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.

Update on MasterCard rePower network

At the beginning of the month I suggested that since the latest Vanilla Reload Network redesign included MasterCard rePower on the front of the card, it might be possible to load MasterCard prepaid debit cards using Vanilla Reload Network reload cards.

The Experiment

To test this theory, I picked what looked like two of the most promising cards: the H&R Block Emerald prepaid MasterCard and the Mango alternative checking account. The Emerald card doesn't have any monthly fees, and the Mango card has a $5 monthly fee that's waived when you load $500 or more during your statement period.

The Result

Unfortunately, neither card is currently loadable using Vanilla Reload Network reload cards.

However, in the course of my experimenting I did discover that Mango allows outgoing ACH transactions . That means that if you are able to load the account (for example, using Green Dot Moneypaks, available in some areas and at some merchants for purchase by credit card), then you can easily liquidate your balance by entering your Mango routing and account numbers in your credit card issuer's bill pay function.

In Other News

It isn't really the focus of this blog or my book, but I should also point out that Mango offers a 6% APR savings account alongside its checking account product. This is more than you'll earn leaving your money in virtually any other FDIC-insured instrument. You'll earn 6% APY on the first $5,000 in your savings account when you "enroll" in their direct deposit service. According to the site, you "enroll" by making 2 payroll deposits totaling $50 or more within 90 days. If you max out the $5,000 cap, and then deposit and bill pay out $500 each month in order to avoid the monthly fee, then you'll earn $300 per year in interest (actually slightly less since it's 6% APY, not APR, and you won't earn true compound interest above the $5,000 level). You won't get rich using this technique, but there's also no reason not to do it, since if you're manufacturing spend then you probably have a fair amount of month-to-month liquidity. You're allowed up to 5 transfers between your Mango checking and savings accounts each month.

One other note: while Mango suggests linking your bank account or PayPal account as a funding source, I was unable to use my Mango routing and account numbers to add the account to either Bank of America's "transfers outside the bank" function or PayPal's "withdraw" function. However, I was able to add Mango as a "linked checking account" to Bluebird. Your Miles May Vary.

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.

Is the best card to buy Vanilla Reloads with...

[updated 8/25/13: reader Eric pointed out an error in my calculations below: buying $1,000 in Vanilla Reload cards with the PayPal Debit MasterCard will earn $10.08 in cash back, not $10.79 as I originally wrote. The post has been updated to reflect the slightly higher cost per dollar of manufactured spend.

...the PayPal Business Debit MasterCard?

As readers know, I'm fairly obsessed with lowering my cost per dollar of manufactured spend. That's why I've long been intrigued by the PayPal Business Debit MasterCard. The card offers a unique value proposition: it's a 1% cash back card (on signature purchases), that can itself be loaded by credit card (using PayPal Cash reloads).

PayPal Cash reloads are very similar to Vanilla Reload Network reload cards, and in fact are sold in many of the same places, like gas stations and drug stores.  However, they have different limitations: they can only be used to load a PayPal account, loads are limited to $500 per day and $4,000 per rolling 30-day period, and most importantly PayPal will immediately send a warning, then close your account, if you load your PayPal account with a PayPal Cash card and immediately withdraw the money to your linked bank account.

Enter the Business Debit MasterCard. By using this card for online load to my Nationwide and US Bank Visa Buxx cards, I earn 1% cash back on $3,014 ($3,000 in loads, $14 in fees) each month, bringing my total cost for $3,024 in manufactured spend to $7.56, or 0.25 cents per dollar.

That accounts for $3,000 of my monthly load allowance – but PayPal allows up to $4,000 in monthly loads. This has left me scratching my head about what to do with the last $1,000 in PayPal Cash loads, since May 1, when the Wells Fargo Prepaid card lost its usefulness .

The solution was staring me in the face the whole time: buying $1,000 in Vanilla Reload Network reload cards, at a cost of $7.90 in fees, will yield $10.08 in cash back. The $2.18 in profit from that transaction reduces your total cost for the $1,000 in PayPal Cash reload cards to $5.72: a respectable 0.57 cents per dollar in manufactured spend. If you buy your PayPal Cash cards at a store in one of your cards' bonus categories, this can push your cost per point into the low tens of a cent.

Before the comments erupt with sarcasm, let me be perfectly clear: this is not a technique for earning more miles and points, it's a technique for earning miles and points at a lower cost per point. If you're more interested in the number of points you earn, rather than the cost you pay per point, then you're better off simply buying a $0.70 Walmart money order with your remaining $1,000 in monthly PayPal Cash loads. This will raise your cost per dollar to 0.85 cents per point, but you'll be able to manufacture an additional $1,000 per month by purchasing your Vanilla Reloads with a points- or miles-earning credit card instead.

The point is, using techniques like this, and others like it, you control the cost you pay per manufactured mile or point – and that's worth a lot to me.

(N.B. You can also fund your $1,000 monthly free Amazon Payment with your PayPal Business Debit MasterCard and pocket $10, manufacturing $1,000 in spend AND earning $2.10.)


AccountNow can supplement Bluebird and Gobank

[edit 6/18/13: It looks like I have an affiliate link for the basic AccountNow card as well. If you are interested in using AccountNow, and want to support the site and the work I do here, feel free to use this link. See the comments below for some of the risks of the technique described here.]

Regular readers of this blog know that one of the simplest ways to manufacture spending on rewards-earning credit cards is by loading Vanilla Reload Network reload cards directly to a Bluebird account, which can then be used to pay bills, including credit cards. This has the advantage of being simple, predictable, and low cost - many rewards currencies are worth manufacturing at 0.78 cents each, and that's before taking bonuses into account. However, Bluebird loads are limited to $5,000 each month, which led travel hackers to seek out similar products.

A slightly more expensive technique that I discovered and reported out is loading a Gobank account with a reloadable debit card, like the MyVanilla Debit Card. This raises (but doesn't eliminate) the limit on the amount of manufactured spending you can do each month, but also raises the cost, since MVD cards charge $0.50 per swipe transaction. Still, at 0.84 cents (a $1,000 load, for simplicity's sake), this is still a great way to earn rewards.

A third, even more expensive version of the same technique uses AccountNow, a reloadable, prepaid debit product (not a checking account). Jason Steele over at The Points Guy reported on AccountNow in the context of Green Dot MoneyPaks – if you're able to buy those using a credit card, then AccountNow is only slightly more expensive than Bluebird (since MoneyPaks have a $4.95 load fee, rather than Vanilla's $3.95).

If you don't have access to MoneyPaks, you can still load your AccountNow account at Walmart using their Rapid Reload Network. However, there is a $3.74 load fee for swipe reloads of AccountNow. The maximum daily load is $1,500 and monthly maximum on total loads is $9,500.

Using my technique of loading MyVanilla Debit Cards with Vanilla Reload Network cards, then unloading them to AccountNow, your total out of pocket cost will be $16.09 ($11.85 in Vanilla Reload fees, $0.50 MyVanilla transaction fee, $3.74 in Rapid Reload Network load fees) for $1,511.85 in manufactured spending, or 1.06 cents per dollar.

On the one hand, that's much more expensive than other existing techniques to manufacture spending. Other than free techniques like Amazon Payments, my cheapest manufactured dollar is 0.185 cents (using the technique I pioneered here).  So the question isn't whether it's worth manufacturing every dollar at 1.06 cents each; the question is whether it's worth manufacturing your last dollar at 1.06 cents each.

That will depend on your specific situation, and especially on whether you have access to Vanilla Reload Network cards at merchants that are bonused categories for your rewards-earning credit cards. All that said, I think there are certainly situations that can make this technique worth using, and I wanted to make sure my readers were aware of it.


New Vanilla Reload Opportunities

In the comments to one of last week's posts, reader A wrote:

I've been buying Paypal reloads at 7-11 with a CC. Now that 7-11 carries Vanilla Reloads I'll be running tests to see if the purchases code correctly for 2x.

Having seen 7-11 on the list of "Reload Locations" on the Vanilla Reload Network site, I naturally checked my local stores about 6 months ago. Since they weren't carrying them, and I had easy access at CVS, I didn't think about it any more. However, the opportunity for double points at gas stations drove me back to my local 7-11, where sure enough, both Vanilla Reload Network reload cards and PayPal Cash cards were for sale by credit card.

Now, I haven't seen a 7-11 location with actual gas pumps in a long time. However, Visa has a publicly available database of the "merchant codes" used by every merchant in the country. It's these codes that determine how a purchase transaction is coded by credit card companies for the purpose of awarding bonus points.

And sure enough, my local 7-11 store locations are entered into that database as:


This means that credit cards which bonus gas station purchases will almost certainly award bonus points for Vanilla Reload purchases at these locations, at least for Visa cards, which use Visa's supplier code database. 

My credit card statement hasn't closed yet, so I cannot guarantee bonus points will be awarded. However, I'm very confident that they will, since I used a Visa card, which means a new front has been opened in the use of the Perpetual Points Machine I outlined here.

I'll discuss the implications of this discovery in the coming days. For now, a good place to start is Frequent Miler's chart of credit cards which bonus gas station spending. That chart is somewhat out of date, but still useful for getting a general picture of credit cards which will make this development such a lucrative opportunity.

The Perpetual Points Machine is Real*

*If you have access to (1) Vanilla Reload Network reload cards you can buy using a credit card, (2) any Walmart location, and (3) a good enough credit score to be approved for a 2% cash back credit card.

The Quest for a Perpetual Points Machine

One of the first blog posts I read after I started travel hacking was the Frequent Miler's chronicle of his quest for a "perpetual points machine." That three part series described the ideal perpetual points machine as follows:

1. The Perpetual Point Machine (PPM) may take effort and money to setup initially, but must not take much effort or money to keep it going.
2. The PPM must be able to generate hundreds of thousands of points per year.
3. The PPM must do no harm. In my earlier post “Perpetual Point Machine… Not!” I described a failed scheme to buy gift cards with gift cards and earn miles each time, indefinitely. The problem with that scheme is that, if it had worked, it would clearly harm the retailer who would have been responsible for buying all of those miles.
4. The perfect PPM would also somehow do some good for the world, not just for the recipient of the points. Kiva loans are a great example of this, but the number of points that can be accrued annually is limited by the amount of money you have available to loan. For most people, this won’t come anywhere near the goal of achieving hundreds of thousands of points per year.

This search eventually led Frequent Miler to his ground-breaking post on the American Express Bluebird checking account alternative, which is now one of the cornerstones of most miles- and points-earning strategies.

The problem Frequent Miler inevitably ran into was uncertaintyHis early attempts relied either on continued, reliable shopping portal payouts, or outsmarting Google.

3 Simple Goals

My goals when designing a perpetual points machine were simpler:

  1. Generate as many points as possible;
  2. at as low a cost per point as possible;
  3. in as mechanical a method as possible.

The third point is the most important for my purposes. Unlike Frequent Miler, I'm still just a struggling author (have you considered buying my e-book?), and I don't have the resources to risk lots of my own capital buying and reselling merchandise, one of Frequent Miler's (successful) recent schemes.

Since starting this blog in February, I've discussed the MyVanilla Debit card, which is reloadable using Vanilla Reload Network reload cards at a cost of $3.95 per $500 load. Then in a three part series (part 1, part 2, part 3), I broke the story of the features of the new Bluebird competitor, Gobank, before asking the question, "Does Gobank have a monthly swipe reload limit?" Finally I broke down the features of and differences between two credit cards which earn 2% cash back.

My Perpetual Points Machine

Today I want to describe a simple perpetual points machine that takes advantage of the features of each of these products. The premise of the PPM relies on just two numbers:

  • $3.95: the cost of a $500 Vanilla Reload Network card.
  • $6.13: the amount of net cash back earned on a $503.95 purchase made with a 2% cash back credit card, after subtracting the $3.95 load fee.

The ratio of these numbers is conveniently approximate to 2:3. Consequently, to manufacture spending at virtually no net cost, you can buy 2 Vanilla Reload Network reload cards with a 2% cash back card (netting $12.26, after paying the $3.95 fee for each card) for every three reload cards you purchase with your preferred points- or miles-earning credit card (at a cost of $11.85).

Of course, now you have $2,500 in Vanilla Reload Network reload cards.  To turn them back into cash, you can load them directly to a Bluebird card, up to $5,000 per month, per Bluebird.  From there, you can transfer the funds to a bank account or use them to pay off your credit cards.

Fortunately, you can also now liquidate Vanilla Reload Network reload cards in excess of $5,000 per month by loading them to a MyVanilla Debit card and using the MyVanilla Debit card to load your Gobank account at any Walmart register, up to $2,500 per day.  

The drawback: every transaction made with a MyVanilla Debit card incurs a fee of $0.50, which will very slightly increase your cost per point.

Does it Measure Up?

How does my perpetual points machine measure up to the 4 goals Frequent Miler set?

  1. Does it require much money or effort to keep going? This largely depends on the geography of your area. If you have convenient access to Vanilla Reload Network reload cards and Walmart store locations, this strategy has no cost, except your time and gas. If you don't have access to them, this strategy won't help you get it!
  2. Can it generate hundreds of thousands of points per year? To generate 100,000 of your preferred loyalty currency in 12 months at no net cost, you'd need to buy $12,500 in Vanilla Reload Network reload cards per month: $8,500 on the credit card that earns your preferred points, and $4,000 on a 2% cash back card (the net cost in this example would actually be about $18.12 per month).
    You could then load $5,000 to your Bluebird account and $7,500 to your Gobank account.
  3. Does the PPM do no harm? This perpetual points machine only uses the advertised features of commercial products.
  4. Does the PPM do any good for the world? Well, you can't have everything.

Next Up: Tips and Tricks for Maximizing the Perpetual Points Machine

Check back on Friday, when I'll discuss some of my thinking about how to maximize the value of this strategy, as well as some potential risks to avoid.

PIN-based Visa Prepaid Debit Cards

There are a number of products which can help when meeting high minimum spending requirements or generating spend on cards that earn valuable points.  Today I want to discuss three of them.  These cards have a number of benefits: they can be loaded either directly or indirectly using points-earning credit cards, and they can be unloaded at ATMs, by buying money orders, or used to fund the American Express Bluebird card at any Walmart and used to pay bills, including credit cards.

For the first two options, the Nationwide Visa Buxx and Wells Fargo Prepaid cards, the transaction can be classified differently by different card issuers.  For example, Citibank classifies all such transactions as cash advances, which incur high fees and interest charges, and there are some reports that Bank of America classifies the transactions as purchases, but doesn't award points.  The best bet is to first do a trial load with any card you're considering using, wait for your statement to close, and see if points are rewarded.

Nationwide Visa Buxx

The Nationwide Visa Buxx is an excellent starter card for anyone considering entering the miles and points game.  

  • It can be loaded using any Visa or Mastercard.
  • You can load up to $500 at a time, up to twice per month, at a cost of $2 per load.
  • There's no monthly fee.

If you max out this card, you can manufacture $1000 in spending at a cost of $4 per month, which is worth doing for almost any points currency.

There are two things to be aware of when using this card.  First, ATM withdrawals (limited to $200 per week) at MoneyPass ATMs are not free, they cost $1.  No one has any explanation for this, since they are advertised as free.  There have been reports of success having the charge reversed by calling into Customer Service, although this is a long, annoying process.

Second, there is a daily purchase limit of $800.  This means you can either load $800 onto a Bluebird card, or purchase a money order at Walmart for $799.30.

My approach is to withdraw $200 from a Moneypass ATM and purchase a money order for $798.30 (since my balance is only $799 after paying $1 for the ATM withdrawal).

Wells Fargo Prepaid Visa

This card is good for a more experienced hacker who wants to make some bigger moves.

  • Load using any Visa or Mastercard
  • $4500 rolling monthly load limit.
  • Load up to $2500 per day.
  • $5 fee per load.
  • $3 monthly fee.
  • $600 transaction limit.

Because of the $600 transaction limit it can take a while to unload this card.  Purchasing 8 $599.30 money orders at 70 cents each brings the total cost for $4500 in spending to $18.60, or .4 cents per dollar.

MyVanilla Debit

The MyVanilla Debit card is a more marginal play, but can be useful for meeting minimum spending requirements or reaching bonused spending thresholds.

  • Load using Vanilla Reload Network Prepaid Reload cards.
  • Load up to $2,500 per day.
  • No monthly fee.

You have to buy a MyVanilla Debit card in a store, like CVS, that sells temporary cards.  After buying a temporary card, you can register it online and you'll receive a permanent card in the mail within a few weeks.  You can register up to 3 cards per social security number. Once you have the permanent card, you can then load it by buying Vanilla Reload Network Prepaid Reload cards, which you can load with up to $500 in value for a fee of $3.95.

To unload the MyVanilla Debit, you can purchase money orders, load a Bluebird card, or ask for a cash advance from a bank teller.  All three options currently cost 50 cents, plus any other fees charged by merchants.