[As I explained yesterday, this week I'm re-running 5 "classic" Free-quent Flyer Blog posts. Today's post is a true classic, the first clear, public description of one of the most useful and flexible manufactured spending techniques: Walmart bill payments. The post that launched a thousand trips, it's still one of the most versatile and flexible techniques available, although there have been changes: for example, American Express-issued credit cards are no longer directly payable at Walmart. There are also a few oversights that are embarrassing in retrospect (Discover bill payments cost $1.50, not $1.88, for 3-day bill payments). This post originally ran on August 26, 2013 — check out the comments there.]
Walmart allows you to pay credit card bills using any PIN-based debit card
HOW IT WORKS
Walmart Money Center registers and, in locations without a separate Money Center, Customer Service registers are integrated with the CheckFreePay bill pay network. At any such register, you can ask to make a credit card bill payment and use any PIN-based debit card to pay the bill and the associated fee.
You can use up to 4 PIN-based debit cards per bill pay transaction, while paying a single transaction fee.
Credit and debit cards are issued by banks: Chase credit cards are issued by Chase, American Express credit cards are issued by American Express, Bank of America credit cards are issued by Bank of America. However, each card is also linked to a payment network: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover.
The single most important thing you have to know in order to take advantage of this technique is that when you pay your credit card bills at Walmart, you must make the payment out to the payment network, not the issuing bank.
So even though your Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa Signature card and your Chase Ink Plus MasterCard are both issued by Chase, to pay your credit card bills at Walmart the payee for the Sapphire Preferred will be "Visa" and the payee for the Ink Plus will be "MasterCard."
WHAT IT COSTS
This section is based only on my experiments at my local Walmart store locations: your experience may differ.
There are two price points in the CheckFreePay system at Walmart: $1 "3 business day" payments and $1.88 "next business day" payments. Unfortunately, not every credit card payment network has both payment speeds enabled. Here are the results of my experiments:
- Visa: Next business day only ($1.88)
- MasterCard: Next business day only ($1.88)
- American Express: Next business day ($1.88) or 3 business day ($1)
- Discover: Next business day ($1.88) or 3 business day ($1)
So if you want to make a credit card payment to a Visa credit card at my local Walmart, you must pay $1.88: the $1 payment option is not available. This may vary by store location or employee.
WHY IT MATTERS
Ever since the Federal Reserve issued new regulations forcing prepaid card issuers to allow their cards to be used as "true" PIN-based debit cards, we've been in a very exciting time for travel hacking. For example, Chase allows up to $2,600 in free gift card purchases per Chase credit card, per rolling 30-day period. Likewise, many grocery stores (a common bonus category) allow you to purchase $500 Visa and MasterCard gift cards at a typical cost of $5.95-$6.95.
Besides gift cards, in many parts of the country it's still possible to buy Vanilla Reload Network reload cards at drug stores like CVS, and PayPal Cash cards at 7-11 store locations that are processed as gas stations.
The problem in this era of virtually unlimited manufactured spend is liquidating prepaid cards once you've purchased them.
Bluebird is a free option, loadable at all Walmart registers using PIN-based debit cards up to $1,000 per day and $5,000 per month, but those loads count against the same $5,000 calendar month limit as Vanilla Reload Network cards.
Gobank is another great option I've extensively covered, but while it's free to load Gobank accounts at Walmart up to $1,100 per transaction and $2,500 per day, it's a Green Dot product that's subject to shutdown if you exceed undisclosed monthly limits or if your loading pattern is deemed "unusual."
PayPal has a $4,000 rolling 30-day load limit using PayPal Cash cards, but unloading your account can cause problems since PayPal is notoriously sensitive to abusive behavior.
All of those problems have now gone away: you no longer need an intermediate product to liquidate your prepaid cards. Instead, you can bring up to 4 PIN-based debit cards per bill pay transaction to your local Walmart and at a cost of $1 or $1.88 send the card balances directly to your credit card.
There are 3 primary risks to this technique that I want to be perfectly clear about up front.
First, there's the risk of having an account shutdown. There are many reports of MyVanilla Debit cards being shutdown without warning, and it's still unclear what loading and unloading pattern is safest. I don't have an inside line on MyVanilla Debit's fraud prevention algorithms, but I believe cash advances are probably the riskiest method of unloading the cards, because of the high limits and fixed $1.95 fee. Large Walmart transactions are probably a close second. So while this is a great technique for liquidating MyVanilla Debit balances, you still should be careful about spacing your loads and unloads out over the course of the month. And of course, even being careful can't guarantee that your account won't be closed.
Second, there's the risk that Walmart will consider your payments suspicious activity. There are lots of reports in this thread of Walmart employees being prompted to record customers' Social Security numbers, home addresses, and other personal identifying details. Those requests seem to be triggered by credit card payments over $2,000, although the exact level that triggers scrutiny isn't clear. Many people are made uncomfortable by disclosing this sensitive information to Walmart tellers. It appears the best way to avoid doing so is to keep your bill payments below $2,000, although this will raise your cost per dollar of manufactured spend.
Finally, when it comes to Walmart there's always the risk of employee incompetence. This can take a number of different forms. Of course, an employee may simply not know how to make these bill payments. Alternatively, there are reports that some store locations demand that you physically bring your most recent credit card statement into the store. Further, some store locations refuse to allow bill pay transactions to be funded by gift cards (cards that don't have your name embossed on the front). Finally, some employees may feel uncomfortable with multiple, high-value transactions, and simply refuse to help you. Be aware that this is not corporate policy: you've just found an incompetent employee, or a store location with an over-vigilant store manager. Visit another location or return at a different time.
These are manageable risks, but they do exist and you should be aware of them before beginning to use this technique. As always, I recommend starting slowly, using money that you can afford to be temporarily without if something goes wrong, and watching your credit card statements carefully to make sure that each payment posts correctly.
This is a very basic overview of this technique. It works and it can increase your volume of manufactured spend while only slightly increasing your cost per point.
Tomorrow, I will provide my analysis of the volume and cost per dollar of manufactured spend that you can achieve using this technique, and I'll compare it to some other popular techniques.
Later in the week I'll discuss some of the most lucrative opportunities this technique unlocks and share my own plans to use it going forward.
If you've already been using this technique, please share your experiences in the comments. How long do your CheckFreePay payments take to post? Do they post at the beginning or end of the business day? What problems have you had dealing with Walmart employees, and how have you resolved them?