Earn cash first, spend cash last

Last week I wrote about the option of redeeming Wells Fargo's Go Far reward points for 1.22 cents each when using them to purchase Hyatt gift cards (an offer that's still ongoing).

Commenter Rob S made an observation in the comments to that post that I think is worth exploring in some more depth. He wrote:

"but those WF reward points can be used for flights at 1.5 cpp. Some people can redeem at 1.75 cpp. so i don't think I will be doing this"

Rob is referring to is what's called, for reasons lost to history, "uplift," the ability to redeem Wells Fargo rewards points for more than 1 cent each towards paid airfare after spending a certain amount on certain Wells Fargo rewards-earning credit cards.

Uplift isn't something I've written about before and I can't find any good blog posts to link to about it, but Rob is exactly correct: some people can redeem Wells Fargo rewards points for 1.5 or 1.75 cents each for paid airfare after meeting certain spending thresholds with their Wells Fargo credit cards.

The question I want to explore is, under what circumstances does uplift change the value proposition of redeeming Wells Fargo rewards for cash?

Earn cash first

I have a simple approach to my manufactured spend practice: I earn cash first. That's because cash is basically the opposite of miles and points: it's worth face value when redeemed for goods and services, and if you choose to invest rather than spend it, it increases, rather than decreases, in value over time.

Miles and points, on the other hand, are worth varying amounts depending on current cash prices and award availability. Therefore, given the option between cash and points, I'll always earn cash first.

Spend cash last

The flip side of the above principle is that once I have miles and points in my rewards accounts, I'll redeem them whenever possible rather than spending cash. Again, that's because cash is flexible and can be deployed wherever necessary, while miles and points can only be redeemed for dates and flights the loyalty programs choose to make available.

When I find that availability, you better believe I'll redeem miles and points for it.

How uplifting are Wells Fargo rewards?

Suppose a Wells Fargo cardholder has earned the maximum uplift of 1.75 cents per "Go Far" rewards point redeemed for paid travel. Keeping in mind that those rewards points can each be redeemed for 1 cent in cash, the uplift provides a discount of 43% off paid airfare (a $175 flight would cost $100 in foregone cash back redemptions).

That's a pretty good discount, for a civilian.

But a 43% discount off paid airfare is not exactly inspiring for a travel hacker. If you earn US Bank Flexpoints, then at the top of each redemption band you'll get a 50% discount off paid airfare (plus a $25 credit towards in-flight purchases). If you earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points (transferred to United or British Airways) or American Express Membership Rewards points (transferred to Delta) you might be accustomed to getting much larger discounts, depending on your local airfare market.

Hyatt gift cards are cheaper than cash

The reason I wrote favorably about redeeming Wells Fargo rewards points for Hyatt gift cards is not because they give a discount off Hyatt stays, but because they give a discount off the cash portion of Points + Cash stays (or, in the cash of pure mattress runs, the cash cost of the stay). That's the portion you've already committed to paying in dollars, which is the component you should be seeking to minimize the cost of.

Paying $41 instead of $50, or $246 instead of $300, is a savings in cash for the portion of a stay you were going to pay in cash anyway. There is literally no other currency but US dollars you can use to pay the cash portion of a Points + Cash stay.


The 5.5 cards I'll use to manufacture spend in 2016

Happy New Year's Eve to all my readers (and especially to my beloved subscribers)!

2016 is almost upon us, so I thought it might be interesting to share my manufactured spend strategy for the first half of next year.

Here are the five cards I'll be doing virtually all my manufactured spend on for the next 6 months, plus a bonus card to fill in the remaining gaps.

Wells Fargo Rewards

I applied for this card back in March while opening my Wells Fargo checking account, but was declined for income verification reasons. When I received a pre-approval offer in the mail, I jumped on it and was approved with a $10,000 credit limit.

This card earns 5 Wells Fargo Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations, grocery stores, and drug stores for the first 6 months, making it my manufactured spend workhorse until June, 2016.

Chase Ink Plus

Although gas station manufactured spend is no longer available in my area, I will continue to order $300 Visa gift cards from Staples and earn 1,545 flexible Ultimate Rewards points for $8.95 — about 0.58 cents each.

As a Hyatt Diamond in 2016, I plan to make a lot of Points + Cash reservations, which both earn elite qualifying stays and are eligible for Diamond suite upgrades. For those reservations, I'll be transferring in a lot of Hyatt Gold Passport points from Ultimate rewards.

US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards

This card earns "up to" 4% at grocery stores when you redeem your Flexpoints for air travel. That's less valuable and less flexible than my Wells Fargo Rewards card, but when that card's credit limit isn't available, Flexperks Travel Rewards will be my backup card at grocery stores.

American Express Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business

Even less valuable than Flexperks, I'll spend $50,000 on this card in order to earn 70,000 redeemable SkyMiles and 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles, enough to secure Silver Medallion status for 2017. Then I'll call American Express to ask for either a retention bonus or a product change to a more valuable card.

American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass

Thanks to my Hyatt Diamond status in 2016, I won't be staying with Hilton as consistently as I did in 2015. But I still plan to spend $40,000 on the Surpass in 2016 in order to both secure Diamond status for another year and earn another 240,000 HHonors points, which I'll redeem when Hyatt properties aren't available or are too expensive.

Bonus card: Barclaycard Arrival+

I won't be using Arrival+ nearly as much in 2016 as I did in 2015, but there are a few ideal use cases where I'll continue to generate some spend: funding Nationwide Visa Buxx cards, opening bank accounts, and my actual expenses outside of the Wells Fargo Rewards bonus categories.


As you can see, I keep my manufactured spend practice pretty simple: start with the most valuable cards I have available, set realistic goals, and work my way down from there. That has the additional benefit of giving me the clarity to see immediately which cards would see reduced spend if my ability to manufacture spend suddenly contracted.

Load 'em if you got 'em: R.I.P Wells Fargo Prepaid

Today is the last day to load the Wells Fargo Prepaid card up to $2,500 using any Visa or MasterCard credit or debit card.  After May 1, the Prepaid card will only loadable using a Wells Fargo-issued credit or debit card.

As a reminder, the rolling load limits are:

  • $2,500 in 24 hrs
  • $3,500 in 15 days
  • $4,500 in 30 days

So if you have any room underneath any of those caps, and you have a way to subsequently unload the card (Bluebird, Gobank, Wells Fargo ATMs) this is your last chance to manufacture up to $2,500 in spending at a cost of $5 ($0.002 per dollar of manufactured spend for a maximum load).

[Expiring] Advanced techniques for manufacturing spend

Update 3/6/2013: as first reported in this thread, beginning May 1, 2013 the Wells Fargo Prepaid card will only be loadable using Wells Fargo credit and debit cards, preventing the hack described in this post:

wells fargo load change.png

Original post:

The first thing every reader should do once they take a serious interest in travel hacking is make sure every possible purchase is charged to a points- or mile-earning credit card.

Once you've established that base level of spending, you can consider more advanced techniques like using Kiva or Amazon Payments to "manufacture" points-earning purchases.

Today I'll explain one of the most advanced methods for manufacturing spend, with a twist that makes it even more lucrative.  Here's what you'll need:

It's possible to load your Bluebird account directly with Vanilla Reload Network Prepaid Reload cards.  These cards can be purchases in denominations of up to $500, with a flat fee of $3.95.  Since you can use the money immediately to pay off your credit card, or any other bill, this allows you to manufacture spend at a cost of $0.0078 (.78 cents) per dollar in manufactured spending (3.95/503.95).  This is a great value, especially if you're using a card that earns bonus points on purchases at drug stores like CVS, where Prepaid Reload cards are often sold.

However, by taking a slightly more circuitous route, you can drive down your cost per point even further.  The Wells Fargo Prepaid card allows you to load up to $2500 per load at a cost of $5, and a total of $4500 per rolling 30-day period (one $2500 load and one $2000 load).

Here's where the advanced technique comes into play.  Normally you can only earn rewards from the initial charge to a rewards-earning credit card.  However, a PayPal account and linked PayPal debit MasterCard allow you to earn rewards for both loading and unloading the card.  Here's how: many stores that sell Vanilla Reload Network Prepaid Reload cards also sell similar, PayPal-branded reload cards, known as "My Cash" cards.  You can earn your normal credit card rewards by purchasing these cards, which have the same cost structure as Prepaid Reload cards ($3.95 for loads up to $500).  However, once the money is loaded into your PayPal account, you can then use your linked PayPal debit MasterCard to load your Wells Fargo Prepaid card and earn 1% cash back on each transaction.

Once the money is loaded to your Wells Fargo Prepaid card, you can load the funds onto your Bluebird card as a debit transaction at any Walmart and use the funds to pay off your credit card.  Note that the Wells Fargo card has a transaction limit of $600, and the Bluebird allows debit loads up to $1000 per day, so you'll need to make two $500 loads per day.  

Let's compare the beginner and advanced techniques:

Beginner technique: Prepaid Reload card to Bluebird

  • Buy a $500 Prepaid Reload card at a cost of $3.95;
  • Load $500 Prepaid Reload to Bluebird;
  • Pay bills with Bluebird's bill pay service, or withdraw to a bank account;
  • Total spend generated: $503.95.  Total cost: $3.95.  Cost per dollar: $0.0078.

Advanced technique: PayPal My Cash to PayPal to Wells Fargo to Bluebird

  • Buy four $500 PayPal My Cash cards at a cost of $15.80;
  • Load four $500 My Cash cards to PayPal;
  • Load $2,000 to Wells Fargo Prepaid at a cost of $5, earning $20.05 cash back;
  • Load $2,000 to Bluebird for free at Walmart (in four transactions on two separate days);
  • Pay bills with Bluebird's bill pay service, or withdraw to a bank account.
  • Total spend generated: $2015.80.  Total cost: $0.75 ($20.80 in fees minus $20.05 cash back).  Cost per dollar: $0.0003 (.03 cents per dollar in manufactured spend).

If you're interested in trying this technique, keep the following in mind:

  • PayPal allows up to $500 per day in My Cash loads, and up to $4,000 per calendar month;
  • Wells Fargo allows up to $2500 in loads within 24 hours, $3500 within 15 days, and $4500 within 30 days.  Thus to maximize this card you should load $2000 per load, 16 days apart, at a cost of $5 per load;
  • If you have money in your Wells Fargo Prepaid account on your monthly statement date, Wells Fargo will charge a $3 monthly fee, which will raise your cost per point (in the above example, it would raise it to .18 cents per dollar in spend).  If your account is empty, most reports are that the fee is not charged.

Happy hacking!

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.