Unleash your manufactured spend: Part 3

On Monday, I published a post outlining the details of a long-standing but little-known travel hacking technique: using PIN-based debit cards to make credit card payments at Walmart Money Center and Customer Service registers.  Then on Tuesday I compared the potential cost per dollar (CPD) of manufactured spend you can achieve using various PIN-based debit products.

In the days leading up to this week's series, I promised "a new, game-changing hack which will double or triple the amount of manufactured spend" you can generate each month. But when the details were revealed, they were met with a shrug from many of my readers. I'm not here to judge – I'm here to provide you with my ideas, analysis, and experiences in the world of travel hacking. But the indifferent reaction did start me thinking about the following question:

What do you do when you find out about a new travel hacking technique?

The natural impulse when a new technique like Walmart billpay comes along is to think "how can I add this to my existing system?" And there is a perfectly natural answer: buy PIN-based Visa prepaid debit cards, preferably at a merchant that gives a category bonus (like supermarkets with the American Express Hilton HHonors and Surpass cards), and liquidate those cards at your local Walmart Money Center or Customer Service center.

I would argue that that's the wrong impulse, and that's part of what has led to a lot of frustration among people who've tried using this technique and found it to be more trouble than it's worth. Indeed, it sounds like a special kind of hell buying Visa gift cards in sets of four, taking them to Walmart, asking an underpaid, undertrained Walmart cashier for a $1,998.12 bill payment – and then asking to pay using four $500 gift cards! It's no surprise that people experience a lot of resistance and heartburn if that's their unloading strategy.

But remember the features of the products you've already been exploiting for months: Bluebird allows you to load up to $1,000 per day and $5,000 per calendar month in Vanilla Reload Network reload cards OR register loads at Walmart – and those loads can be done at any Walmart register (I've even done them at the small register at the end of the self-checkout aisle).  Gobank allows up to $2,500 per day in PIN-based debit loads at Walmart. While you can load $1,100 twice using a MyVanilla Debit card for a total cost of $1.00, you can also load $500 5 times, at 5 different registers, for free using PIN-based gift cards.

Even better, if your local Walmarts have Money Center kiosks (mine don't), you can load your Bluebird and Gobank accounts there, without even interacting with a cashier

Then you can use your MyVanilla Debit cards, or other high-limit PIN-based debit products to make single, large, credit card bill payments at the Customer Service desk or Money Center without any fuss: no split transactions, no anonymous gift cards. The same goes for your US Bank and Nationwide Visa Buxx cards (but don't forget the $800 rolling 7-day purchase limit with Nationwide Visa Buxx).

I'm not recommending this, or any other, specific loading and unloading strategy. What I'm recommending is that rather than just stacking new techniques on top of your favorite existing techniques, think about your miles and points strategy holistically in order to get the most out of each horrible, soul-crushing, but shockingly lucrative trip to Walmart.

With that said, I'm dismounting the soapbox! Check back tomorrow, when I'll share my plan going forward, integrating Walmart billpay into my own miles and points strategy, and on Friday I'll share some additional data points that I hope readers will find useful.


Unleash your manufactured spend: Part 2

Well, yesterday's post sure got a reaction out of my readers, both long-time and first-time, and I can't say I'm surprised: it was an "unblogged" technique that a lot of people have been using to manufacture spend for months, or longer, and they were understandably concerned about anything that might signal an end to that. I strongly recommend taking a look at the comments to that thread, since in addition to people scolding me there are some valuable observations by readers correcting details and making observations based on their own experiences.

I want to single out commenter Brandan who pointed out that "it says on the FlyerTalk post you linked to that it's possible to have Best Buy Chase as the payee for a Chase credit card (and reduce the bill pay fee to $1)" and commenter Jewsus for pointing out that he can pay his American Express credit card using the "next business day" service for $1.50, not $1.88 as I had posted (the 3 business day service costs $1). Thanks guys. I don't have every credit card and I haven't made payments to all the credit cards I do have, so there's a lot of information about specific issuers that I'm not going to be able to report firsthand.

Cost per Dollar (CPD) of manufactured spend: my analysis

Since this technique has a very high limit (up to $8,999 or $9,999, according to various reports) but a flat cost, the cost per dollar of manufactured spend you pay is going to vary depending on the size of your payments. For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to confine this analysis to four payment amounts, where applicable: $500, $1,000, $1,500, and $2,000. Hopefully this will illustrate the potential return of this technique, and you can repeat the calculations for your own preferred payment amounts. Here are my calculations, in increasing order of CPD.

Bank Debit Cards

This is the cheapest option for earning rewards, but is also inherently limited by the amount of money in your checking account. Further, Bank of America and Suntrust, the two banks which issue rewards-earning debit cards that pay rewards on PIN-based transactions, are understandably sensitive to so-called "perk abuse," and you risk having your checking account closed by your bank for "excessive" use of this technique.

Personally, I have made $1,000 Gobank deposits using my Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card and the miles have posted normally, so I'm not worried about Walmart bill payments around that level. Your miles may vary

Since there's no fee for using your bank balance to fund a PIN transaction, your cost per dollar of manufactured spend is just $1.00 or $1.88 (or $1.50 – see above), divided by the size of your transaction (note that the Suntrust Delta Airlines debit card earns 1 Skymile per dollar, while the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card earns 1 Mileage Plan mile per 2 dollars): 

This is the same CPD calculation you should use for free Chase gift cards, if they're available in your state. 

Visa Buxx

The Nationwide and US Bank Visa Buxx cards have slightly different limits and fees: the Nationwide card allows 2 loads per month of up to $500 each, at a fee of $2, while the US Bank Buxx card allows 4 loads per month at a cost of $2.50 each. Both cards allow your balance at one time to be up to $1,000, but the Nationwide card has a 7-day rolling limit of $800 in purchases. For the purposes of this chart, I've pro-rated Nationwide's $4 load fee so $3.20 is "charged" to your Walmart bill payment when you make an $800 payment:

PayPal Debit MasterCard

The PayPal Debit MasterCard is loadable using PayPal Cash cards, which can still be purchased using a rewards-earning credit card at some – but far from all – vendors. In addition to its 1% cash back function when you sign for a purchase or use it online, the PayPal Debit MasterCard also functions as a PIN-based debit card. Your daily purchase limit may vary: mine is $3,000.

In this case, in addition to the bill pay transaction fee, you'll also pay $3.95 for each reload card, with up to $500 in value each:

MyVanilla Debit Cards

Loading a MyVanilla Debit card using a Vanilla Reload card costs the same as loading a PayPal Debit Mastercard. However, there's another $0.50 transaction fee charge on every purchase made with the card, slightly raising your cost per dollar of manufactured spend:

Gift Cards

There are a lot of different PIN-based debit gift cards on the market today, and the price per card can vary between $4.95 and $6.95. For the sake of these calculations I'll use $5.95 as a "typical" cost per $500 gift card. You should adjust the calculation depending on the cards you have available in your area:


There's a reason that I use "Cost per Dollar" analysis rather than "Cost per Mile/Point" analysis: I don't know what credit cards you carry, and I don't know how you value your miles and points.

I carry a ThankYou Preferred card that earns 5 ThankYou points per dollar at drug stores, and I can use those point to pay off my student loans for pennies on the dollar. That makes the ability to unload Vanilla Reload Network cards wildly valuable to me, even if I have to pay as much as 1 cent per dollar (earning "only" an 80% discount on my student loan payments). If on the other hand you're earning 1 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar spent at drug stores, you may be much less interested in liquidating Vanilla Reload Network cards at volume.

On the other hand, you may have an American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card, and have some upcoming award trips planned where you'll be getting over half a cent per point in value. In that case, paying as much as 1.23 cents per dollar at a supermarket – 0.205 cents per point – means over a 50% discount on your hotel stay.

This series will continue tomorrow with some reflections on how this technique – and these blog posts – have affected my views on travel hacking, and I'll conclude on Thursday with my thoughts on how I'll personally be taking advantage of this technique in the future.


The best hacks I've missed out on

By now, a lot of people have heard about classic hacks of days gone by, like ordering presidential dollar coins from the US Mint with a rewards-earning credit card, depositing the coins unopened into a bank account, and then paying off the credit card balance. What's often forgotten is the incredible amount of work that went into carrying out this hack: lots of trips to the post office or Mail Boxes Etc.; negotiating with bank managers to accept your coins for deposit; and of course hauling a bunch of heavy coins around town. All to manufacture non-bonused credit card spend! It might have been good work, but it was still work, and it wasn't free.

On the other hand, other hacks really are too good to be true, and these are the ones I really regret not taking advantage of.

Priority Club to Amtrak Transfers

The day before Christmas last year, I woke up to a series of confusing messages about Priority Club and Amtrak. Since Priority Club isn't a program I focus on, I put it on the back burner. Later that afternoon, after lots of trips to the airport picking up family members, I went back and discovered I'd missed out on an incredible deal: the ability to transfer 5,000 Priority Club points into 6,666 Amtrak Guest Rewards points.

Since you can purchase Priority Club points at a cost of 0.7 cents each, this was a chance to buy Amtrak Guest Rewards points at just over half a cent each. Since I value Amtrak Guest Rewards points at between 4 and 6 cents each for Acela First Class tickets and long-haul sleeper accomodations, this was a chance to buy those tickets for pennies on the dollar. Needless to say, I wasn't as merry as I could have been that Chirstmas!

Home Improvement Gift Cards

Last week Frequent Miler gave a great rundown of this short-lived opportunity. Basically, if you were in the right place at the right time, you could purchase – in-person – vast quantities of "Home Improvement Gift Cards," which had begun to be treated as true PIN-based debit cards at merchants like Walmart. The window of opportunity quickly slammed shut, but there was a day or two where points could be purchased for free (if you had load room on your Bluebird or Gobank cards) or for the price of a Walmart money order (around 0.14 cents per dollar of manufactured spend).

Unfortunately, I wasn't in the right place at the right time – they don't sell Home Improvement Gift Cards in Europe! 

Chase Gift Cards

For months now, Chase has been selling gift cards online with no purchase or shipping fees. Best of all, these cards can be configured with PIN codes, which allow them to be used to load Bluebird or Gobank at Walmart, or purchase money orders in many stores that accepts PIN-based debit cards (though USPS code their money orders differently and do not consistently work with all kinds of gift cards).

There are a few limitations on the purchase of these cards: 

  1. they can only be purchased using credit cards issued by Chase;
  2. each Chase credit card can be used to purchase up to $2,600 per rolling 30-day period;

If this deal's still going on, why have I missed out on it so far? Well, there is a third restriction listed on Chase's gift card website: 

This website does not support online sales of Chase Gift Cards to residents of the following states: AR, CT, HI, ME, NH, NJ, RI, VT. We apologize for any inconvenience.

I presume this is because of the abandonment laws in these days, which require merchants to turn unused gift card balances over to the state. Abandoned gift card balances are a big source of profit for banks and gift card companies, and they might not think it's worth offering the cards if they can't keep abandoned balances.

Now, this isn't an insurmountable problem: I could change my billing address to a state where shipments are allowed, then have the cards mailed back to me in New England. But at that point, there are more moving parts than I'm comfortable with, especially since it's not clear how much longer this opportunity will be available.