An Update on Maximizing Visa Prepaid Gift Cards From Office Depot and Vanilla Reloads From CVS

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Update: You can no longer purchase Vanilla Reload cards using a credit card and Vanilla Reloads are no longer available in Office Depot.

Like many in the points blogosphere, TPG contributor Jason Steele has been following the reappearance of Visa and Amex gift cards at select Office Depot locations with great interest since it’s been reported that the chain is once again allowing customers to purchase them using credit cards, and therefore rake in thousands of extra points – although the latest reports are that Office Depot has started requiring cash only for these transactions. Here are his tips on ways to maximize these purchases, whether you can still find an Office Depot offering them, or if you bought a lot of them during a recent spree while they were still purchasable by credit card.

With the recent re-appearance of reloadable Visa cards at some Office Depot locations, travel rewards enthusiasts – especially those who carry cards thaty earn 5X points at office stores – are salivating at the chance to earn points and miles from purchasing them both to rack up points and help meet minimum spend for bonuses on new cards.

These cards, such as the Visa Vanilla, are gift cards that can be loaded for any amount from $20-$500 up to $500 per card, with a one-time, $4.95 fee per load.

Earning 5X points at office supply stores is a great reason to carry these cards.
Word is, select Office Depot locations have begun selling Visa and Amex gift cards again.

This FlyerTalk thread has been a forum for discussing where these cards are available, though Team TPG has gone on a scouting mission and discovered cards on the racks at Office Depots in Los Angeles (the Culver City location) and the one in Times Square in New York City – although it appears that the New York City location will be requiring customers to pay for these in cash from now on. I went to 6 stores from Sunday to Monday in Denver. On Monday afternoon, I was successful charging these cards to my credit card. Tuesday, nothing would ring up with a credit card at the same stores. On Wednesday I was told that they were accepting cash only, hard coded at the register.  These results mirrored the FT thread cited above, unfortunately, so it looks like the credit card train at Office Depot at least might have come to an end, hopefully just temporarily.

American Express an Visa gift cards can still be purchased by credit card at Staples on Long Island.
 Visa gift cards can still be purchased by credit card at Staples on Long Island.

Kate from TPG went to a Staples in Commack, NY and was able to purchase a $200 American Express gift card with her Ink Bold and others were available in denominations of $25, $50 and $100 (though obviously the lower the denomination the more you’re paying for the points you earn on the transaction). Available at that Staples were also Visa gift cards which could have also been purchased by credit card. Kate also checked in her local CVS to see if they still had Vanilla Reload cards in stock which they did. What’s interesting is that when she went to purchase two Vanilla Reloads for $500 each only one card was activated. The cashier told her that there is a maximum amount of $1,000 per person in gift card purchases per day and asked if she had bought any other gift cards earlier in the day. Even though she told them she had bought a Visa gift card, she was able to use another credit card and buy the second Vanilla Reload with no problem. That CVS also had American Express gift cards in stock that could be purchased in amounts up to $500.

However, whether or not Office Depot continues to allow the purchase of these gift cards with a credit card, it can still be worthwhile to use your credit card purchase these cards at other stores such as CVS, Walmart or a supermarket, which often also allow you to purchase them with a credit card, so long as you can cash them out quickly and inexpensively.

Team TPG found gift cards including the above available for purchase at Office Depots in Los Angeles. Don't buy a $100 - only go for the bigger denominations.
Team TPG found gift cards including the above available for purchase at Office Depots in Los Angeles. Don’t buy a $100 – only go for the bigger denominations.

Luckily, there are a lot of ways to do so, which I’ll get into below, along with a table setting out an approximate time frame for each of these methods.

One other thing to note: unlike the Amex prepaid cards, the Visa cards function like debit cards with a PIN (though you cannot use them at ATMs), so it makes sense to purchase those when both are available since many merchants accept debit cards with PINs for a variety of transactions that they won’t accept credit cards.

1. Amazon Payments. Amazon Payments allows users to send and receive $1,000 a month from their account to another’s, and it can be funded with a credit or debit card. I have had success registering Vanilla Visa cards to my zip code, adding them to my Amazon profile, and using them to make payments. The service is free, but the entire process is a little tedious. The money paid can be transferred to a linked bank account. Those who use this method often pay their spouse, and have their spouse pay them back. While others prefer to create larger circles of friends and relatives, I have had no problems with performing simple back and forth transactions and have not had my account shut down.

2. Loading and Unloading American Express for Target. American Express offers a prepaid card at Target stores, which can be loaded using prepaid Visa debit cards purchased at Office Depot. It costs $3 to load up to $1,000, with a $1,000 load limit per card per day, and a $2,500 monthly limit per card. The trick is to use two Visa gift cards to load a total of $997 to each of these Amex prepaid cards, and the three dollar fee rounds out the purchase to an even $1,000 split between two. There is one free ATM withdrawal per month with the Amex prepaid card, and additional withdrawals of up to $400 are $3 each. Therefore, it can cost as little as $9 in fees per $1,000 if you load only $2,000 a month per card. Granted, there’s a bit of a process – you still have to purchase the Visa cards at Office Depot, visit Target, and then visit a no fee ATM. I have all three within a block of each other, but it is still quite time consuming. However, since there are thousands of points to be had, it’s worth it to me.

Using Visa gift cards in combination with the Target Amex can be time-consuming, but lucrative.
Using Visa gift cards in combination with the Target Amex can be time-consuming, but lucrative.

3. Paying for services. Obviously, you can use these cards to pay for goods, but in my experience, that’s generally not the best strategy. I want to have access to the purchase protection and extended warranty policies of my credit cards when I purchase big ticket items, which, unfortunately these prepaid cards do not have, so it’s safer to buy items using one of my credit cards.

I also don’t want to have to keep track of the disposable prepaid card in case I need to return my purchases. I find that the ideal use of these prepaid cards is for services rendered like medical bills and car repair. In this way, I am not missing out on any bonus categories, and there is no chance I’ll need a refund. Besides, trying to use a prepaid card at restaurants and gas stations can be a pain when they attempt to pre-authorize a large amount and place a hold on your card that takes days to be released and in the meantime, you cannot use the funds loaded onto your card.

4. Postal money orders. The United States Postal Service will issue a $500 money order for a $1.20 fee, and up to $1,000 for a $1.60 fee, and they accept debit cards. I haven’t tried to use two cards for one money order, so I’ll conservatively say that it costs $2.40 per $1,000. While you have to visit a post office and stand in line, the good news is that you can deposit a money order in your bank just like a check.

5. Wal Mart Money orders. The giant retailer allows customers to use PIN-based debt cards to purchase money orders of up to $1,000 for a mere 70 cents each. You can either visit their customer service desk, or the MoneyCenter ATM. The ATM seems like the best option, but these machines were unavailable or inoperable in at least half of the stores that I visited. In that case, you can visit the customer service counter.

6. Load BlueBird. The Frequent Miler uncovered the trick to using debit cards to load BlueBird cards at Wal Mart Money centers. You can load $1,000 per day, and $5,000 per month. Then, use that money to pay any bill you want, including the credit card you used to purchase the prepaid cards themselves. BlueBird, like nearly every other product that offers online bill payment, utilizes a third party services to transfer money. Therefore, there is no way for your credit card issuer to link your payment back to Wal Mart, let alone Office Depot. Again, the machines are often unavailable, so you may have to visit customer service.

Is Bluebird under increased scrutiny?
Amex’s Bluebird card can be a great way to unload the value from your Visa gift card.

7. Wal Mart bill pay. Wal Mart can pay your bills directly for a fee of $1.00. They use CheckFree Bill Pay, which comes from the same provider that most institutions use for their online bill payment services. You go to customer service with your billing information and account number, and just pay with the card.

8. Purchase reloads for prepaid cards. As I have written, there are four major reloadable networks; Green Dot, Vanilla, ReLoadit, and Pay Pal. Most of these charge a $4.95 fee per $500. It is hard to find a retailer that will accept credit cards for purchasing the reloads to put value onto the reloadable/prepaid cards, but there are many that will still accept debit cards with a PIN such as Vanilla Visa. Then, you apply the funds to a compatible prepaid card using their web site. That prepaid card can then be used to pay your bills, including that of your credit card.

9. Pay taxes. The IRS lists all of the companies authorized to accept payments using credit and debit cards. Thankfully, the fees for debit cards are reasonable. I have found that ChoicePay will accept an unlimited number of debit cards over the phone with a fee of $3.48 cents each (about a 0.7% fee on $500 payments), which is important for those with tax bills greater than $1,000. In contrast, the others that I have tried have limited me to two payments. For those who own a business or do freelance work, this is an excellent way to pay estimated quarterly taxes, and though it’s time consuming to pay your bill card by card in $500 increments, it’s still a good way to earn points on a kind of transaction that is usually prohibitively expensive using credit cards.

Paying your taxes through Choice Pay can be a cost-effective way of unloading your Visa gift cards' value.
Paying your taxes through Choice Pay can be a cost-effective way of unloading your Visa gift cards’ value.

10. Get cash back from purchases. Many retailers allow you to receive cash back from purchases with a debit card, since they only pay a fee per transaction. I have seen this option at grocery stores, drug stores, and home improvement stores. It is even possible to purchase some item of little cost, as I occasionally did in the past to avoid ATM fees. You can then deposit that cash in your bank account to pay your credit card bill.

Here’s my breakdown of the cost and estimated time each of these methods will take you.

Method Monthly Limit (per user account.) Cost in Dollars Cents per Point @ 5x including $4.95 Visa card fee. Cost in Time per $1,000 Work with Amex?
Amazon Payments $1,000 $0 .198 ~10 min. Yes
American Express for Target 2 accts @ $2,500 each As low as $9 per $1,000 plus ATM fees if any. .374 ~15 min. Yes
Purchasing services none none .198 Little if any Yes
Postal money orders none $2.40/$1,000 .244 Depends on the line at the post office No
Wal Mart Money Order none $.70/$1,000 .201 <5 minutes No
Load Blue Bird $5,000 $0 .198 <5 minutes No
Wal Mart Bill Pay none $1.00 .216 <5 minutes No
Purchase Prepaid Reloads none $9.90/$1,000 .392 <5 minutes Possibly
Pay Taxes none $6.96/$1,000 .334 <5 minutes No
Cash back none none .198 <5 minutes No

Good luck – and report back on your success using these methods and if you have found Visa gift cards at your local Office Depot, and if that store still lets you use a credit card to pay for them.

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