I just bricked my Bluebird account (for the next 28 days)

Today I'm going to share a very simple, very stupid mistake I made. In fact it's so simple, and so stupid, that it's unlikely to help any of my readers. But sharing is still caring, so here we go.


I manage 3 full-service prepaid American Express cards: one Bluebird account (in my name), one Serve account and one Target Prepaid REDcard account (I haven't moved that one to Serve yet).

For the first year or so of managing the Serve card, the bill pay function simply didn't work. I assume this was a version of the e-mail address bug that afflicted quite a few people, but I didn't worry about it, for two reasons. First, since the bill pay function on my Bluebird account has always worked, I could simply send $2,500 per month to that account and pay my credit card bills from there. Second, I also control the external checking account linked to the Serve account, so could simply withdraw the remaining $3,500 monthly and pay my bills from that account.

When a Prepaid REDcard came under my control, I followed the same pattern, except the card wasn't linked to an external checking account, so I only manufactured $4,500 in spend per month with the card: I sent $2,500 to my Bluebird account and withdrew $2,000 per month from free ATM's, the respective limits on each kind of transaction.

Bluebird has a $100,000 limit across all Spend Money transactions

There are six activities that American Express categorizes as "Spend Money" transactions:

  • Merchant Transactions
  • Pay Bills
  • ATM Withdrawals
  • Send Money Transactions
  • Transfers back to the linked Bank Account

It should be nearly impossible to reach that $100,000 spend limit: you can only add $5,000 per calendar month in cash and $1,000 from a linked debit card, which if maxed out would only come to $72,000 per calendar year.

But I was sending myself $4,500 per month from the Serve and REDcard accounts under my control!

Bluebird customer service is surprisingly helpful

When I attempted to make a bill payment this morning, the error message simply said the transaction couldn't be completed and to call customer service. Fearing the worst, I called in immediately. Unfortunately, the frontline representative couldn't pull up my account because their system was undergoing "routine maintenance," but she did offer to transfer me to the technical team.

The representative in the technical department took just a few minutes to look up my total amount spent so far this year, which was just over $96,000, and told me I had just under $4,000 left to spend this calendar year. While I had him on the line, I made a bill payment for the exact amount he specified, and the payment went through as usual, leaving me with a stranded $900 balance until January 1, 2016.


I only fell into this situation because I thought I was being clever: by pooling as much money as possible in my Bluebird account, I wouldn't have to add each of my credit cards to each of the American Express prepaid accounts I controlled. That turns out to have been too clever by half.

So learn from my stupid mistake: take the time to add your payees to each account you control, and you'll never come close to hitting the $100,000 calendar year limit on Spend Money transactions.

Quick hit: new Bluebird/Serve/Redbird scheduled adds

[Editor's note: I'm currently traveling so responses to comments and e-mails may be slightly slower than usual. —FQF]

When writing about simplifying and automating debit card transactions back in July, I wrote:

"Unfortunately, as with Evolve Money, I am no longer able to create new so-called 'scheduled add' transactions. What I am able to do is edit existing scheduled add transactions and change the funding source to a new credit or debit card."

Turns out there's an easy workaround that allows users to create new scheduled adds.

Once you're logged into your Serve, Bluebird, or Prepaid REDcard account, simply navigate to:

  • https://secure.bluebird.com/Manage/ScheduleAutoAdd/ for Bluebird scheduled adds;
  • https://secure.serve.com/Manage/ScheduleAutoAdd/ for Serve scheduled adds;
  • https://secure.prepaidredcard.com/Manage/ScheduleAutoAdd/ for Prepaid REDcard scheduled adds.

Using this technique, you can create as many scheduled adds as you like, either in order to meet monthly debit transaction requirements or, in the case of Serve, simply to schedule the manufacture of $1,000 per month in third-party (not American Express-issued) American Express credit card spend.

Simplifying and automating debit card transactions

Last month I wrote about using Amazon Allowance to generate credit and debit transactions, like those required by Wells Fargo to waive monthly maintenance fees, by Bank of America's Better Balance Rewards card to ensure you receive your quarterly bonuses, and by Consumers Credit Union to trigger the high interest rates on their Rewards Checking accounts.

I like Amazon Allowances and I use Amazon Allowances, but there are reasons you might prefer not to use Amazon Allowances: you might not do enough shopping on Amazon to justify buying Amazon gift credit, or on the contrary, you might value your relationship with Amazon too much to entangle it in your extracurricular activities.

With that in mind, here are two other options for, if not automating, at least simplifying your monthly transaction requirements.

Evolve Money

Interest in Evolve Money has dwindled since they added fees for transactions funded by prepaid debit cards, but the site still exists, and they still have a large database of billers that's well worth exploring. For example, I'm able to make contributions to my Utah Educational Savings Plan account, which is in my opinion one of the better 529 Educational Savings Plans available — and, even better, it's not administered by Upromise Investments!

Importantly for our purposes, Evolve Money charges a flat 3% fee on credit card and "small bank" debit card transactions, rather than the more typical 2.9% + $0.30 fee charged by many payments processors. That means a $1 charge incurs a fee of exactly 3 cents. Since you are allowed to make 4 debit card-funded payments per month, per biller, if you can find 3 eligible billers in their database you can generate 12 transactions per month at a total cost of $0.36.

Unfortunately I cannot seem to set up recurring payments using Evolve Money, but since payments can be scheduled in advance you can just set aside 5 minutes per month to schedule your 10-12 monthly debit transactions. Likewise, a monthly $5 Better Balance Rewards payment would cost all of $0.15 in processing fees.

Bluebird, Serve, and Target Prepaid REDCard loads

American Express's full-service prepaid cards actually feature a powerful recurring payment service: you're able to schedule recurring transactions to move funds from a debit card to your prepaid account, as well as from any credit card on the American Express network (some American Express-issued credit cards do not earn rewards on such transactions, however).

Unfortunately, as with Evolve Money, I am no longer able to create new so-called "scheduled add" transactions. What I am able to do is edit existing scheduled add transactions and change the funding source to a new credit or debit card.

So on the Bluebird account I manage, I had three recurring "scheduled add" plans already created, and was able to change them to set up daily $0.50 funding transactions for the first 12 days of the next 3 months. That's not exactly automatic (I'll have to move the dates forward every 3 months), but it also doesn't take up too much mental bandwidth.


Frequent Miler and Matt at Saverocity have both raised the question lately, in their own ways, of how much cognitive space they're willing to devote to "smaller" deals when they could instead be pursuing big fish, and I think it's an absolutely essential conversation to have.

In my own travel hacking practice, I tend to err on the side of doing more, rather than less. I continue to pursue a number of "small fry," like Visa Buxx cards, which offer a small amount of unbonused spend each month. But I'm also eager to automate or simplify as many elements of my manufactured spend as possible, so I can devote more cognitive bandwidth to exploring new deals — and sharing them with my readers!

Recurring, small debit card transactions are precisely the kind of nuisance that can take up a disproportionate amount of attention, and are the kind of thing that are essential to simplify or automate if at all possible.