz has a $90 back on $350 offer at Amex and Westin has $98 back on $980 at US Bank.
  • Promotions Directly with Travel Companies: Companies periodically offer promotions directly on their website. For example, Marriott is currently offering 1k points and 1 elite night credit per night and United has a Mile Play promotion offering me 2,900 points for taking one flight. I always make sure to add these promotions to my account before booking corporate travel. 
  • Amex Corporate Advantage Program: If you have an Amex corporate card, you might be eligible for Amex’s corporate advantage program. This program lets you save on your personal card annual fees. You save $150 on the Platinum Card, $100 on Gold, $75 on Green, and $50 on Blue. The sign up bonuses when signing up through this program are terrible (eg. a Platinum card comes with an 80k point bonus through this program vs the 150k points you can easily get by opening the application page in incognito mode), however, you can link an existing card to the corporate advantage program after you’ve already opened your card. Just talk to a customer service representative using the chat support option, and they can add it in a few minutes. The fee discount won’t work on the first year’s annual fee if you do this, but it will apply in every subsequent year, making it perfect for cards you intend to keep in your wallet over the long term.
  • Combining Work and Personal Travel: Not all companies allow this, but my company’s travel policies explicitly allow combining personal and work travel. Say, for example, I am traveling from New York to California for work, and I want to go to Hawaii for vacation afterwards. Rather than booking a round trip work trip from New York to San Francisco, and then a round trip personal trip from New York to Honolulu, I’m allowed to book a New York to San Francisco to Honolulu work trip. My company’s policy requires our travel agents to price out the work-only option and the work + personal option, and I only pay the difference. This can often net out to hundreds of dollars of savings when doing personal travel in the vicinity of a work destination.
  • Corporate Discounts and Promotions for Personal Travel: Every company has access to various corporate perks for personal travel. For example, my company gives me access to United’s Break from Business discounted fares. We also have status match offers with United and Delta available internally, which are better than the public ones (eg. the public United status match is valid for 120 days, vs our internal one is valid through January 31st 2025). We currently also have access to a promotion to earn Explorist status with Hyatt. We also have a ton of discounts on rental cars, flights, and hotels through fond.co. It’s worth taking a poke around your company’s internal wikis / slack / mailing lists to see what kind of benefits you have for personal travel.

While corporate travel can be personally profitable, I should add a few notes of caution:

  • Know the Policy; Stay Within It: Odds are that your job pays orders of magnitude more than the tricks I’ve outlined in this post. These tricks are allowed at my company, but may not be allowed at yours. For example, some companies require all business expenses to be put on a corporate card, if you have one. Getting fired for violating your corporate travel policy to earn a couple hundred bucks would be a very bad return on investment. So make sure to read and understand your corporate travel policy, and never do anything you wouldn’t be comfortable explaining to your director / VP / CEO / misc. corporate overlord.
  • Beware the Cost of Messing Up Reimbursements: Many of the tricks above rely on putting corporate travel expenses on a personal card. If you mess up and forget to submit one expense (or it gets rejected; see point above), it might outweigh all the personal gains from your trip and put you in the red. Make sure you have a reliable system for tracking and submitting your expenses before putting work expenses on a personal card.

About the Author

I love understanding systems, and optimizing for the best outcomes within the rules as implemented (rather than as written, which is a distinction all churners should be keenly aware of). This love has led me to a career in cyber security, to churning, and also to a general obsession with optimizing all things finances. I’ve recently turned that last point into a blog where I write posts like this one (with many more in the pipeline). If you’re interested in that kind of content, there’s a subscribe box at the bottom of the blog.  And if you think I’ve missed something, gotten something wrong, or should write future posts on a particular topic, please drop me a line.

– Graham

Yes, cruise ships have morticians. Side benefits include free travel and reimbursable expenses.

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post Saturdays. I’m still looking for more guest posts, please reach out if you have something interesting to share with the community! Today’s guest post is from Southwest Airlines kingpin and family travel guru, Brian M!

Garden The Flexible Options (GTFO) and travel better! Employing gardening strategies for multiple travel options reserved with flexible change and cancellation terms mitigates the risks of uncertainty and dampens the negative impacts of uncontrollable factors that affect travel.  Moreover, one’s travel plans become more adaptable.  For those about to travel, we salute you!

The concept of gardening a reservation is not new. In the travel maximization context, “Gardening” is the practice of booking and monitoring a travel reservation while consistently analyzing whether the booked reservation (which may have been impacted by some outside factor like a schedule change) may be efficiently improved through some sort of action(s) or change(s) and the activity of undertaking that action or change to improve the subject reservation.   When factors affect a reservation that one is monitoring, then one may be able to (or may have to) undertake some action that could lead to an improved reservation. Always be probing the alternatives of a reservation to determine whether inaction, a change, or a cancellation may be the best decision. Deals can vary at original booking and over time; so, using and revisiting different levels of one’s travel waterfall of techniques is essential.  

Flexible reservations are also not new; but, flexibility does have value. Most car rentals have long had very flexible cancellation terms.  And, many hotel reservations have had flexible change and cancellation terms.  More recently, flight reservations issued by more carriers, especially through their award loyalty programs, have become more flexible.  Importantly, flexibility may be free!  Okay, that’s not quite true because even if there is no monetary cost to a change or cancellation, one would still need to undertake the effort to book, change, or cancel a reservation (so, there is an expenditure of time and effort) and there’s an opportunity cost of those points or miles.  Regardless, booking flexible rates/fares can preserve the ability to be ready for uncertainty, including both known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Fares and rates may drop. Flight times may change. New, more preferred, flights may become available. Accommodation amenities may close. Natural disasters may impact a destination. A car type may no longer be available or suitable. A travel companion may become ill or simply decide to no longer travel. To be impacted by an external force is human; to prepare for uncertainty is divine.  Changes will happen and the adept can adapt by gardening existing flexible reservations. When the reservation gets tough, the tough garden the flexible reservation!

Options in travel, like in life, are important. Reserving multiple flexible options for aspects of travel or flexible options for entire trips enables one to gain more value and empowers one with more control to exercise the desired option (and cancel the undesired flexible option(s)) when it becomes time to strike. Furthermore, gardening those options amplifies the value and control unlocked by flexible change and cancellation terms. Could one sow one’s travel field with inexpensive option seeds with the intent that some schedule change or weather lemons may grow to produce a bushel of opportunities and enjoy some refreshing non-stop lemonade? However, to reserve multiple flexible options with award program currencies, one must earn those currencies first. Miles need to be earned before they can be burned.  So, earning a sufficient volume of miles and points can be helpful to book early and book often. But, what volume may be sufficient varies and could be lower than may initially seem to be required given the ability to reduce, reuse, and recycle miles and points over time as options are canceled and changed. Miles burned for a reservation may rise like a phoenix from the ashes of cancellation ready to fly into action for the next reservation. Consideration about how to option the travel is also important – which traveler(s)? which flight(s)? which accommodation(s)? which date(s)/night(s)? which elite benefit(s)? which booking method? Considerations are unique for each aspect of each trip for each traveler. 

And, putting these three concepts together creates a travel strategy greater than the sum of its parts empowering one to travel better. A trip that may have been originally booked with a 2-stop flight itinerary on a less preferred day to a counter pick up for an expensive compact rental car to drive to the Hyatt Place Lubbock may be gardened to become become a better option – a non-stop flight to stroll directly to the rental car aisle to choose any inexpensive full-size car to drive to the Hyatt Regency Wichita after freely canceling non-preferred flexible alternatives. However, time, effort, and organization are mandatory to the success of any GTFO travel strategy.  So, determining how deep to dive into each aspect can be critical to maintaining sanity and avoiding The Optimizer’s Curse. Therefore, too many specifics related to a GTFO travel strategy would be imprudent. One must decide for oneself whether to, when to, and how much to utilize such a travel strategy. Of course, there are risks associated with the strategy beyond loss of sanity, including that duplicate reservations may be automatically canceled by the travel provider. Furthermore, speculation is undesirable: one must decide for oneself where to draw one’s own line – how far is too far and what may create too much risk given potential adverse consequences.

Travel is about the journey and the destination. So, utilize a GTFO travel strategy to burn some miles to GET THE F* OUT – both to travel better than one otherwise might and to spend less! Or, don’t travel – cash-out miles and improve life in a different way! No matter what, miles earned are only worth the value gained when burned. 

“Better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.” Travel opportunity is knocking and you may have the option to seize it today while maintaining the flexibility to seize a different opportunity tomorrow by gardening each of those seized opportunities until one becomes the best option.

– Brian M

Preparing to garden a few existing bookings.

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post Saturdays. I’m still looking for more guest posts, please reach out if you have something interesting to share with the community! Today’s guest post is from a strong community contributor, and the official churning historian, Hank.

Confucius’s churning manual says that if you want to know the future then study the past. With that in mind it’s time to get out the popcorn and enjoy some unicorns from 10+ years ago.

  • Funding Citi checking accounts for $100k/pop on 4% everywhere cash back card.  No elaborate shenanigans.  Build a $100k CL on the Barclays Travelocity MasterCard (MEAB Unsung Hero card 2009 – 2015), fund account, repeat.
  • Venmo no fee $3k/month unlimited accounts. For it’s first several years Venmo allowed up to $3k/month of fee free credit spend per account. An account was an email address, a phone number (google voice), and a unique credit card (employee card).
  • 20+ BOA cards in one sitting. While nowadays BOA has credit line rules in place to throttle velocity historically a good “App-o-Rama” could net 20 cards in a sitting. The downside: highest cashback bonus was $200. Upside: easy to combine credit lines for other shenanigans.
  • Buy GC sell same platform 3% profit. Gift card reselling websites didn’t used to have strong guardrails. You could buy (for example) Target gift cards, stack rebates, and sell the same gc back for a profit. Repeat, scale.
  • Gold bullion by the pound. While the better known play was dollar coins from the US mint the back saving move was gold coins on Ebay. By stacking a series of rebates you could earn 2-5% spread + points. Limits were float (things haven’t changed) and your comfort levels with constantly driving 6 figures of bullion to the post office in a beat up old ford.

While the specific plays above are long gone there are variations of each circling around to this day. EDITOR’S NOTE: Always be probing

– Hank

Scrooge McDuck explaining to a police officer why thousands of dollars of dollar coins are spilling out of his trunk after a traffic accident.

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’ve introduced Guest Post SaturdaysToday’s guest post is from a new travel blogger but seasoned financial hacker, Graham, who offers great insight on application of churning techniques to other aspects of finance.


  • The tricks you know from churning can be applied elsewhere in life, such as when you change jobs:
    • You can double dip on 401k matches and mega backdoor contributions
    • You can hold out for the best offer on a once-in-a-lifetime operation like rolling an old 401k to IRA
    • You can drain corporate benefits, like you’d drain an Amex coupon book before closing the card
    • You can get your annual fees (aka taxes) refunded if you get money clawed back by your employer
    • Just like you book refundable bookings as backups, you can rely on COBRA as a refundable (never charged, really) backup insurance option


In the world of churning and travel hacking, we’re used to using all sorts of tricks to get the most value for ourselves. We double or triple dip on annual benefits, we hold out for the best offers on NLL cards, we drain the coupon book benefits on a card before closing it, we take advantage of grace periods for getting annual fees refunded, and we make preventative refundable travel bookings. It turns out that the kinds of tricks we use for credit cards and travel also apply to many other aspects of life. In this post, I go through all the ways I’ve found to apply churning tricks to the process of changing jobs.

It should go without saying, but I’m just some random dude on the internet that isn’t a lawyer or accountant (and more importantly isn’t your lawyer or accountant). I’ve done my best to research and cite these tricks, and to include my own experience where I have it, but make sure to do your own research and understand the consequences of what you’re doing before blindly applying tips in this post.


Double Dipping: Two 401k Matches

Many employers offer to match the money you contribute to your 401k each year. Those matches apply to an overall per-employer limit ($69,000 for 2024) not your personal limit ($23,000 for 2024). Having two employers gives you the opportunity to get two full matches. Let’s imagine this scenario:

  • Employer 1 offers a 50% match on contributions (up to some fraction of your salary), and you’ve earned enough for up to a $7.5k match on 15k contributions
  • Employer 2 offers a 50% match on contributions (up to some fraction of your salary), and you will earn enough for up to a $5k match on 10k contributions

There are multiple ways to optimize this scenario:

  • Easier, Less Profitable Way – Limiting Contributions at Employer 1: You could limit your contributions to Employer 1’s plan to $15k, so you maximize the match without going over. Then when you join Employer 2, you can use your remaining space to contribute $8k, getting $4k of your possible $5k match. This leaves some money on the table, but nets you more than if you’d just maxed your 401k at one or the other employer.
  • Riskier, More Profitable Way – Excess Deferral + Corrective Distributions: You could contribute $15k to Employer 1’s plan and $10k to Employer 2’s plan. This would put you in a situation where you’ve achieved the maximum match, however, it also puts you $2k over your $23k personal limit and means you’ve made an Excess Deferral. The consequences of an Excess Deferral are double taxation on that money, and potentially additional penalties, which probably outweigh the value of the additional match. You can avoid the double taxation and penalties with a Corrective Distribution that removes $2k from Employer 1’s plan. The catch is that Employer 1’s plan may not be willing to provide Corrective Distributions, or Employer 1 may attempt to claw back the match. Before attempting this method, you should confirm your plan supports Corrective Distributions and you should be prepared to really pay attention when filing your taxes.

Note that there are plenty of other nuances of 401k plans that might affect your personal results, such as true ups and vesting schedules. Make sure you know both plans inside and out and have thought it through before attempting.

Double Dipping: Two Mega Backdoor Contributions

The mega backdoor roth is the lesser-known big brother of the backdoor roth, and it lets you sock away tens of thousands of dollars through your employer’s 401k plan. An even lesser known thing is that because mega backdoor contributions are not Elective Deferrals, they’re only subject to the overall per-employer limit ($69,000 for 2024), not your personal contribution limit. That means if you change employers through the year –and both plans support it– you can do the mega backdoor roth twice.

Holding Out for the Best Offer: Saving a 401k to Transfer

When leaving a company, you often have three choices for what to do with your 401k:

  1. Keep it with the current plan administrator (beware: there may be fees)
  2. Roll it into an IRA
  3. Roll it into your new 401k plan

There are many pros and cons to each that are beyond the scope of this post (eg. IRAs have fewer bankruptcy protections than 401ks), but here are two reasons you might want to hold off on rolling your old 401k into your new plan:

  • You can sometimes roll a 401k into an IRA to get relationship pricing at banks. For example, I used an old 401k to get to the next relationship pricing tier on my mortgage, saving an additional 1/8% on my mortgage rate. Note that including retirements in relationship pricing is not the norm, and Citi is one of a few banks I found that did that.
  • You can sometimes find significant bonuses to bring an IRA to brokerages. For example, Robinhood has a 3% match right now (beware they require you to keep the money there for 5 years)

One thing to be aware of if you plan to use one of these tricks is the pro rata rule. If you do backdoor roth IRA contributions, the rule can create negative tax consequences if you leave your pre-tax money in an IRA through the end of the year. My personal workaround was to roll my old 401k into an IRA to get the Citi relationship pricing, and then roll the IRA into my new 401k a month later (all within the same year).

Draining Benefits: Using up Annual Benefits

Many companies have miscellaneous benefits that reset to full at the beginning of the year, and have a use-it-or-lose-it model. Examples include commuter cards and FSAs. Many benefits will cease to be available once you leave, and others will have a limited window to submit expenses after you leave. Make sure to keep track of the deadlines for these accounts, and drain them.

Note that some benefits like FSAs are based on paycheck deductions that happen throughout the year, but the full amount may be available in your account starting on Jan 1. I don’t believe there are laws governing this, but on departure my company doesn’t claw back FSA spend that exceeded paycheck contributions. If this is the case at your company an you know you’re leaving far enough in advance during open enrollment period, you could max out your FSA contributions to take advantage of this edge case.

Fee Refunds: Tax Refunds on Clawbacks

If you get any money clawed back when changing jobs (eg. a signing bonus that didn’t fully vest), keep track of it. If you previously paid income taxes on that money, you may be able to deduct the clawback from your income. I personally was able to deduct a $14,000 clawback for the 2019 tax year and had my return accepted with no audit, but this may be a scenario where you want an accountant for CYA purposes.

Backup Bookings: COBRA for Health Insurance

Insurance from your old job usually lasts to the end of the month that you left. If you don’t start your new job by then, COBRA is a program that lets you pay to continue your old coverage. You have 60 days from when your coverage ends to request that continuation of coverage under COBRA, and the coverage “is always retroactive to the day after your employer coverage ends”. You pay the full cost if you do elect, but if you have a short gap in insurance, you can hold off on electing for COBRA until you know if you happen to need it or not. If it turns out you did need it, elect after the fact and be covered. If it turns out you didn’t need it, you’ve saved on the cost of insurance.

About the Author

I love understanding systems, and optimizing for the best outcomes within the rules as implemented (rather than as written, which is a distinction all churners should be keenly aware of). This love has led me to a career in cyber security, to churning, and also to a general obsession with optimizing all things finances. I’ve recently turned that last point into a blog where I write posts like this one (with many more in the pipeline). If you’re interested in that kind of content, there’s a subscribe box at the bottom of the blog. And if you think I’ve missed something, gotten something wrong, or should write future posts on a particular topic, please drop me a line.

– Graham

Graham’s light evening reading, prolly.