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Update on Maximizing Credit Card Spending Strategies With Prepaid and Gift Cards

by on April 10, 2014 · 44 comments

in Credit Cards, TPG Contributors

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CVS recently hardcoding its registers not to accept credit card payments for Vanilla Reloads last week has prompted a major shift in credit card spending strategy. Earlier this week, TPG contributor Jason Steele share strategies for purchasing Vanilla Reloads elsewhere. Today he expands his focus to recalibrating your credit card spending strategy on prepaid and reloadable cards.

Manufactured spending has grown to be the accepted term to describe generating points and miles by purchasing reloadable or prepaid cards with a credit card and then loading them into an account that can somehow be used to pay its bill. While there have been no earth-shattering developments in this field in recent months, it has been steadily “Evolving” (pun intended).

Vanilla Reloads used to be a great way to generate points-earning spend.

Vanilla Reloads used to be a great way to generate points-earning spend.

Coping with the death of Vanilla Reloads

Purchasing Vanilla Reloads with a credit card has been one of the best ways to generate spend for several years now. Cardholders applied these reload packs to reloadable cards and accounts, and then used the money to pay bills to any person or business. While other stores may or may not accept credit cards for the purchase of Vanilla Reloads depending on the individual store’s policy, CVS appears to have rolled out an update to their point of sale system that prevents even the most cooperative cashiers from completing a sale with a credit card.

Questions about Bluebird too

One of our readers sent a Tweet to @ThePointsGuy asking if Bluebird is slowly dying out and transitioning to Serve. The reader citied the appearance of a Serve logo in the Bluebird bill pay program.

Besides the fact that I haven’t seen the same phenomenon, I am confident that American Express is standing by its Bluebird debit/checking alternative product. For one, it has been increasing the functionality of the Bluebird card with features like paper checks and FDIC insurance. In addition, Bluebird is well positioned within the American Express strategy of appealing to a broader demographic than just premium rewards cardholders.

Finally, it is well known that Bluebird and Serve are very closely related products and that customers cannot simultaneously hold cards in both programs. For that reason, it is widely assumed that the same systems are behind both cards, and it is not hard to imagine a misplaced graphic appearing sporadically. So without any further evidence, I am willing to consider this a cosmetic bug and not a harbinger of things to come.

Other pathways to manufactured spending

Without any CVS stores in my hometown of Denver, my Bluebird card has been collecting dust for some time, so I know that there are still many other ways to manufacture spending without Vanilla reloads. Reload cards for the other two major programs, GreenDot and ReLoadit, are widely available but cannot be consistently purchased with a credit card.

ReLoadit

This payment network sells reloads that can be used to load various pre-paid debit cards such as AccountNow and, netSpend, and Paypal. Its newest feature is the “ReLoadit Safe” that allows you to store value online and use it to pay certain bills. The available bill pay options include various utilities, mortgage service providers, and insurance companies, but not credit card issuers. So unlike Bluebird’s ability to pay bills to “any person or business,” the ReLoadit Safe is much more limited.

GreenDot can be a good alternative.

GreenDot can be a good alternative.

GreenDot MoneyPak

GreenDot MoneyPak cards are also available widely, but not always with a credit card. My favorite GreenDot compatible card, the AccountNow Silver (which is also compatible with ReLoadit), has been closing the accounts of many credit card rewards enthusiasts. That is sad, since it has no annual fee or bill-pay fee. However, we note its passing but we do not mourn, as there are dozens of different prepaid cards that are part of the GreenDot network. If you are the type of cardholder that utilized this product heavily enough to get shut down, then switching to a different card with a small monthly fee should not affect you significantly.

Evolve Money

This free, online bill pay service has been very popular as a way to liquidate gift cards. The value proposition is not strong enough for most people to purchase gift cards at office supply stores with their Ink Bold and Ink Plus cards, given the $7.95 fee per $200 card. Yet whenever office supply stores offer some sort of discount or rebate for gift card purchases, it begins to make sense to those who have the time to apply multiple cards to their mortgage, insurance, or other bills.

The Fuel Rewards Network offers some interesting options.

The Fuel Rewards Network offers some interesting options.

Fuel Rewards Network

The Fuel Rewards Network is an interesting program is similar to a lot online reward portals, except it has a strong brick-and-mortar component as well. Membership is free, and you receive a card in the mail that you can present at gas stations, supermarkets, and participating retailers. You can also link your existing MasterCard accounts so that your purchases automatically qualify for this program.

For every $50 spent at gas stations and supermarkets, cardholders can earn a 5 cent per gallon discount on fuel purchased from Shell stations. Participating grocery stores include BI LO, Country Mart, Homeland, HyVee, Lucky, Save Mart, Smart Foods, and Winn Dixie. The one-time discount applies to gasoline purchases of up to 20 gallons, making the discount worth up to $1.00 total. This is the equivalent of 2% of the purchase price, or somewhat less if your vehicle won’t hold the full 20 gallons.

The interesting part is that the gasoline discounts are stackable, so that you could end up with a nearly free tank of gas (it appears that you have to pay at least $0.01/gal). Furthermore, the ability to buy gift cards in this program appears to be a feature, not a bug. For example, this page compels customers to:

“Buy gift cards from the kiosk inside participating Shell stations. Be sure to swipe your registered Fuel Rewards Network™ (FRN) card when checking out. Fuel Rewards® savings will be added to your FRN™ Account automatically and will combine with your other available Fuel Rewards savings.”

So if a 1-2% rebate in the form of gasoline is enough to make the difference when you are evaluating the purchase of gift cards for manufactured spending, then you should consider joining the Fuel Rewards Network.

So though the Vanilla Reload door has closed for now, there are still other ways to maximize reloadable and prepaid cards, and the field continues to develop all the time, so stay tuned for more updates on spending strategy.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Diotallevi

    Can I still purchase OneVanilla cards with a credit card? Thanks.

  • Jesse

    Yes, I just did this with a credit card at CVS, no problem.

  • Benjamin Szweda

    Loading Visa gift cards ($4.95 fee, purchased at a CVS or Walgreens, etc) at Walmart is still an option that works. $1000 per day.

  • Benjamin Szweda

    I haven’t been able to try buying Vanilla Visa cards at CVS in months. All my CVS are out of stock – space still on the rack for them but none there.

  • Emily Poff

    Is that a PIN enabled card that can be transferred to BB accounts?

  • Jesse

    Yes, but it’s easier in-store at Wally world. I’ve done this 3x this week.

  • steve

    use credit card to buy gift card then cash out gift card into money order and then deposit into bank account. Will this be considered as money laundry?

  • Jason Steele

    Perhaps, but I don’t believe it is illegal money laundering.

  • Jason Steele

    You bring up a good point. For many people like you and I, VR at CVS didn’t work for us for some reason.

  • Bobbyb

    Nope but you will be investigated and flagged. Nothing illegal but just a pain when the bank shuts down your account while under investigation. They report frequent large deposit as required by the money laundering act. So if you can handle money tied up for maybe 90 days then go for it.

  • Diego Frausto

    So could you buy the Amex gift cards (referenced in prior post) and reload them onto evolve?

  • jasmine

    YA but much more of a pain to have to travel there 5 separate times per month and wait in line because the money order machine never works. Plus buying the gift card. Have to factor if all that travel and time is worth it.

  • - -

    Wondering if someone can do a breakdown, like a chart, of each option, the card cost, max load, number of people to interact, so on.

  • Tony

    Why don’t you do it?

  • Greg

    Evolve is debit only, so Visa or MC gift cards work, but Amex are credit cards not debit, so they don’t work.

  • Ivan

    I read that the Fuel Rewards only gives you 3 cents per 100 dollars spent at grocery stores like Hyvee… Where did you see 5 cents per 50 dollars spent? Thanks!

  • Haley

    Fuel rewards network also has rewards on dining and is 10 cents per $50. My area has no grocery store coverage, but tons of independent dining establishments. There is even a Starbucks somewhere in NY (the search feature doesn’t work well on mobile devices, it gave me the whole list, I thought it was taking a long time to load). And this month $100 at many sporting goods stores pays a reward as well.

    So the age old paying the lunch bill and having your friends give you cash for their share thing is worth an extra little bit.

  • Jason Steele

    At Shell stations

  • - -

    Because last time I posted one on FlyerTalk everyone gave me a bunch of crap about it. So maybe they’ll like someone else’s better.

  • yiplar

    Has anyone found a retailer that is still allowing you to buy Visa prepaid debit cards? Everywhere I’ve gone in DC has been hardwired not to allow purchase with a credit card. The death of Vanilla Reloads would be felt alot less if I could buy a debit card and load it to Bluebird at Walmart. Any insight as to retailers still allowing credit card purchases of prepaid debit cards (especially in the DC area) would be very appreciated.

  • j

    All will do this soon, i work in the gift card, credit card world and people will buy 1000$ and then charge it back saying card was stolden, this is abuse similar to what this is, double dipping on points and so on, it wont be long to no one does it, sad so enjoy now

  • RJP

    Any guidance as to which specific GCs can be use through Evolve to pay bills? I have access to AmEx, MasterCard (US Bank), and Visa (MetaBank) variable load GCs with no fee/charge. Any help appreciated. Just tried a $50 fixed-amount MasterCard and got back a “This is not a debit card” message when tried to submit payment. Greatly appreciate any specific details on how to make Evolve work. Thanks!

  • WireValley

    Buy Visa gift cards that you can set a pin. I purchase mine at my local grocery store. Successfully buying $20k a month and unloading it all into 4 Bluebird accounts at Wal-Mart. @TravelHackGuy

  • Jack

    How did you get four Bluebird accounts? Different family members?

  • WireValley

    Correct. Me, my partner, and my parents. I take all 4 cards to Wal-Mart and load them up :-) @TravelHackGuy

  • epaminondas3294

    I’ll try the Visa gift cards, I think the mastercard ones don’t work because I tried doing what you said with the mastercard gift card but it wouldn’t work.

  • WireValley

    Yeah, the Visa’s at my grocery store work perfectly! Check your local stores @TravelHackGuy

  • Marc Cardenas

    so any specific VGC at CVS? Certain bank? or just one that you have to assign a pin to? I think there’s one that says on the back, the last 4 #’s of the card are the pin. Is that the one? or can that one be used? Thanks!

  • Drew

    I got a OneVanilla card but no PIN. Where do I go from here?

  • Benjamin Szweda

    Any with a pin. I buy the vanilla VGC. On those the last 4 digits is not the pin. The pin is anything you make it. The very first time you use the card (and only time if you’re transferring it to BB) just make up 4 numbers and that becomes the card pin.

  • Jesse

    The PIN should be the last four digits of the card number on the front of the card.

  • Ryan Morgan

    I just bought a Ready Debit for a $3 fee for a $500 purchase value with an MC at a Cumberland Farms and deposited it to my Bluebird account at Wal-mart. This was my first time ever doing this so I was trying to be cautious. Has anyone else used Ready Debit Visa? Also, “The Points Guy” has posted VR alternative chains and listed Cumberland Farms as a possibility. The cashier had said that credit purchases worked in the past, but I was rejected at the register.

  • GP_BWI

    I read somewhere you can buy GC at the Simmons Mall. I also bought GC with CC at walgreens last week

  • Ryan Morgan

    Don’t buy Ready Debit. The only let you activate one card at a time and will automatically put a freeze on your new cards when you’ve bought more than one. I’m having to work through their customer service people to be able to use 4 more that I bought as debit.

  • lpf

    Can you buy OneVanilla cards with CVS Gift Cards?

  • Eugene Kim

    FYI, I’ve also been doing this since the unfortunate demise of VRs. CVS is now hardcoding all their systems to only accept cash on Vanilla Gift Cards too. But I haven’t purchased any from grocery stores or other drug store chains, so I’ll have to check it out!

  • Diotallevi

    You create the pin number when you go to Walmart to load the OneVanilla debit card into your Bluebird account. You give the cashier the BB card and she/he asks you how much you would like to load. Tell him/her the amount then press a button to confirm. Then swipe your OneVanilla card and it will ask you for a pin. Put in any four numbers you like, but if you don’t completely unload the OneVanilla card DO NOT forget this pin. You will need it again the next time you unload cash from it. I’ve never had to do this as I always unload the whole thing.

  • Diotallevi

    Can’t help you there, I never tried, but it never hurts to ask a cashier at your local CVS.

  • Ryan

    Jason-by spreading out Green Dot money packs across 3-4 different prepaid cards (on a small scale, maybe 5-6k per month total) it should stay under everyone’s radar right? I’m hearing of GD lowering the hammer on a regular basis, and trying to stay in the clear

  • Tyler Durden

    I just bought a $500 OneVanilla today at CVS here in central Florida with my Chase Sapphire. There was some typical standard CVS sigage above the rack that said (I’m paraphrasing here), “Prepaid gift cards can be purchased with cash or credit card. Prepaid debit cards can be purchased with cash only.” Guess OneVanilla is considered a gift card here in central Florida not a reloadable debit card.

    I just signed up for my Bluebird account yesterday though, so I have to wait for the card to come in the mail before I can try adding the gift card to my account. Sounds like it works for WireValley! I read that the last four digits of your OneVanilla is the pre-set pin, so I’m crossing my fingers.

  • bob

    what can I do with a one vanillacard; it cant be loaded onto bluebird only reloads can

  • Edward Sudjatmiko

    I never tried this, but can’t you buy Visa gift cards at WalMart and then load them to Bluebird at the same WalMart?

  • WireValley

    I get 6 points per dollar at the grocery store. Walmart doesn’t count as grocery. I’m not sure if your method would work. I will try it something though!

  • Edward Sudjatmiko

    you’re right … I just checked Amex and it says Walmart is not counted as grocery store

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