Developing: problems with Walmart bill pay

This is just a quick note going into the weekend for readers who haven't yet seen this on Twitter, Flyertalk, or another manufactured spending forum.

Some Walmart Money Center registers are no longer showing some credit card payment networks

As longtime readers know, I'm a huge fan of CheckFreePay bill payments at Walmart, which allow you to use PIN-enabled debit cards to pay Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and some American Express cards (depending on the card issuer). They make it easy to liquidate PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards and free up credit limits for additional spending throughout the month.

This afternoon I was unable to make bill payments to any of my credit cards, which I discovered has been emerging as a problem in various places around the country.

There have also been reports of people still being able to successfully make bill payments as late as this evening, so at this point this is a "your miles may vary" situation. But if you are planning to make Walmart or other CheckFreePay bill payments to your credit cards this weekend, don't be shocked if your cashiers are unable to find your payees in their system.

Stay tuned for updates in the coming days and weeks, as this situation is developing...

New(est) changes to Walmart point-of-sale systems

There are no two ways about it: it's been a frustrating week in the world of manufactured spend. Just a month after I wrote my award-winning (or at least widely retweeted) post on dealing with changes to Walmart point-of-sale systems, the geniuses in Bentonville struck again and implemented another set of obstacles to seamless Walmart financial transactions.

I've been experimenting extensively with the new(est) changes. This is my report.

Processing of prepaid debit cards

Historically, there's been a divide between the way (many) Visa and (many) MasterCard prepaid debit cards have been processed at Walmart registers. Visas, particularly the widely-available cards administered under the Vanilla brand, have (until the most recent changes) been processed by default as debit cards. That means immediately after swiping, a PIN pad would appear and allow you to input either a pre-set or extemporaneous PIN code, depending on the prepaid debit card product.

Many MasterCards, on the other hand, have required users to manually instruct the point-of-sale system to process the card as debit; otherwise, the system initially recognized them as credit cards and refused the cards for debit-only transactions.

As a result of that historical difference, I have never used a MasterCard prepaid debit card at Walmart.

The latest changes have resulted in (many) Visa prepaid debit cards being processed just like (many) MasterCard prepaid debit cards have been in the past: initially as credit cards, and only after explicit user intervention as debit cards.

Change payment – but fast!

Over the past few days I've visited many different Walmart store locations and processed all of the transactions popular among my readers. I'm pleased to say that there is no transaction that previously could be conducted with a prepaid Visa debit card that cannot, today, be conducted with a prepaid Visa debit card.

But that doesn't mean it's easy.

Upon each swipe of a prepaid debit card, you have exactly one chance to alert the point-of-sale system to process your transaction as debit, instead of credit. That chance comes immediately after swiping the debit card, while the customer-facing keypad appears to still be "thinking."

On the keypads at my Walmart registers, you'll first see a red button in the bottom right corner of the screen. Then, within less than a second, a yellow "Change Payment" button will appear in the bottom center of the screen. That, and only that, is your cue to push the yellow button on the right side of the keypad, embossed with a left-facing arrow.

If you miss that chance your transaction will be processed as credit, and fail.

As I mentioned, I've done these transactions at a variety of Walmarts and at a variety of registers, and I've started mentally classifying them into "fast" and "slow" locations.

At "slow" locations, you may have up to 1.5 or 2 seconds to press "Change Payment," either using the touchscreen button or pressing the yellow left-facing arrow button.

At "fast" locations, you will have less than half a second, and you will probably not be able to press the on-screen button. But you can still press the left-facing arrow button the moment you see the yellow on-screen button appear, and it will have an identical function (the screen even displays the "depressed button" animation).

Why are so many experienced people having so many problems?

If all that sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it's been widely reported for many months with respect to MasterCard prepaid debit cards. But this latest update has caused problems even among people who are well aware of the historical situation and the ongoing updates. Why?

My best guess is that they aren't taking into account the interaction of the new(er) changes with the new(est) changes.

As a reminder, under what we might call "first generation" Walmart point-of-sale software, for all split-tender transactions the cashier first typed in the amount of each swipe, before the customer interacted with the terminal.

Under the "second generation" [new(er)] software, the customer first completes their interaction with the terminal, all the way through to typing in a PIN code, before the cashier types in the amount of the split tender.

The problem is that under the new(est) software, the customer's interaction with the terminal takes much, much longer. And it's difficult to convince a cashier to not interact with her register during the entire 8-12 seconds it takes for the customer to complete their interaction with the customer-facing terminal.

Emerging differences between money orders and bill payments

In my earlier reporting on the "new(er)" point-of-sale software, I said or implied that the new "customer first" protocol applied to all split-tender transactions.

I frankly don't know whether that was an error on my part from the beginning or whether a change has subsequently been implemented.

Either way, since the new(est) software changes have been implemented, I've observed a recurring difference between split-tender transactions for money orders and for bill payments.

It's now my belief that at some Walmart store locations with the new(est) software, split-tender transactions for money orders can still be processed "cashier first." Bill payment transactions, on the other hand, can only be processed "customer first."

I know better than to suggest that's the rule at every one of the thousands of store locations in the United States. But if you're having ongoing problems with these prepaid debit transactions, that would be the place I would start diagnosing the problem: either buy money orders or, during bill payments, find a way to convince your Customer Service and Money Center employees to resist processing the split tender until you've completely finished interacting with your customer-facing terminal.


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Paying Fidelity Investment Rewards cards at Walmart

I know this post won't be super relevant to all of my readers, but I always try to write the kind of blog that I would want to read, so I want to pass along this piece of helpful information that I was able to confirm today.

Credit cards issued by American Express aren't payable at Walmart

Starting in February, it hasn't been possible to use the technique I described in this series of posts to pay credit cards issued by American Express. However, there are a number of credit cards that use the American Express payment network that are not issued by American Express, and the community has been hard at work finding ways to make Walmart bill payments to those credit cards.

Fidelity Investment Rewards credit cards are payable at Walmart

The card I recommend to absolutely everyone getting started in this game is the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card, which gives 2% cash back on all purchases and now even comes with a $75 signup bonus.

While the card is Fidelity-branded, and operates on the American Express payment network, it's issued by FIA Card Services, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of America.

Knowing that fact is what allowed FlyerTalker CrediPig to successfully make a bill payment to "Bank of America Consumer Loans," which accepted his payment. MsArbi later posted another success.

I had to get some money into my Bank of America account before I could try it for myself, but can now report my own success making a next-day payment, with a transaction fee of $1.50. That's the same fee that used to be charged for American Express bill payments and that I believe is still charged for Discover bill payments. 3-day payments should cost $1.

For your information: Walmart terminals have been (very) recently updated

The payment terminals at my local Walmart store location were updated sometime in the last 48 hours. All our favorite techniques still work on the new software, including split payments, but you may be thrown off by the new interface (I was).

While previously I entered my PIN immediately after swiping a debit card, now I'm given the "cash back" option before entering my PIN. It may seem like a small thing, but when you make as many Walmart debit transactions as I do, you start to notice the little things! 

My usually very competent regular cashier was having trouble splitting payments on the new interface, and had to look up "Bank of America Consumer Loans" through what her colleague called "the old system," so anticipate slight delays and holdups as the update is rolled out across Walmart locations and cashiers familiarize themselves with it.

A quick note on comments

For some reason, I've never experienced any problems with "trolls" in the comments on this blog. I think I've only deleted maybe 3 or 4 comments since I started blogging, twice at the poster's request and once or twice for a comment that was double-posted.

That doesn't mean I've never come under criticism in the comments. On the contrary, my comments are full of people telling me I'm an idiot, a terrible blogger, and a lousy travel hacker. 

But that's not trolling; what if they're right? It would be pretty irresponsible for me to delete those comments and deny my readers those dissenting views. 

Anyway, all this is just to say that I had a good laugh reading through the comments to my "Unleash" series from September of last year as I went through and retagged them this afternoon for ease of reference.

To this day, those are some of my most popular posts, and among the most heavily-commented-upon.

And it sure seems like I did not make many friends that week!

Reader m commented:

"agree with others- better to keep mum just because if you add the minor wrinkles re incompetent cashiers, split tender, customers asking too many questions, words like "using GC" instead of "using deb card"- throw it all in the mix, results in too much scrutiny and it dies. which is why bloggers should leave it alone and just go about their business.
have been a fan of yours, but disappointed that you chose to blog about this one."

Reader Piecerate commented:

"Can't say I'm happy to see you blog about this. I think this a deal that many know about but it is not utilized by enough people to draw unwelcome attention. Let's hope this doesn't go south."

Of course, history has been kind to my decision to go to press with the "Unleash" series. Over 6 months later, I've liquidated hundreds of thousands of dollars in PIN-enabled debit cards, and my readers have no doubt liquidated many millions more.

I sometimes refer to my readers as my "force multipliers:" if one of my blog posts kills a deal 1 month early, but 100 of my readers get to take advantage of it for the remaining 8 months, I don't lose any sleep over the lost month.

So this is just a quick note thanking ALL my commenters for your feedback and for reading this blog, whether you love it or use the opportunity to decompress your angst at the whole messy world of travel blogging.

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 5

It's been quite a week, hasn't it? On Monday I outlined the basic principles of a so-far unblogged travel hacking technique: using a PIN-based debit or gift card to pay off credit cards directly at a Walmart Money Center or Customer Service center (depending on your location). On Tuesday I gave a cost per manufactured dollar analysis of various PIN-based cards which can be used to take advantage of this opportunity. On Wednesday I shared my thoughts on the vigorous reaction my posts had received so far. Then Friday morning I shared my own plans to double the part of my manufactured spend I generate at Walmart by shifting my Gobank and Bluebird loads from Vanilla Reload Network-compatible cards to gift cards I purchase at grocery stores using credit cards that bonus such transactions, and using my high-transaction-limit Visa Buxx and MyVanilla Debit cards for Walmart bill payments.

I want to conclude this series with a few data points from my own experience using this technique. Let me start by saying that among travel hackers, my earned income probably puts me in the bottom 20% – if not lower! There's no denying that although it's now more accessible than ever, this sport is still largely (though far from exclusively: Mommy Points runs with the best of them) played by business travelers, and that I am not. However, thanks to this game we play, I have virtually unlimited cash liquidity, so I don't mind having my money locked up for a month or so if one of my accounts is frozen or closed. 

Fortunately, it hasn't happened yet. Even my PayPal account closure, which I assumed was permanent, was actually quickly reversed, and even while my accounts were frozen I was able to withdraw my remaining balance over the phone. Nonetheless, if a few thousand dollars actually went missing it would be a real hit to my net worth, and I'm sure many of my readers feel the same way, whatever your annual income.

The purpose of this post is to keep your blood pressure within a healthy range while you wait for your first Walmart bill payments to appear on your online banking statements.

So far, I've made Walmart bill payments to four of my credit cards, with one from each of the four major payment networks (I don't have a Diner's Club card, and they're now owned by Discover so I'm not sure which payment network they technically belong to – reader experiences in the comments are welcome!). The payments posted at different speeds, but they all posted eventually.

While Discover cards and American Express cards are issued by the same banks that process the payments (usually – there are a few exceptions, like the Barclaycard Travelocity American Express, issued by Barclaycard but using the American Express payment network), Visa and MasterCard products are issued by a range of banks, and how quickly your payment posts is going to depend on the issuing bank much more than on the payment network, so take my experience with a healthy dose of salt, unless your cards have the same combination of issuing bank and payment network as mine.

Finally, all my payments were made in-store before 7 pm, the cutoff time for next business day bill payments.

  • Citi Visa: $1.88 next day payment. Paid on Thursday, shown online early Saturday morning, with Friday posting date.
  • Barclaycard MasterCard: $1.88 next day payment. Paid on Sunday, shown online Wednesday afternoon, with Tuesday posting date.
  • American Express: $1.00 3-day payment. Paid on Sunday, "payment received" e-mail Wednesday, shown online Thursday with Wednesday posting date.
  • Discover: $1.00 3-day payment. Paid on Sunday, reflected in "available credit" Wednesday, shown onlineThursday with Wednesday posting date.

Obviously the biggest missing piece here is Chase, whom I haven't had an opportunity to pay yet. I'll update this post when I do make a Chase credit card payment. In the meantime, do any readers have reports on how long Chase bill payments take to post?


Neither this technique, nor any other, is for everyone. Without knowing the details of a specific situation (access to Vanilla Reload Network cards, access to gift cards, access to Walmart, access to competent cashiers) I can't recommend that anyone incorporate this technique into their own miles and points strategy. What I can do is promise that I won't hold back the details of a travel hacking technique in order to keep it for myself or "save" it for people in the know. 

If you do enjoy this blog and especially if you find it useful for your own miles and points strategy, please consider buying my eBook, The Free-quent Flyer's Manifesto. It costs just a few bucks, and 100% of the proceeds are used to bring you original content here on the blog and throughout the website. 

And who knows: you might learn something new!


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.


Unleash your manufactured spend with Walmart billpay: Part 1

First of all, I want to thank all of my readers for their patience for the last few days while I've been hinting at today's post. The reason I couldn't post earlier was not just to build buzz, but to make sure that I had personally tested every part of this technique. I've now done so, and I'm pleased to report that it's real, and it's spectacular.

Second, to the best of my knowledge the technique I'm about to describe has never been blogged about openly before, which I expect to change soon. However, it is not the result of my work alone, so before I begin I want to acknowledge the people who set me on the path to discovering it: Jerry in the comments to this New Girl in the Air post; Nathan at the very end of the comments to this post; this PointsChaser post; and of course above all this slow-burning FlyerTalk thread which was the first place to report a number of the indispensable elements that make the technique work. I'm deeply indebted to all those sources for the basic elements of this technique; any errors are of course mine alone.

Having said that, let's get started. 

Walmart allows you to pay credit card bills using any PIN-based debit card

How it Works

Walmart Money Center registers and, in locations without a separate Money Center, Customer Service registers are integrated with the CheckFreePay bill pay network. At any such register, you can ask to make a credit card bill payment and use any PIN-based debit card to pay the bill and the associated fee.

You can use up to 4 PIN-based debit cards per bill pay transaction, while paying a single transaction fee.

Credit and debit cards are issued by banks: Chase credit cards are issued by Chase, American Express credit cards are issued by American Express, Bank of America credit cards are issued by Bank of America. However, each card is also linked to a payment network: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover.

The single most important thing you have to know in order to take advantage of this technique is that when you pay your credit card bills at Walmart, you must make the payment out to the payment network, not the issuing bank.

So even though your Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa Signature card and your Chase Ink Plus MasterCard are both issued by Chase, to pay your credit card bills at Walmart the payee for the Sapphire Preferred will be "Visa" and the payee for the Ink Plus will be "MasterCard."

What it Costs

This section is based only on my experiments at my local Walmart store locations: your experience may differ. 

There are two price points in the CheckFreePay system at Walmart: $1 "3 business day" payments and $1.88 "next business day" payments. Unfortunately, not every credit card payment network has both payment speeds enabled. Here are the results of my experiments:

  • Visa: Next business day only ($1.88)
  • MasterCard: Next business day only ($1.88)
  • American Express: Next business day ($1.88) or 3 business day ($1)
  • Discover: Next business day ($1.88) or 3 business day ($1)

So if you want to make a credit card payment to a Visa credit card at my local Walmart, you must pay $1.88: the $1 payment option is not available. This may vary by store location or employee. 

Why it Matters

Ever since the Federal Reserve issued new regulations forcing prepaid card issuers to allow their cards to be used as "true" PIN-based debit cards, we've been in a very exciting time for travel hacking. For example, Chase allows up to $2,600 in free gift card purchases per Chase credit card, per rolling 30-day period. Likewise, many grocery stores (a common bonus category) allow you to purchase $500 Visa and MasterCard gift cards at a typical cost of $5.95-$6.95.

Besides gift cards, in many parts of the country it's still possible to buy Vanilla Reload Network reload cards at drug stores like CVS, and PayPal Cash cards at 7-11 store locations that are processed as gas stations. 

The problem in this era of virtually unlimited manufactured spend is liquidating prepaid cards once you've purchased them.

Bluebird is a free option, loadable at all Walmart registers using PIN-based debit cards up to $1,000 per day and $5,000 per month, but those loads count against the same $5,000 calendar month limit as Vanilla Reload Network cards.

Gobank is another great option I've extensively covered, but while it's free to load Gobank accounts at Walmart up to $1,100 per transaction and $2,500 per day, it's a Green Dot product that's subject to shutdown if you exceed undisclosed monthly limits or if your loading pattern is deemed "unusual."

PayPal has a $4,000 rolling 30-day load limit using PayPal Cash cards, but unloading your account can cause problems since PayPal is notoriously sensitive to abusive behavior.

All of those problems have now gone away: you no longer need an intermediate product to liquidate your prepaid cards.  Instead, you can bring up to 4 PIN-based debit cards per bill pay transaction to your local Walmart and at a cost of $1 or $1.88 send the card balances directly to your credit card.

The Risks

There are 3 primary risks to this technique that I want to be perfectly clear about up front.

First, there's the risk of having an account shutdown. There are many reports of MyVanilla Debit cards being shutdown without warning, and it's still unclear what loading and unloading pattern is safest. I don't have an inside line on MyVanilla Debit's fraud prevention algorithms, but I believe cash advances are probably the riskiest method of unloading the cards, because of the high limits and fixed $1.95 fee. Large Walmart transactions are probably a close second. So while this is a great technique for liquidating MyVanilla Debit balances, you still should be careful about spacing your loads and unloads out over the course of the month. And of course, even being careful can't guarantee that your account won't be closed.

Second, there's the risk that Walmart will consider your payments suspicious activity. There are lots of reports in this thread of Walmart employees being prompted to record customers' Social Security numbers, home addresses, and other personal identifying details. Those requests seem to be triggered by credit card payments over $2,000, although the exact level that triggers scrutiny isn't clear. Many people are made uncomfortable by disclosing this sensitive information to Walmart tellers. It appears the best way to avoid doing so is to keep your bill payments below $2,000, although this will raise your cost per dollar of manufactured spend.

Finally, when it comes to Walmart there's always the risk of employee incompetence. This can take a number of different forms. Of course, an employee may simply not know how to make these bill payments. Alternatively, there are reports that some store locations demand that you physically bring your most recent credit card statement into the store. Further, some store locations refuse to allow bill pay transactions to be funded by gift cards (cards that don't have your name embossed on the front). Finally, some employees may feel uncomfortable with multiple, high-value transactions, and simply refuse to help you. Be aware that this is not corporate policy: you've just found an incompetent employee, or a store location with an over-vigilant store manager. Visit another location or return at a different time.

These are manageable risks, but they do exist and you should be aware of them before beginning to use this technique. As always, I recommend starting slowly, using money that you can afford to be temporarily without if something goes wrong, and watching your credit card statements carefully to make sure that each payment posts correctly.


This is a very basic overview of this technique. It works and it can increase your volume of manufactured spend while only slightly increasing your cost per point.

Tomorrow, I will provide my analysis of the volume and cost per dollar of manufactured spend that you can achieve using this technique, and I'll compare it to some other popular techniques.

Later in the week I'll discuss some of the most lucrative opportunities this technique unlocks and share my own plans to use it going forward.

If you've already been using this technique, please share your experiences in the comments. How long do your CheckFreePay payments take to post? Do they post at the beginning or end of the business day? What problems have you had dealing with Walmart employees, and how have you resolved them?

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