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Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

People with $100,000 credit card bills

Some folks charge everything just to rack up huge rewards points. It's unlikely you'll have bills like Bernie Madoff's (see below), but chasing rewards can be profitable.

By Liz Pulliam Weston
MSN Money

Bernie Madoff's $100,000 monthly American Express bill caused a sensation this spring when it was made public by a court-appointed trustee unraveling the disgraced New Yorker's Ponzi scheme.

Besides the eye-popping total, the bill for the month ending Jan. 23, 2008, provided ample evidence that Madoff's family and associates had used company money for personal expenses. (You can see the details of the credit card statement here.) Among the expenses charged that might not have been strictly business:

  • $8,400 for what was apparently a one-night stay at a Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, resort called Esperanza (charged by Madoff's son Mark, whose spending totaled more than $26,000 for the month).

  • $5,015 for Montauk Yacht Club fees (charged by Madoff's wife, Ruth, whose spending totaled nearly $30,000).

  • $3,800 at clothes boutiques in Paris, including $2,000 at the Giorgio Armani store (charged by Ruth Madoff).

  • $6,160 -- 11 charges of $560 each -- at the Jackson Hole Mountain Sports School, which offers private ski lessons (charged by Madoff sons Mark and Andrew). Andrew's charges included a tip of just $60 on a $1,126 tab at tony New York restaurant Per Se.

That wasn't even a particularly big month for the Madoffs. The previous month, nearly $169,000 was charged to the credit card account.

That's one way to rack up the rewards points

What really caught my eye, though, was a figure few others have commented on: Madoff's rewards membership points, which totaled 791,814 at the end of 2007. By the middle of the following year, his rewards total was down to 408,039, indicating he was spending the points on something. (Do attorneys take rewards points, I wonder?)

If you're not familiar with rewards points, they're a kind of rebate currency issued by credit card companies that can be used for travel, merchandise or other goodies.

American Express' rewards programs tend to be particularly generous -- and flexible. The "street value" of 800,000 points would be at least $4,000 if used for coach-class airline tickets and probably more if used for upgrades or hotels.

Of course, Madoff's ill-gotten rewards points pale in comparison to the billions he ripped off from his investors. But I wouldn't discount rewards fever as a contributing factor to the misuse of his corporate card.

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Credit card debt: Deal with it © Stockbyte/Getty Images
Credit card debt: Deal with it
Liz Pulliam Weston says people with credit card debt should stop using their cards and pay off their balances right away.

What's the biggest thing you ever charged?

I know plenty of other people who aren't wealthy but who are willing to charge as much as they legitimately can, either to take advantage of a short interest-free loan or to get piles of rewards points. I guess the big difference is the word "legitimately."

New York Times money columnist Ron Lieber is one of them. Lieber prides himself on squeezing every possible dollar of rebates and rewards out of his family's spending, which means charging about $75,000 in annual expenses. He pays off every bill in full each month, of course; the only smart way to play the rewards game is not to carry a balance.

Curtis Arnold, the founder of and author of "How You Can Profit From Credit Cards," is another rewards lover. In addition to the daily expenses for his family of eight, Arnold has charged "a gently used minivan" and about half the cost of two condominiums.

Continued: More ways to charge it

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