Starting from scratch: alternative banking products

This week I've been writing about some strategies, credit cards, and loyalty programs I would use differently if I were building a travel hacking practice from scratch. If I were ignoring my elite status and current stable of credit cards, I'd focus even more on fixed-value points for use in booking airline tickets, and I'd ignore hotel loyalty completely in order to maximize my cash discount booking hotel nights through online travel agencies.

Today's post is about the alternative banking products I've used, abused, and lost throughout the last five or six years.

High-interest prepaid savings accounts

Back when CVS allowed virtually-unlimited numbers of Vanilla Reload Network reload cards to be purchased with credit cards, the American Express "old" Blue Cash offered unlimited 5% cash back, and the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express gave 6 HHonors points per dollar spent at drug stores, there was a constant search for new prepaid products that could be loaded and unloaded as quickly as possible through the Vanilla Reload Network. I burned through 3 MyVanilla accounts, 2 Netspend accounts, and a Momentum account all in order to liquidate as many Vanilla Reload Network cards as possible.

In hindsight, with Vanilla Reload Network cards today mostly unavailable to credit card users, that was a mistake: Netspend and Momentum offer savings accounts with higher FDIC-insured interest rates than those available anywhere else in the market today, and I'd prefer to still have working relationships with those companies.

American Express prepaid banking products

Like most aggressive users of American Express's Bluebird and Serve prepaid products, on January 8, 2016, my accounts were all closed. I had been using both accounts to liquidate PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards for free, and in the case of Serve, earn cash back by loading funds from my Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card.

If I were starting over today, I wouldn't use American Express prepaid banking products to manufacture spend at all: I'd use them to manufacture transactions for high-interest savings, checking, and credit card accounts that require a certain number of transactions per month to unlock their highest reward levels.


I don't have any regrets about the path that my travel hacking practice has taken, even though I focus more on airline and hotel loyalty currencies than I would if I were starting from scratch today.

I probably slightly overpay for my checked bags by earning Delta Medallion elite status with a Delta Platinum American Express each year, and I earn only part of that value back with high-value SkyMiles redemptions.

Likewise, I tend to overpay for my hotel stays by earning Hilton HHonors points and Diamond elite status with my Hilton Surpass American Express, instead of booking through a cashback portal and online travel agency, and I've certainly overpaid by directing stays towards Hyatt during this year of my Diamond status match.

But building relationships with banks and merchants is a process that necessarily develops over time, and as things stand I'm more or less happy with the decisions I've made and the relationships I've built, even if I would have proceeded different in hindsight.

I'd sure kill for another shot at a Serve account, though.

Charlotte preview: Vanilla Reloadables

As readers know, there will be a gathering in Charlotte this weekend of some of the participants in the March manufactured spending competition (#milemadness) and readers who are interested in getting to know us better. Additionally, we'll be joined by some of the more, shall we say, reclusive members of the travel hacking community. I'm very excited to be presenting, and even more excited to be able to meet some folks I only know over e-mail or through enigmatic posts on FlyerTalk.

This week I though I'd share some reflections on my experience in the competition, and maybe elicit some subjects from readers and Charlotte attendees for further conversations.

I lost #milemadness – but that's ok

The manufactured spending competition privileged speed of liquidation, since you couldn't manufacture additional spend until you had liquidated an instrument, whether it was Vanilla Reload Network reload cards or electronics you bought for resale.

Additionally, all the spend we manufactured was "weighted" by the "Fair Trading Price" of the points currencies we earned. Whatever the advantages or disadvantages of FTP as a system for pricing points, it meant that those who were earning Ultimate Rewards points – especially at high multiples – were able to easily lap those of us stuck manufacturing almost any other points currency.

On the other hand, I ultimately manufactured about $43,000 in spend during the four weeks of the competition, or about $1,500 per day, an amount that I'm perfectly satisfied with. The ability to manufacture that much spend on a sustained basis puts all of my travel and financial goals within reach, which is one reason I finally became confident enough to decide to start blogging and writing full time.

Vanilla Reloadables

In today's Charlotte preview, I want to explain the reloadable prepaid debit cards I used to manufacture a big chunk of that $43,000.

"But FQF," you may well object, "Vanilla Reloads aren't a viable tool anymore! Why would anyone be interested in that?"

The answer, of course, is people who still have access to Vanilla Reloads.

Bluebird ($5,000)

Bluebird, and its cousin Serve, forms the hard core of most manufactured spending strategies.

  • Limits: $1,000 per day, $5,000 per calendar month;
  • Loading: online using Vanilla Reload Network, or in-store at any Walmart register;
  • Unloading: transfer to a linked bank account, or pay bills directly;
  • Adverse action: none.

JH Preferred ($11,000)

The JH Preferred card is a branded clone of the generic MyVanilla Debit cards. However, it's still possible to sign up for a JH Preferred card even if you've already used up all 3 of your MyVanilla Debit shutdowns.

  • Limits: $2,500 per day, $5,000 per month published, limits only loosely enforced in practice;
  • Loading: online using Vanilla Reload Network;
  • Unloading: PIN-based transactions at Walmart;
  • Adverse action: Many reports of shutdowns for over-the-counter bank cash disbursements.

Momentum ($4,000)

The Momentum prepaid card can only be applied for in-person at a limited number of check-cashing establishments. It's a very expensive and abusive product, with a high risk of shutdown.

  • Limits: $2,500 per day (5 loads);
  • Loading: online using Vanilla Reload Network;
  • Unloading: $1 over-the-counter bank cash disbursement for the entire card balance;
  • Adverse action: closed after third cash withdrawal.

HR Block Emerald ($5,000)

This is a great product that can be a bit tricky to sign up for, since you need to either have your taxes done in-branch at a HR Block location, or convince them to give you a card without having your taxes done. It is similar to Bluebird, but cost $3.74 to load at Walmart registers.

  • Limits: $1,000 per day, $5,000 per rolling 30-day period;
  • Loading: online using Vanilla Reload Network or in-person at any Walmart register (costs $3.74);
  • Unloading: ACH pull directly from the account;
  • Adverse action: none.


There you have it: a full $25,000 of my total manufactured spend during the competition was through Vanilla reloadable prepaid debit cards.

On the one hand, that's not a terribly creative approach to manufacturing spend. On the other hand, even if I were earning at a rate of one mile per dollar, that means I could have spent $197.50 (plus unloading costs, plus time) for enough miles to fly roundtrip anywhere in the continental US.

Update: Momentum shutdown

As my regular readers know, back in February I took a day trip down to Philadelphia in order to pick up a Momentum prepaid Visa. I had some initial difficulties activating the card, but then grew excited about the fact that Momentum could be loaded with Vanilla Reload Network reload cards, and unloaded using bank "cash advances" with a fee of just $1.

If you follow me on twitter, you know that a few days ago I was suddenly no longer able to log into my online Momentum account. At the time, I could still access the online phone system and find out my remaining balance of 3 bucks and change.

Today I decided to dig into the situation and figure out what's going on with my card, but found that the phone tree no longer recognized my card number.

Since I couldn't log into the website, and couldn't talk to a customer service representative, I filed a complaint with the FDIC about Bancorp, which is pretty much the only thing you can do at times like these.

My Transaction History

As I've done previously with my shutdown reports, I'm happy to share my own loading and unloading transaction history:

  • February 15: purchase and $10 initial load;
  • February 26: Square swipe for $9;
  • February 27: $2,000 Vanilla Reload Network load;
  • February 27: $1,995 cash advance;
  • March 1: $2,000 Vanilla Reload Network load;
  • March 1: $2,000 cash advance;
  • March 3: $2,000 Vanilla Reload Network load;
  • March 3: $2,000 cash advance.
  • ~March 5: shutdown


What can I say? I redeemed 8,000 Ultimate Rewards points for an Amtrak Guest Rewards transfer which got me to Philadelphia and back. And I was able to liquidate $6,000 of Vanilla Reload Network reload cards at a cost of $3. So I probably broke roughly even on this experiment.

And I would (and will!) happily do it again for you, gentle readers.

Developing: Momentum prepaid Visa

I've long been curious about the Momentum Prepaid Visa, one of the many cards issued by The Bancorp Bank. There's virtually no information available about it online, and it has an unusually sparse and confusing Flyertalk thread.

Getting the Card

The first reason there's so little information about the Momentum card is that it has an extremely limited geographic availability. You can only apply for the card at one of a fairly small number of Money Mart and Loan Mart check-cashing locations. You'll need to visit their store locator tool to see if there's a location near you or somewhere you'll be visiting soon.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that back on February 15 I took an Amtrak Northeast Regional train down to Philadelphia to visit the Money Mart on Market Street there and apply for a card.

It cost $10 to purchase a temporary card, with an additional minimum deposit of $10, so a total of $20 in cash was required to walk away with a temporary card.

The "application form" is a trifold brochure that asks for some basic information, including your Social Security number, and asks you to choose between the "flat fee" and "pay as you go" plan. Here's a picture of a spare application I grabbed from the store:

momentum application.JPG

On the back of the brochure is information about the card's fees and limits:

momentum fees and limits.JPG

Selecting a Card

As you may be able to make out above, you can choose between two "plans:"

  • the "flat fee" plan has a $10 per month "maintenance fee," but no charge for signature and PIN transactions;
  • the "pay as you go" plan has no monthly fee, but charges $1 per signature and PIN transaction.

There are a few other irrelevant fee differences, but that's basically it: if you plan to make more than 10 transactions per month, select the "flat fee" plan, otherwise you're better off with the "pay as you go" plan.

Activating the Card

Once I had my temporary card, I just threw it in a drawer until my permanent card came about a week and a half later. Once that permanent card arrived, I naturally had to activate it.

The first thing to point out is that the application distinguishes between a blue, "flat fee," card and a green, "pay as you go" card. Since I applied for a "pay as you go" card, I was given a green temporary card. But when my permanent card arrived, it was blue!

Additionally, some folks on Flyertalk have reported receiving a permanent card, with their name printed, at the check-cashing store itself. So at the moment it doesn't appear that there's any rhyme or reason to the card's color scheme.

Finally, and this is just embarrassing, but I had completely forgotten that the clerk at Money Mart repeatedly told me that my default pin was the last four digits of my Social Security number.

So don't let this happen to you: your default pin is the last four digits of your Social Security number! You'll need to input that default pin to register your permanent card (you can then easily change it).

Loading Momentum

Momentum prepaid Visa cards are loadable using Vanilla Reload Network reload cards.

If you look at the "card fees and limits" above, you'll see the third line from the top reads:

"Maximum Daily Card Load – All others  $7,500"

I have no idea what that's supposed to refer to. However, in the terms and conditions that were sent along with the permanent card, there's a much clearer limit:

"The maximum number of times you can load your Card per day is five (5), so long as the Card balance does not exceed $10,000."

Once my permanent card had arrived and was activated, I was able to load $2,000 in Vanilla Reload Network reload cards without any issue in a period of about 5 minutes.

Unloading Momentum

Here's the part that I'm particularly excited about. According to the same terms and conditions included with the permanent card:

"The maximum cumulative amount that may be withdrawn through a participating bank (over-the-counter withdrawal) per day is the total available balance on the Card."

After loading my $2,000 to the card, I walked down to my trusty local bank and asked for a "cash advance" of $1,995. A "cash advance," as my readers know, is a very expensive method of taking cash out of a credit card. However, over-the-counter cash disbursements are processed identically by tellers, and I have yet to meet a bank teller who knows the phrase "cash disbursement," which is the term Visa uses for over-the-counter withdrawals from debit cards.

The "cash advance" processed successfully, and when it posted to my Momentum card a few hours later it incurred a fee of just $1.

Remaining Questions

I'm excited about my new toy, but there are a lot of questions I don't have the answers to yet:

  • Is the daily load limit really $2,500?
  • Is there a monthly load limit and, if so, is it a calendar month or rolling load limit?
  • Is there really no limit on over-the-counter withdrawals?
  • Does the "flat fee" plan waive the $1 over-the-counter withdrawal fee?

And of course, the biggest question of all: what is the shutdown risk of this card?

Bancorp issues a lot of prepaid debit cards, and they're all vulnerable to shutdown sooner or later. However, there's no question that some cards are more vulnerable than others, so it's not a foregone conclusion that the Momentum card isn't worth your time.

That's going to become clearer in the coming weeks and months. How will you find out? From your humble blogger, of course.

Have a great weekend.