Three notes on gift card purchase and liquidation

There have been a couple developments around gift cards percolating around the travel hacking community for the last week or so. Here's a quick roundup, so readers can use this post to share their own experiences and ideas in the comments.

American Express lowers maximum gift card denomination eligible for cash back

American Express gift cards are a powerful (though not, as some argue, all-powerful) tool for manufacturing spend through the alchemy of adding 1.5% cash back to unbonused spend, in exchange for only being able to liquidate the cards at merchants that will accept American Express gift cards.

As an astute reader pointed out almost immediately when I brought up the subject two weeks ago, cash back portals like TopCashBack have added language eliminating cash back on gift card denominations above $2,000. Since there's a $3.95 purchase fee for each card anyway, I now split my $2,000 cards into separate orders, which also makes transactions easier for me to track.

On the plus side, the total amount of personal and business gift card purchases eligible for cash back remain unchanged at $10,000 and $100,000 per 14 days, respectively. Additionally, I've recently found my American Express gift card orders to be approved almost 100% of the time, a huge improvement over my previous track record and a welcome development.

Staples Visa gift card activation code funny business

As other bloggers have exhaustively documented, the Gift Card Mall Visa gift cards sold by Staples online, and which are shipped out unactivated, have been accompanied much less consistently by the activation codes necessary to activate them.

Sometimes the activation codes arrive days later, sometimes they arrive by e-mail, and sometimes they don't arrive at all. Even worse, the phone numbers that come with the cards no longer direct you to a GiftCardMall representative who can manually activate the cards.

Instead, as reported by Shawn at Miles to Memories, you need to call this number: 1-877-426-2551. The customer service agents there can easily submit an activation order for your cards, and they'll be up and running within a couple hours (sometimes much sooner). For my recent orders, I haven't bothered waiting for the activation codes: I just call the number above as soon as I receive the physical Visa gift cards.

What's the best way to unload American Express for Target cards?

I get asked all the time what I think about various Rube Goldberg methods of buying and liquidating prepaid card products, and I normally have the same response: if you do that, you're cannibalizing methods of manufactured spend you could use to generate additional volume, instead.

Here's a simple example: let's say you have a credit card that bonuses spend at grocery stores, and you have access to PIN-enabled Visa prepaid debit cards at a local grocery store. Once you've purchased a $500 prepaid debit card, you could then register it, click through a cash back site, and buy an American Express gift card to earn an additional 1.5% cash back. This would naturally increase the total value earned on your initial $500 in spend.

The problem is that instead of using a prepaid debit card, you could just buy the American Express gift card with a different, rewards-earning credit card. If that card earned the equivalent of 2% cash back, you'd be earning 3.5% cash back on the transaction rather than 1.5%.

Don't get me wrong: I understand the impulse to earn rewards on both ends of a transaction; indeed, I invented one of the great triumphs of the genre. But the reason such techniques are so few and far between is that the numbers generally don't add up.

An example that came up the other day is the question of the best way to liquidate funds on American Express for Target cards: whether it's shopping through a portal to buy gift cards (see this Doctor of Credit post for vital information about online gift card orders), Simon Malls, or any of the other liquidation methods we have available.

Here's where I find those suggestions ultimately break down: American Express for Target funds are already liquid. You can make ATM withdrawals with the card, up to $400 per day and costing $3 per ATM withdrawal. In other words, American Express for Target loads are the last step in a chain. Whether or not they're also the first step is up to you: if you can load the card directly with a card that rewards bonus points for purchases at Target, that can be a great option. If instead you load them using American Express gift cards, or the many other options available to us, you can get good value that way as well.

But if the problem is that ATM withdrawals are too expensive to make American Express for Target withdrawals profitable for you, the lesson is that the costs and benefits of the technique simply don't work for you, not that you need to add more moving pieces. After all, every one of those moving pieces could simply be funded with a more lucrative, rewards-earning credit card.