Possible point-of-sale update rolling out to Family Dollar (nothing to worry about)

This seems like it's been a week of minor updates, but during a promotion as lucrative as the one we're currently living through I don't consider that a vice.

I ran into an extremely minor hiccup while liquidating some deeply-discounted Vanilla Visa gift cards at Family Dollar yesterday, and wanted to pass along a heads up in case any readers run into a similar problem.

Vanilla Visa gift cards should be automatically detected as debit cards by Family dollar registers

Until yesterday, every time I used a OneVanilla prepaid Visa debit card or Vanilla Visa gift card at Family Dollar (as long as the card was activated properly, and I waited a sufficient interval before using it) the card was automatically detected as a debit card, asking me only how much cash back I wanted (none) and for a PIN number (any 4 digits, selected the first time the card is used).

Yesterday, at one store, they weren't

I have two relatively convenient Family Dollar store locations, which is terrific since, due to still-poorly-understood velocity limits, any one store is of only limited use each day.

Yesterday at the first store I visited, swiping either of two $200 Vanilla Visa gift cards generated an on-screen error message of "Visa tender not allowed." Fortunately, it occurred to the cashier helping me to press the "F2" key on her register before I swiped, which directed the terminal to treat my Vanilla Visa gift card as a debit card. After that, I was prompted for my PIN and the transaction was successful.

At the second store I visited, an identical card (indeed, one that had generated an error at the first store), went through without the "F2" intervention.


I have absolutely no reason to believe Family Dollar won't continue to be an avenue for liquidating PIN-enabled Vanilla-branded Visa cards for the foreseeable future.

However, slightly different point-of-sale software may be rolling out in waves that will require additional input from cashiers before Vanilla Visa cards are recognized as debit cards.

Liquidating deeply-discounted $200 Vanilla Visa gift cards

As most of my readers no doubt know, through May 16, 2015, you'll instantly receive $20 off every $300 in Visa gift cards purchased at both Office Max and Office Depot. The discount is instantly calculated against every $300 in Visa gift card purchases in each transaction, regardless of the denomination (so three $200 Visa gift cards receive $40 in instant savings).

The offer is supposed to be limited to two rebates per customer. What that means in practice is that the register will only award two $20 rebates per transaction. It's possible to evade this limit by:

  • visiting multiple stores;
  • bringing multiple "customers" with you (each with their own authorized user card, of course);
  • visiting on multiple days;
  • having indifferent cashiers.

The math

Since variable-value gift cards can no longer be purchased with credit cards, the two obvious options are purchasing six $100 Visa gift cards or three $200 Visa gift cards. After applying the instant discount, those transactions will ring up as $595.70 and $580.85, respectively.

Metabank versus Vanilla

The key difference between the two sister chains where this deal is available, Office Depot and Office Max, is that the former offers only Vanilla-branded Visa gift cards, while Office Max offers Visa gift cards issued by MetaBank.

Vanilla-branded Visa cards can no longer be used at Walmart for PIN-based transactions exceeding $49.99 (using any four digits on the first use of the card), while MetaBank-issued Visa cards can be liquidated for their full value using the last four digits of each card's number as its PIN.

Liquidating Vanilla Visa gift cards

For those lucky enough to have access to friendly grocery stores willing to sell money orders without a second thought, there's no particular reason to privilege MetaBank over Vanilla prepaid Visa debit cards.

For others, Vanilla Visa cards are a sheer nuisance. For my own monthly Vanilla liquidation needs, I load Serve cards at Family Dollar, which is free, although faces still-poorly-understood velocity limits (multiple identical loads at the same store are rejected as fraud, but up to 3 sequential loads of different amounts seem to be allowed).

Another obvious option for those with access to the Target Prepaid REDcard is using Vanilla Visa cards to load funds to the REDcard at any Target register. Since the cards aren't personalized, however, your success will depend entirely on the willingness of your Target cashiers to oblige you (mine insist on seeing any card I use to load funds to REDcard).

Liquidating deeply-discounted Vanilla Visa gift cards

The problem with all three of the above options is that they don't increase the amount of spend you're able to manufacture during this deal, they cannibalize the time and techniques you were already using to liquidate prepaid cards. Every $200 in Vanilla Visa gift cards I load to a Serve account is $200 in OneVanilla prepaid Visa debit cards I can't load to the same card.

For me, the essential fact about this deal is the deeply-discounted nature of the $200 Visa gift cards we're able to buy, paying just $193.61 for a card with $200 in spending power.

That deep discount means you shouldn't consider yourself throttled by the free and cheap techniques I described above; save those for your more expensive manufactured spend techniques, where every penny matters to the profitability of the technique.

This deal is about volume, and even more expensive methods of liquidation are profitable under these conditions.

Evolve Money

For many people, Evolve Money lost its luster when they started charging 3% for bill payments made with prepaid debit cards.

But guess what: if you've purchased $200 Vanilla Visa gift cards at a 3.18% discount, you can liquidate an unlimited number of them through Evolve Money and turn a profit on every single one, before even taking credit card rewards into account!

Specifically, you can make $194.17 bill payments with cards you purchased for $193.61.

So if it's been a while, or if you're new to Evolve Money, I recommend searching through their biller database for any bills you're already planning to pay.

Tuition bills

Although not found in Evolve Money, many school from kindergartens to universities are willing to accept payment with debit cards, often tacking on a similar fee to Evolve's 3%. If you're able to make multiple partial payments, this is a terrific way to liquidate deeply-discounted Vanilla Visa gift cards without cannibalizing other avenues.

Tax payments

Since these are debit cards, they should qualify for discounted debit card pricing when making payments to the IRS (and find way, way more information here).


When this deal comes around, as it does a few times each year, the key to maximizing it is volume. You'll be making money even at unusually high liquidation costs, so as long as you have a plan to liquidate them, you should consider buying as many $200 Visa gift cards as possible, whether they're backed by Vanilla or MetaBank.

But remember: the logic above applies only to deeply-discounted $200 Vanilla Visa gift cards; I won't personally be buying any of the much less-discounted $100 Vanilla Visa gift cards (although $100 MetaBank-backed cards will be fair game).

Confirmed: multiple same-day Serve loads at Family Dollar

Back in July I mentioned my intention to load my Serve card at Family Dollar for the time being, using easily-acquired OneVanilla prepaid Visa debit cards, and just last month shared my local store manager's theory about the kinds of limits Family Dollar registers impose on Serve loads.

As I explained in that second post:

"However, using Family Dollar raises its own issues; in particular, you can generally only load a Serve card once per day, per store location. Since I only have one convenient Family Dollar location, that means loading $5,000 in OneVanilla cards over ten days, compared to the 2 days possible at Walmart registers ($2,500 per day)." (emphasis added)

While it's true that I have only one convenient Family Dollar location, it's not precisely true that I have only one local location.

Multiple same-day Serve loads are possible at different Family Dollar locations

A reader had privately e-mailed me to let me know he was able to load his Serve card multiple times on the same day at different Family Dollar locations, so this morning I set off to cruise around the suburbs and collect my own datapoints.

I ended up visiting 3 Family Dollar locations: my own local, convenient location, and two suburban locations:

  • My $500 load went through as usual at my local store;
  • the first suburban location's card readers and PIN pads were out of order;
  • and the second suburban location allowed me to complete a second, $500 load.

My working hypothesis for now is that you can load up to $2,500 per day (Serve's daily cash load limit, per the Serve website), by visiting 5 different Family Dollar store locations.

Family Dollar loads have their drawbacks

Those with access to more store locations will benefit most from this fact, and not just because you need access to 5 stores in order to complete 5, $500 loads.

In addition to the one-load-per-store-per-day limitation, Family Dollar registers also have an overreactive fraud detection algorithm, such that you might be unable to load your Serve card at any given store even once, depending on that store location's previous daily load activity, as I described here.

And of course, as my experience today showed, Family Dollar stores are not necessarily reliable partners; both technical difficulties and undertrained personnel can make life more frustrating that you'd like.


I know there are metropolitan areas with dozens of Family Dollar locations, and for residents of those areas the possibility of multiple, same-day Serve loads using OneVanilla cards is yet another advantage of Serve over Bluebird.

As Serve becomes ever more useful than Bluebird, it seems to me that it must be a matter of time until Bluebird cards are discontinued and Serve remains as American Express's flagship prepaid card product.

One Family Dollar manager's theory about Serve load limits

It's no secret that many travel hackers know more about the ins and outs of merchant software than the employees themselves. That makes sense: for us, the difference between success and failure is the difference between a payday and going home empty-handed, while for those helping us check out, we're mostly just another ripple in the daily river of anonymous customers.

For a Walmart customer service agent who sells dozens of money orders every shift, but processes just one or two CheckFreePay bill payments, of course it's up to us to insist they not key in the amount of a split tender until after we've entered a PIN.

Nonetheless, our tellers are people, and people are basically curious at heart; when we see unusual events, we tend to seek an explanation. And the other day, the manager at my local Family Dollar shared her explanation for why Serve loads are occasionally rejected.

Background: Serve loads at Family Dollar

Regular readers know that for the past few months I've been loading my Serve account at Family Dollar, where OneVanilla prepaid debit cards are still accepted without any fuss.

However, using Family Dollar raises its own issues; in particular, you can generally only load a Serve card once per day, per store location. Since I only have one convenient Family Dollar location, that means loading $5,000 in OneVanilla cards over ten days, compared to the 2 days possible at Walmart registers ($2,500 per day).

Additional velocity limits

In addition to the limitation of $500 per day, per store location, there are also other, unpublished limits on the number and speed of Serve loads. When loads are attempted in excess of those limits, the transaction is rejected and the cashier is given a "fraud warning." After that, the OneVanilla card has to be swiped again, and the PIN re-entered, in order to refund the amount of the load back to the prepaid debit card (don't leave before completing this procedure!).

There are various explanations floated, for example on FlyerTalk, for what triggers those fraud warnings. I hadn't thought much about it, since I only have the one Serve card, until yesterday, when I finally encountered a fraud warning and went through the rigamarole described above.

The employee helping me called for his manager, who had herself helped me multiple times already this month, and she gave me her own explanation for why Serve loads are sometimes rejected: she claimed that each store was allowed to load exactly 3 American Express cards per day; it's loads in excess of that number that prompt rejection.

Now, I don't think what's essentially a store manager's speculation necessarily deserves more weight than FlyerTalker speculation, for all the reasons I described above. On the other hand, she did claim that she's been loading a lot of American Express cards this month, so I also don't think it can be dismissed completely out of hand.

What's your favorite explanation for Serve load rejections at Family Dollar?

Why I'll be loading Serve at Family Dollar (for now)

If you've been following the relevant thread on FlyerTalk or received one of the seemingly targeted e-mails from American Express (I haven't received one yet), you know that American Express has entered into a partnership with the Family Dollar discount store chain to allow Serve accounts to be loaded with cash or debit cards at Family Dollar registers.

How it works

The stars finally aligned today and I made my way to a nearby Family Dollar (after popping into Walgreens to pick up a Vanilla prepaid debit card).

The cashier and manager hanging out by the front door were easily the two nicest minimum wage employees I've met (note to Walmart!), and while they naturally hadn't heard of any e-mail, memo, change, or even Serve itself, they were totally game to play around with it for me.

I grabbed one of the famously mysterious "fake" Vanilla Reload Network cards from the prepaid card rack (where, intriguingly, I also saw OneVanilla cards hanging) and walked it up to the counter. The cashier scanned the bar code on the reverse side, entered $500, and I was prompted to swipe my Serve card. The register then showed a total amount due of $500 (not, importantly, $503.95).

I swiped my freshly acquired Vanilla prepaid debit card, entered any PIN I liked, and the register reported success. A few moments later I received the standard e-mail from American Express indicating the load was successful, and it was immediately reflected in my online balance.

Why it matters

Reading this blog post you may well be saying to yourself that you can't imagine any reason you would ever load a Serve card at Family Dollar. And you might be right!

But part of being the most effective travel hacker you can be is knowing all the opportunities available out there, so you should at least be aware of this opportunity.

Personally, I will be loading up my Serve card at Family Dollar for as long as this opportunity lasts, for the simple reason that I'm a busy guy, and my visits to Walmart are particularly busy. I already have too many things to take card of on each visit there, so the ability to displace some of my Walmart loading activity to another (incidentally, closer and more convenient) store location is a big win in my book.

You may or may not find that to be the case in your own miles and points strategy and in your own geographic location. But if, for example, you've been lamenting the end of OneVanilla cards' debit functionality at Walmart, perhaps because you have a particularly lucrative card for drug store spend, you might want to hop onto your preferred mapping service and see if you have a Family Dollar store near you.