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.

Resolution of my MVD/FDIC complaint

Before I get to today's post, I want to invite all my readers to come back tomorrow when I'll be talking about a new hack that I've been exploring – because I need your help. Normally I only post about a new technique once I've had a chance to explore all the nuances and share my findings, but this one is a little bit different and I think it'll benefit from as much reader feedback as possible. And yes, it is going to upset some people that I'm writing about it publicly, so if nothing else you should come back to check out the fireworks in comments.

With that out of the way, on to today's news. When I got back from Wisconsin last night I found a letter from The Bancorp Bank in response to my FDIC complaint about my second frozen MyVanilla Debit Card account (the one with all the money in it). Then this morning I received another letter from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Bancorp's main federal regulator. I thought I'd share the details of those responses with my readers.

Bancorp's Response

There were several interesting sections in the Bancorp letter. First, the explanation of the initial account blockage on November 21:

Your account was blocked on November 21, 2013 due to activity that was considered suspicious. The account received several loads which mimic a fraudulent transaction pattern that InComm, the program manager, sees on a day-to-day basis during phone scams.

Presumably the phone scams they're talking about are when you're asked to buy a reload card and send in the PIN number in order to receive a prize.

Next, there was an explanation for the runaround I was given:

All of the requested information was received and on December 2, 2013 the card was reopened. We appreciate you sending in the requested information in such a timely matter [sic]. The turnaround time to review submitted documents is anywhere from 24-72 hours. In this case the documents you submitted were sent to the wrong folder which resulted in a delay in reopening the account. The documents were reviewed on December 2, 2013 and the account was reopened.

Then some commentary on their federal banking supervision:

Please understand that our ultimate goal is to protect the security of your account. We are obligated by federal banking regulations to follow a process known as the Customer Identification Program (CIP). The CIP regulations make it mandatory for a bank to take the proper steps to confirm the identity of its customers. The CIP process is necessarily stricter with accounts that are opened via the internet. While we must always comply with all banking regulations, we make every attempt to do so with as little impact to you as possible. We appreciate your patience and understanding while we assisted you with your concern.

Finally a little customer service boilerplate:

This issue has since been discussed with the customer service department to ensure the review requests and escalations are being sent to the correct individuals. We apologize for any inconvenience you experienced. We truly regret the delay that was caused by the mishandling of your request.

In other words, they seem to be saying there were two separate issues:

  • Possibility of me being a phone scammer, getting Vanilla Reload PINs from unsuspecting victims and quickly loading and unloading the value;
  • And federal banking regulations which require them to conduct identity verification for accounts opened over the internet.

That being the case, it's still impossible to say what "directly" led to my account being frozen.

The FDIC's Response

Besides including a copy of Bancorp's response, the FDIC also expanded a little on the regulations Bancorp was claiming to be following:

The USA Patriot Act rules require each financial institution to adopt a Customer Identification Program (CIP) to ensure the bank has a reasonable belief that it knows each customer's identity. That is why financial institutions engage in more rigorous customer identification procedures when opening new accounts, especially for accounts opened over the Internet. The FDIC and other regulatory agencies encourage banks to use the basic principles set forth in the rule (31 C.F.R Chapter X), which includes obtaining customer information, such as a name, date of birth, address, and for U.S. residents, a tax payer identification number. In addition, banks must verify the identity of customers, through the review of documents or through non-documentary methods, such as information obtained from consumer reporting agencies or checking references. The bank's CIP must also provide customers with adequate notice that the bank is requesting information to verify their identity.

So there you go. I don't think it will necessarily help keep anyone from being shut down, but it's good to know that if you file a complaint with the FDIC, they will listen and respond in a more or less timely manner. Your tax dollars at work!

Round 2 of MyVanilla Debit shutdowns

Back on October 22, I laid out what I called "real talk" about MyVanilla Debit cards:

Since then the shutdown reports slowed down, and other opportunities opened up, so I decided to start using my MyVanilla Debit cards more aggressively. 

And my accounts are still alive and well.


MyVanilla Debit cards are still a very viable option for manufacturing relatively large amounts of spend each month. And if you've been shying away from them because of the shutdown reports, it might be time to start – carefully! – dipping your toes back in the water.

Just a few weeks later, I was sad to report that one of my 3 MyVanilla Debit cards had been shut down. It was closed after I had already emptied it down to $35, so it wasn't a big priority for me to get the account reopened or have the balance mailed to me.

My second MyVanilla shutdown is a different story entirely. On November 21, I loaded $2,000 in Vanilla Reload Network reload cards at home, then set off to Walmart to liquidate my balance using Walmart Bill Pay. By the time I got to the store about 30 minutes later, my account had already been frozen – with over $2,000 in it!

I called Incomm immediately, and was told that I needed to fax in a copy of my driver's license and Social Security card, and to call back the next day.

When I called back on November 22, I was told that they couldn't find my fax, and that instead I should email my documents to, and call back an hour later to confirm they'd received them. I did, and they did. They told me the compliance department would get to my account within "72 business hours" (this is their idiotic way of saying 3 business days).

I took Thanksgiving week off, and didn't call in again until Saturday, November 30. Imagine my lack of surprise when the phone agent told me that my e-mail had been misfiled: someone had saved the file using my first and middle names, instead of my first and last names. Consequently, the compliance department had never gotten to it. After refiling my documents correctly, the agent promised that he would place it in a high priority queue and that my account would be resolved within "24 business hours."

Sure enough, by the afternoon of Monday, December 2 my account had been reopened, and I hurried to the bank to empty my account. So all told, I didn't have access to my money for about 11 days.

The Takeaway

Here are my preliminary conclusions based on my experience and everything I've read so far:

  • Shutdowns can occur the same day as loads: you may not have time to empty your account before being shutdown;
  • Some shutdowns are still being resolved without faxing in copies of the Vanilla Reload cards used to load the account. Others are not;
  • I no longer believe there's a safe level or type of activity with MyVanilla Debit cards, at least not at the kind of volume that's worth risking shutdown;
  • The staff at Incomm are excessively incompetent, and even if they are trying in good faith to help you, their incompetence could significantly delay the resolution of your shutdown.

My Activity

As in the case of my previous shutdown, I'm more than happy to provide the history of my loading and unloading activity on this account. As before "CA" designates a bank cash advance and "WM" means a Walmart bill payment:

  • October 23: Load $1,000
  • October 24: $1,000 WM
  • October 27: Load $1,000
  • October 29: $1,000 CA
  • October 30: Load $2,000
  • October 30: $2,000 WM
  • November 5: Load $1,000
  • November 6: $1,000 CA
  • November 8: Load $1,000
  • November 11: Load $1,000
  • November 11: $2,000 WM
  • November 18: Load $1,000
  • November 19: Load $1,000
  • November 19: $2,000 WM
  • November 21: Load $2,000

So my total activity in the month leading up to my shutdown was:

  • Loads: $11,000
  • Cash advances: $2,000
  • Walmart bill payments: $7,000
  • Balance at account closure: $2,034.64

First MyVanilla Debit shutdown!

A few weeks ago I reported on my experience using MyVanilla Debit cards. A lot of people are concerned about having their cards shutdown, since it's so valuable to have a way to easily liquidate Vanilla Reload Network reload cards after reaching your $5,000 monthly Bluebird load limit.

I explained how I had gradually increased my MyVanilla Debit usage, loading and unloading about $2,000 per week to each of my 3 cards.

Well, one of my cards was finally shut down yesterday soon after I loaded $1,000 and did a bank cash advance in the same amount. 

What happens when you're shut down?

The most important thing to know is that a MVD shutdown only affects the closed account. While the folks at MyVanilla do have my Social Security number, so in principle they could link my three accounts (and in fact they do, since that's how they impose the 3-accounts-per-person limit), in fact they do not proactively close all your active accounts: only the one that triggers the shutdown.

When an account is shutdown, you will no longer be able to log into that account. That's why it's extremely helpful to have your MyVanilla Debit account loaded into Mint or a similar banking website so you still have access to your balance and transaction history (more on that in a second).

How do you get your money back?

If you call the phone number on the back of your closed card, most people seem to have success having their account temporarily reopened to allow the customer to get a bank cash advance or use an ATM to empty the account, which keeps MyVanilla from having to mail a check for the account balance.

Additionally, there are reports that while your account is in that temporary reopened status, it's still possible to load Vanilla Reload Network reload cards, giving you one last shot to push a large amount through the card before losing it. 

Finally, some but far from all shutdown users report that after their account is "temporarily" reopened, it in fact remains open and can be used normally. 

What triggers account closure?

This is a question I obviously don't have an exact answer for. I was loading and unloading much more money to my closed account than the vast majority of MyVanilla's users. On the other hand, there are definitely people who load and unload even more than me. 

Fortunately, I did have my MVD login credentials loaded into Mint, so I still have access to my transaction history, which I'm more than happy to share with my readers. This is for my closed card account, for roughly the last month. CA means a cash advance from a bank teller, WM means a Walmart bill payment: 

  • October 5: Load $1,000
  • October 7: CA $950
  • October 14: Load $1,000
  • October 14: WM $1,000
  • October 17: Load $1,000
  • October 18: CA $1,000
  • October 22: Load $1,000
  • October 24: CA $1,000
  • October 27: Load $1,000
  • October 28: CA $1,000
  • October 31: Load $2,000
  • October 31: WM $2,000
  • November 5: Load $1,000
  • November 6: CA $1,000
  • November 8: Load $1,000
  • November 8: CA $1,000 (shutdown)

In summary, my total amounts of the 3 transaction types are: 

  • Loads: $9,000
  • Cash advances: $5,950
  • Walmart bill payments: $3,000
  • Balance at account closure: $35.04





What Next?

These cards are incredibly lucrative, so of course I'm sad to see one go, but fortunately I still have 2 active card accounts. For now my plan is to stop doing bank cash advances and stick to Walmart bill payments, which I believe are somewhat safer since they're processed as ordinary purchases (i.e. MyVanilla makes money off them). That may be an overreaction, since there's certainly some safe level of monthly cash advances. With only two remaining cards, however, I'm not willing to play Guinea pig to find out just what that level is!


Real talk about MyVanilla Debit cards

In the travel hacking blogosphere, I try to strike what I think is the right balance between risk and reward for myself and for my readers. That's why I'm always asking my readers to take each technique slowly and start with small amounts that you can afford to be without for a little while or – heaven forbid! – even lose. 

Every technique that we use requires you to find your own comfort level. Loading Vanilla Reload Network reload cards to Bluebird, for example, is a technique that many travel hackers use and have become comfortable with because there have been virtually no reports of adverse action against people using Bluebird in that manner.

Other techniques have more complicated track records. For example, here on the blog I broke the story of Gobank, which is an incredibly lucrative opportunity to liquidate PIN-enabled gift cards and reloadable prepaid cards.  However, the behavior that travel hackers consider most lucrative (rapidly loading and unloading) has invariably led to shutdowns and the loss of the opportunity.

What I want to talk about today are MyVanilla Debit cards. These PIN-enabled debit cards are reloadable using Vanilla Reload Network reload cards. They have incredibly high limits (but don't even think about loading your balance above $10,000). You can unload them using PIN-based methods (like Walmart money orders and bill pay ). Moreover, you can withdraw money using "cash advances" at (virtually?) every bank in the United States.

Some time ago, a series of shutdown reports started to pour into Flyertalk  from users who said their accounts had been closed after various forms of the above activities. Like a lot of users, I pulled back on my usage, and avoided shutdown on my three MyVanilla Debit accounts.

Since then the shutdown reports slowed down, and other opportunities opened up, so I decided to start using my MyVanilla Debit cards more aggressively. 

And my accounts are still alive and well. 

For each of my 3 active MyVanilla Debit card accounts, I've adopted the following pattern: 4 $500 Vanilla Reloads per week; 1 $1,000 bank cash advance; 1 $1,000 Walmart bill pay.

This allows me to manufacture about $24,000 per month using Vanilla Reloads loaded to MyVanilla Debit cards at a cost of roughly 1 cent per dollar of manufactured spend. Since between my Fidelity 2% cash back card, Barclaycard 2.22% Arrival World MasterCard, and 5% Citi ThankYou Preferred card I'm averaging 3.07 cents per dollar of manufactured spend, this is a no brainer for me.

What I'm not saying is that every one of my readers should start emulating my (very aggressive) usage of these cards. To be even more emphatic, if you start doing $9,500 cash advances every week you will certainly be shut down.

What I am saying is that these cards have a reputation that, unlike Gobank, they don't fully deserve. MyVanilla Debit cards are still a very viable option for manufacturing relatively large amounts of spend each month. And if you've been shying away from them because of the shutdown reports, it might be time to start – carefully! – dipping your toes back in the water.

Breaking: Does the latest VR redesign change everything?

Reports are already trickling out on Flyertalk about the latest redesign of Vanilla Reload Network reload cards. In the last 24 hours, I've purchased all three generations of reload cards. Here's a "VR Classic:"

American Express on this card was widely understood to refer to the hyper-lucrative Bluebird product, and MyVanilla refers to MyVanilla Debit cards, which my readers are familiar with. This version also includes a few additional account options, including the "momentum" prepaid visa, a product I've been meaning to investigate for a while, but that has extremely limited geographic distribution in the United States. Mio is a product that's already been thoroughly investigated, and unfortunately their risk management department is extremely intolerant of what they perceive as abusive behavior.  The same is true of netSpend.

Then I found a slightly newer generation of Vanilla Reload network reload card:

Here you see the addition of American Express Serve, which is a terrific product, but unfortunately you're not allowed to have an active Serve account and an active Bluebird account at the same time. There's also the addition of the PayPal Prepaid MasterCard, which is NOT the same thing as the PayPal Business Debit MasterCard you can apply for if you have a "Business" or "Premier" PayPal account, and which offers 1% cash back on signature purchases. Instead, it's a fairly abusive prepaid debit product for the under-banked.

Finally, here's the latest generation of Vanilla reload card I picked up today:


Here we see two new additions. Something called Money Network (which appears to be a mostly-scammy Bluebird competitor) But what, you ask, is MasterCard rePower? Good question.

It appears that MasterCard has developed an integrated reload network for all the prepaid debit products that are linked to the MasterCard payment network. This has – traditionally – only mattered if you were lucky enough to live in an area where retailers (Rite Aid is the classic example) allow the sale of Green Dot Moneypaks with credit cards. However, with the addition of Vanilla Reload Network functionality and the widespread ability to purchase reload cards with a credit card, the ability to manufacture spend has potentially just smashed through all previously understood limits.

To put it mildly, there are a lot of options for MasterCard prepaid debit cards

Now, there are a lot of products on that list, and it's guaranteed that not all of them will pan out. High fees, low limits, and the absence of a bill pay feature are going to necessarily make some of those prepaid debit card products useless for manufacturing spend. However, my anticipation is that at least some of them are going to prove to be lucrative enough to double or triple my monthly manufactured spend. 

As always, you'll find the latest updates on all these products right here on the blog. I intend to work my way through all the most promising options, and will report back as I encounter success and failure.

Unleash your manufactured spend: updates

In my week-long series last month on using Walmart's bill pay service to manufacture miles and points (Unleash your manufactured spend with Walmart Billpay), I discussed my own plan to use that technique to double my manufactured spend. In Part 4, I discussed buying gift cards at grocery stores with credit cards that bonus that spend, and using those gift cards to load my Bluebird and Gobank accounts at Walmart registers. Meanwhile, I planned to use my unlimited access to Vanilla Reload Network reload cards to load my 3 MyVanilla Debit cards, which I would use for billpay at Walmart.

Unfortunately, that plan was short-circuited on two fronts. First of all, as I reported here, Gobank finally got around to closing my account, which eliminated that option for liquidating grocery store gift cards and Visa Buxx cards for free.

Then just last week, on my regular walk through my local chain grocery store, I was told that they had started accepting only cash for Visa gift card purchases. I think it probably hasn't been hard-coded into the registers they use, but if the new policy is consistently enforced it will radically decrease the convenience of buying those gift cards.

On the positive side, I've had ongoing success paying off my credit cards using MyVanilla Debit cards at Walmart. While there have been reports of MyVanilla Debit cards being closed for suspicious or excessive loading and unloading patterns, I've been able to load and unload $1,000 per week on all three of my cards without any trouble at all. I keep each individual payment below the $2,000 level which has caused problems at some stores. Hopefully that volume keeps me below the radar and I'll be able to continue to take advantage of this technique.

Unleash your manufactured spend: Part 4

This post was supposed to go up yesterday, but I'm moving apartments this week and yesterday got a little out of hand. So, my apologies for that. There'll be a wrap-up post this evening and then next week we'll return to our regularly scheduled programming.

In today's entry in my series on the ability to pay credit card bills using PIN-based debit and gift cards at Walmart (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), we're leaving theory behind and I'm breaking down my own plans to maximize this technique in my own miles and points strategy.

First, a little background. As someone who constantly ridicules Walmart's model of "low prices, no training, starvation wages," immediately before discovering this technique I was running just 5,000 per month through Walmart, with just two trips per month (unless I had an urgent need to generate a lot of spending quickly, in which case I could buy additional money orders). On a typical visit, I would make 3 deposits to my Gobank account: a $1,000 US Bank Visa Buxx swipe, a $500 Nationwide Visa Buxx swipe, and a $1,000 MyVanilla Debit swipe. By loading my Buxx cards with my PayPal Debit MasterCard, which was funded with PayPal Cash cards, my net cost for $2,519.75 in manufactured spend (per visit) was $12.18, or 0.48 cents per dollar ($11.85 in PayPal Cash fees, $7.90 in Vanilla Reload Network fees, $7 in Visa Buxx load fees, one $0.50 MyVanilla transaction fee, and a $15.07 rebate for using my PayPal Debit MasterCard). Since I manufacture almost exclusively in bonus categories – the exception being the Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, which doesn't have bonus categories, but earns 2.22% cash back on all transactions – this put my cost per point in the low tens of a cent.

Meanwhile, I would load my Bluebird account online with $1,000 using Vanilla Reload Network reload cards on each of the first five days of the month.

As I suggested yesterday, PIN-based billpay at Walmart led me to rethink my entire miles and points strategy. The point isn't that it's cheaper than loading a Gobank account – on the contrary, it's more expensive. I I were going to manufacture the same amount each month as I have been, I'd be crazy to use billpay instead of Gobank. The point, rather, is that at a slightly higher cost per dollar of manufactured spend, it liberates my entire Gobank and Bluebird loading budget for use with gift cards.

Now, with the same Visa Buxx and MyVanilla Debit spending pattern I was using before, I can directly pay my credit card bills at the Walmart Customer Service center (see Tuesday's post for cost per dollar analysis). Then, I can load $3,500 in gift cards to my Bluebird and Gobank accounts at any register in the store. Using a card that bonuses grocery store spend, like the American Express Hilton HHonors no-annual-fee and Surpass cards (5 HHonors points and 6 HHonors points per dollar spent at grocery stores, respectively), the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card (2 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at grocery stores), or even the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card (2 Flexpoints per dollar, worth up to 4 cents when redeemed for paid airline tickets), I can literally double my monthly manufactured spend while only slightly increasing my cost per point.

Of course, this does entail additional trips to Walmart and additional risks. Since Bluebird has a $1,000 daily load limit, I can't load $2,500 per visit as I do with Gobank. To use giftcards to max out my Bluebird load limit, I'd have to make 5 visits a month – not likely! But 4 visits per month, one per week, seems eminently reasonable.

Meanwhile, I'll incur additional risk by moving $4,000 in Vanilla Reload Network reload card loads from Bluebird over to my 3 MyVanilla Debit cards. Since Walmart Billpay is actually cheaper than bank teller cash advances, at least for some transactions ($1.50 for American Express and Discover bill payments, compared to $1.95 for cash advances), I'll stop doing large cash advances, which will hopefully protect me when I start making larger swipe transactions with the cards.

And that's how I'll be turning $10,000 in manufactured spend into $19,000 in manufactured spend on Walmart visits. I'll pay a slightly higher cost per point, but the value of the points I earn will outweigh the higher costs 5-10 times over.

Check back tonight, when I'll offer my concluding thoughts and provide some valuable data points so you know what to expect when you make a Walmart bill payment.


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.