What role should non-bonused spend play in your miles and points strategy?

Last week Shawn at Miles to Memories wrote about his experience buying PIN-enabled, Metabak-issued, personalized Visa gift cards from GiftCardMall, after clicking through a cash back portal like TopCashBack.

I responded to him on Twitter, remarking "I think you're begging the question; real issue seems to me what role unbonused spend plays in strategy."

Since I have this blog lying around, I figured I can explain myself more completely.

How is your manufactured spend throttled?

I've written before about the kinds of throttles that prevent us all from manufacturing an unlimited amount of spend. Even with huge credit limits, unlimited stock, and compliant cashiers, you'll still be constrained by the time you're willing to spend manufacturing spend, so in a concrete sense everyone's manufactured spend is throttled.

Of course, most of us don't live in that ideal manufactured spend landscape, and so regularly run into credit limits, dwindling supplies, suspicious cashiers, and a simple shortage of convenient or accessible stores.

Liquidation throttles matter most

There is no way to manufacture, on a monthly basis, more spend than you're able to liquidate, and in a fundamental sense manufactured spend is really manufactured liquidation: the search for more, easier, faster, and cheaper ways to get cash back out of the products we buy. After all, there's no special trick to buying cheap printers; the trick is getting virtually all your money back, so you can pay off your credit card while pocketing the rewards you earned on your purchase.

Different forms of manufactured spend are throttled differently

A few examples illustrate this point clearly:

  • You may be able to buy an unlimited number of OneVanilla prepaid Visa debit cards on credit, earning 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar using a Chase Ink Plus card at 7-Eleven store locations, but if you have only one Serve card, you can only liquidate $5,000 in Vanilla Visa cards per month at Family Dollar. At the same time, you might be able to liquidate an unlimited number of Metabank-backed Visa gift cards at Walmart.
  • If you have a Target Prepaid REDcard, you may be able to liquidate up to $5,000 in PIN-enabled debit cards per month at Target for free, but if your Target store locations require you to use cards that match your ID, you may not be able to liquidate any cards purchased at merchants where your credit cards offer bonused earning.

Match your liquidation bandwidth to bonused spend first

By allocating your liquidation bandwidth to your credit cards' bonus categories, you'll maximize your earning over however much spend you're able to manufacture and liquidate each month.

The logic here is simple: Shawn's personalized GiftCardMall Visa gift cards may cost him just $4.59 each, while a Visa gift card purchased at a grocery store might cost $6.95. But if Shawn uses a Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express card to purchase each, he'll be paying 0.3 cents per HHonors point at GiftCardMall and just 0.23 cents per HHonors point at the grocery store. If he cannibalizes his liquidation bandwidth with "cheaper" GiftCardMall gift cards, he'll end up paying more per point than he would by swallowing the higher per-card charge.

A special note on American Express gift cards

American Express gift cards, purchased after clicking through a portal like TopCashBack, are capable of adding a cash back bonus to any non-bonused spend, which can be well worth doing to diversify your strategy away from just miles and points. On the other hand, you'll only be able to liquidate them at merchants that accept American Express cards and don't specifically prohibit gift cards (like Simon Malls).

If there's room left for non-bonused spend, that's fantastic

There are forms of manufactured spend that are intrinsically unbonusable:

  • Visa Buxx cards can only be loaded with Visa and MasterCard credit cards in the Buxx cardholder's name. If you load them with a Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard, for example, you'll earn 2.22% cash back, and there's no way to juice that earning rate with an intermediary step (although you may have a different preference for the funding card).
  • Serve cards can be loaded with third-party American Express cards like the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express, but not with American Express gift cards. You'll earn 2% cash back on up to $1,000 in online loads each month, and you'll be glad to get it.

Finally, there are forms of manufactured spend like the personalized GiftCardMall Visa gift cards described by Shawn, and Simon Malls Visa gift cards, which can usually only be purchased with credit cards in the purchaser's name. They have the advantage of being relatively cheap and available in relatively large volumes, but the disadvantage of not receiving any spending category bonuses.


By now I hope my point is obvious: while the large volumes possible with those products do represent a real, concrete advantage that I have no intention of minimizing, if you're capable of liquidating such large volumes you have to first ask whether you've really exhausted all your bonused spending opportunities!

If you have, then manufacturing additional, non-bonused spending that fits within your liquidation bandwidth is common sense. But if you haven't, then you're leaving miles, points, and cash back on the altar of volume.