I've been blessed multiple times to unknowingly move to communities that had favorable environments for manufactured spend. Now, that's not exactly a "coincidence," since many of the most hostile environments for manufactured spend are also the most expensive cities in the country (New York City, San Francisco), and my income doesn't support living there, so I've never lived there.
But I freely admit that it means this blog focuses more on successful manufactured spend techniques than unsuccessful manufactured spend techniques, since most of my techniques are successful!
MasterCard gift cards issued by U.S. Bank are a problem at Walmart
With that in mind, I took the recent occasion of fee-free MasterCard gift cards at Staples to deliberately revisit an old problem: can you use MasterCard gift cards at Walmart?
For several years after the Federal Reserve required prepaid debit cards to be PIN-enabled, MasterCard gift cards issued by U.S. Bank worked differently than Visa prepaid debit cards issued by Metabank at Walmart. Unless you knew about, and were able to convince your cashier to go along with, the "change payment" trick, MasterCards were unusable for money orders or bill payments.
This history means most people, under most circumstances, simply avoid MasterCard gift cards. After all, most merchants that sell MasterCards also sell Visas, and if a credit card or rewards program bonuses spend at a particular merchant, then your natural preference should be to buy the easy-to-liquidate Visa rather than the hard-to-liquidate MasterCard.
However, that natural preference hits a snag when a promotion comes along that targets MasterCard gift cards directly. For example, for folks who drive a lot, the cost of gas can make up a big part of their monthly budget, so when Stop&Shop offers bonus points on MasterCard gift card purchases, folks are understandably conflicted. How does the (relative) difficulty of liquidating MasterCards weigh against the accelerated earning when you pile gas rewards on top of the bonus credit card rewards you're already earning at grocery stores?
Plastiq isn't a good liquidation technique; Plastiq referrals are a good liquidation technique
This came up over the weekend when I asked a fellow travel hacker how he'd fared during the fee-free Staples MasterCard promotion mentioned above, since I'd only been able to grab 3 $200 cards (3,000 Ultimate Rewards points with my Ink Plus). He responded smartly, "what am I supposed to do with a bunch of MasterCard gift cards?"
I mentioned Plastiq, which allows you to you make payments to a variety of payees using prepaid debit cards, including bills that can amount to thousands of dollars per month: student loans, rent, mortgage, cable, and insurance payments, among others.
My friend again pointed out that under normal circumstances, Plastiq's 2.5% liquidation fee made the service scarcely worth using, let alone worth driving around town searching for gift cards.
The trick, of course, isn't that Plastiq is a good liquidation technique, the trick is that if you're good enough at promoting Plastiq as a liquidation technique, you get to liquidate an unlimited number of your own cards for free.
Affiliate bloggers rely on a constant stream of vulnerable newbies
This gives me complete editorial freedom (manufactured spend is good, Membership Rewards points are bad, free night certificates are bad, companion tickets are bad), but it also means my income doesn't depend month-to-month on driving people to sign up for particular cards, chasing bounties or fretting when lucrative payouts go away.
It also means that I don't need to recruit any new travel hackers. My basic view is that most people who are mentally configured to be travel hackers are pretty easy to identify. You can give the absolute simplest task to someone: "buy a Visa gift card," and if they come back with a Home Depot gift card, you know they don't have the attention or precision to be a travel hacker.
That's not to say I "hoard" information; I love sharing information! I just don't have a rooting interest in recruiting additional travel hackers just because they happen to be eligible for new referral bonuses.
But if, on the contrary, your income depends on getting people to sign up for the first time for something, whether it's a Chase Sapphire Preferred card or a Plastiq account, then newbies are the world's most precious resource, and there is nothing more inevitable than a blogger trying to extend their appeal deeper and deeper into less and less appropriate target audiences.
That is to say, a blogger who successfully refers 100 people to Plastiq is correct when they say Plastiq is a good way to liquidate MasterCard gift cards fee-free, because they have $10,000 in fee-free dollars, but incorrect when they tell newbies, about whom they know nothing, to go out and buy a bunch of MasterCard gift cards and to liquidate them through Plastiq.
If you don't understand this reasoning, then a lot of blogger behavior looks absurd. Even setting aside the blogs that are actually owned and operated by credit card affiliate companies, why would Rich Weirdo Ben Schlappig participate in this humiliating spectacle for Rolling Stone? But if you understand that he needs to fish where the fish are, then it makes perfect sense that the more outlandish the venue, the more likely he is to find vulnerable newbies! After all, if your livelihood depended on it, you too would prefer to attract 10 signups from Brides.com than 1 signup from Flyertalk.
Unfortunately, even with a patient cashier and plenty of tries, I wasn't able to make the "change payment" trick work at my local Walmart. Thank God for grocery stores (and Plastiq)!