Starting from scratch: alternative banking products

This week I've been writing about some strategies, credit cards, and loyalty programs I would use differently if I were building a travel hacking practice from scratch. If I were ignoring my elite status and current stable of credit cards, I'd focus even more on fixed-value points for use in booking airline tickets, and I'd ignore hotel loyalty completely in order to maximize my cash discount booking hotel nights through online travel agencies.

Today's post is about the alternative banking products I've used, abused, and lost throughout the last five or six years.

High-interest prepaid savings accounts

Back when CVS allowed virtually-unlimited numbers of Vanilla Reload Network reload cards to be purchased with credit cards, the American Express "old" Blue Cash offered unlimited 5% cash back, and the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express gave 6 HHonors points per dollar spent at drug stores, there was a constant search for new prepaid products that could be loaded and unloaded as quickly as possible through the Vanilla Reload Network. I burned through 3 MyVanilla accounts, 2 Netspend accounts, and a Momentum account all in order to liquidate as many Vanilla Reload Network cards as possible.

In hindsight, with Vanilla Reload Network cards today mostly unavailable to credit card users, that was a mistake: Netspend and Momentum offer savings accounts with higher FDIC-insured interest rates than those available anywhere else in the market today, and I'd prefer to still have working relationships with those companies.

American Express prepaid banking products

Like most aggressive users of American Express's Bluebird and Serve prepaid products, on January 8, 2016, my accounts were all closed. I had been using both accounts to liquidate PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards for free, and in the case of Serve, earn cash back by loading funds from my Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card.

If I were starting over today, I wouldn't use American Express prepaid banking products to manufacture spend at all: I'd use them to manufacture transactions for high-interest savings, checking, and credit card accounts that require a certain number of transactions per month to unlock their highest reward levels.


I don't have any regrets about the path that my travel hacking practice has taken, even though I focus more on airline and hotel loyalty currencies than I would if I were starting from scratch today.

I probably slightly overpay for my checked bags by earning Delta Medallion elite status with a Delta Platinum American Express each year, and I earn only part of that value back with high-value SkyMiles redemptions.

Likewise, I tend to overpay for my hotel stays by earning Hilton HHonors points and Diamond elite status with my Hilton Surpass American Express, instead of booking through a cashback portal and online travel agency, and I've certainly overpaid by directing stays towards Hyatt during this year of my Diamond status match.

But building relationships with banks and merchants is a process that necessarily develops over time, and as things stand I'm more or less happy with the decisions I've made and the relationships I've built, even if I would have proceeded different in hindsight.

I'd sure kill for another shot at a Serve account, though.

I just bricked my Bluebird account (for the next 28 days)

Today I'm going to share a very simple, very stupid mistake I made. In fact it's so simple, and so stupid, that it's unlikely to help any of my readers. But sharing is still caring, so here we go.


I manage 3 full-service prepaid American Express cards: one Bluebird account (in my name), one Serve account and one Target Prepaid REDcard account (I haven't moved that one to Serve yet).

For the first year or so of managing the Serve card, the bill pay function simply didn't work. I assume this was a version of the e-mail address bug that afflicted quite a few people, but I didn't worry about it, for two reasons. First, since the bill pay function on my Bluebird account has always worked, I could simply send $2,500 per month to that account and pay my credit card bills from there. Second, I also control the external checking account linked to the Serve account, so could simply withdraw the remaining $3,500 monthly and pay my bills from that account.

When a Prepaid REDcard came under my control, I followed the same pattern, except the card wasn't linked to an external checking account, so I only manufactured $4,500 in spend per month with the card: I sent $2,500 to my Bluebird account and withdrew $2,000 per month from free ATM's, the respective limits on each kind of transaction.

Bluebird has a $100,000 limit across all Spend Money transactions

There are six activities that American Express categorizes as "Spend Money" transactions:

  • Merchant Transactions
  • Pay Bills
  • ATM Withdrawals
  • Send Money Transactions
  • Transfers back to the linked Bank Account

It should be nearly impossible to reach that $100,000 spend limit: you can only add $5,000 per calendar month in cash and $1,000 from a linked debit card, which if maxed out would only come to $72,000 per calendar year.

But I was sending myself $4,500 per month from the Serve and REDcard accounts under my control!

Bluebird customer service is surprisingly helpful

When I attempted to make a bill payment this morning, the error message simply said the transaction couldn't be completed and to call customer service. Fearing the worst, I called in immediately. Unfortunately, the frontline representative couldn't pull up my account because their system was undergoing "routine maintenance," but she did offer to transfer me to the technical team.

The representative in the technical department took just a few minutes to look up my total amount spent so far this year, which was just over $96,000, and told me I had just under $4,000 left to spend this calendar year. While I had him on the line, I made a bill payment for the exact amount he specified, and the payment went through as usual, leaving me with a stranded $900 balance until January 1, 2016.


I only fell into this situation because I thought I was being clever: by pooling as much money as possible in my Bluebird account, I wouldn't have to add each of my credit cards to each of the American Express prepaid accounts I controlled. That turns out to have been too clever by half.

So learn from my stupid mistake: take the time to add your payees to each account you control, and you'll never come close to hitting the $100,000 calendar year limit on Spend Money transactions.

Quick hit: new Bluebird/Serve/Redbird scheduled adds

[Editor's note: I'm currently traveling so responses to comments and e-mails may be slightly slower than usual. —FQF]

When writing about simplifying and automating debit card transactions back in July, I wrote:

"Unfortunately, as with Evolve Money, I am no longer able to create new so-called 'scheduled add' transactions. What I am able to do is edit existing scheduled add transactions and change the funding source to a new credit or debit card."

Turns out there's an easy workaround that allows users to create new scheduled adds.

Once you're logged into your Serve, Bluebird, or Prepaid REDcard account, simply navigate to:

  • for Bluebird scheduled adds;
  • for Serve scheduled adds;
  • for Prepaid REDcard scheduled adds.

Using this technique, you can create as many scheduled adds as you like, either in order to meet monthly debit transaction requirements or, in the case of Serve, simply to schedule the manufacture of $1,000 per month in third-party (not American Express-issued) American Express credit card spend.

Simplifying and automating debit card transactions

Last month I wrote about using Amazon Allowance to generate credit and debit transactions, like those required by Wells Fargo to waive monthly maintenance fees, by Bank of America's Better Balance Rewards card to ensure you receive your quarterly bonuses, and by Consumers Credit Union to trigger the high interest rates on their Rewards Checking accounts.

I like Amazon Allowances and I use Amazon Allowances, but there are reasons you might prefer not to use Amazon Allowances: you might not do enough shopping on Amazon to justify buying Amazon gift credit, or on the contrary, you might value your relationship with Amazon too much to entangle it in your extracurricular activities.

With that in mind, here are two other options for, if not automating, at least simplifying your monthly transaction requirements.

Evolve Money

Interest in Evolve Money has dwindled since they added fees for transactions funded by prepaid debit cards, but the site still exists, and they still have a large database of billers that's well worth exploring. For example, I'm able to make contributions to my Utah Educational Savings Plan account, which is in my opinion one of the better 529 Educational Savings Plans available — and, even better, it's not administered by Upromise Investments!

Importantly for our purposes, Evolve Money charges a flat 3% fee on credit card and "small bank" debit card transactions, rather than the more typical 2.9% + $0.30 fee charged by many payments processors. That means a $1 charge incurs a fee of exactly 3 cents. Since you are allowed to make 4 debit card-funded payments per month, per biller, if you can find 3 eligible billers in their database you can generate 12 transactions per month at a total cost of $0.36.

Unfortunately I cannot seem to set up recurring payments using Evolve Money, but since payments can be scheduled in advance you can just set aside 5 minutes per month to schedule your 10-12 monthly debit transactions. Likewise, a monthly $5 Better Balance Rewards payment would cost all of $0.15 in processing fees.

Bluebird, Serve, and Target Prepaid REDCard loads

American Express's full-service prepaid cards actually feature a powerful recurring payment service: you're able to schedule recurring transactions to move funds from a debit card to your prepaid account, as well as from any credit card on the American Express network (some American Express-issued credit cards do not earn rewards on such transactions, however).

Unfortunately, as with Evolve Money, I am no longer able to create new so-called "scheduled add" transactions. What I am able to do is edit existing scheduled add transactions and change the funding source to a new credit or debit card.

So on the Bluebird account I manage, I had three recurring "scheduled add" plans already created, and was able to change them to set up daily $0.50 funding transactions for the first 12 days of the next 3 months. That's not exactly automatic (I'll have to move the dates forward every 3 months), but it also doesn't take up too much mental bandwidth.


Frequent Miler and Matt at Saverocity have both raised the question lately, in their own ways, of how much cognitive space they're willing to devote to "smaller" deals when they could instead be pursuing big fish, and I think it's an absolutely essential conversation to have.

In my own travel hacking practice, I tend to err on the side of doing more, rather than less. I continue to pursue a number of "small fry," like Visa Buxx cards, which offer a small amount of unbonused spend each month. But I'm also eager to automate or simplify as many elements of my manufactured spend as possible, so I can devote more cognitive bandwidth to exploring new deals — and sharing them with my readers!

Recurring, small debit card transactions are precisely the kind of nuisance that can take up a disproportionate amount of attention, and are the kind of thing that are essential to simplify or automate if at all possible.

Confirmed: multiple same-day Serve loads at Family Dollar

Back in July I mentioned my intention to load my Serve card at Family Dollar for the time being, using easily-acquired OneVanilla prepaid Visa debit cards, and just last month shared my local store manager's theory about the kinds of limits Family Dollar registers impose on Serve loads.

As I explained in that second post:

"However, using Family Dollar raises its own issues; in particular, you can generally only load a Serve card once per day, per store location. Since I only have one convenient Family Dollar location, that means loading $5,000 in OneVanilla cards over ten days, compared to the 2 days possible at Walmart registers ($2,500 per day)." (emphasis added)

While it's true that I have only one convenient Family Dollar location, it's not precisely true that I have only one local location.

Multiple same-day Serve loads are possible at different Family Dollar locations

A reader had privately e-mailed me to let me know he was able to load his Serve card multiple times on the same day at different Family Dollar locations, so this morning I set off to cruise around the suburbs and collect my own datapoints.

I ended up visiting 3 Family Dollar locations: my own local, convenient location, and two suburban locations:

  • My $500 load went through as usual at my local store;
  • the first suburban location's card readers and PIN pads were out of order;
  • and the second suburban location allowed me to complete a second, $500 load.

My working hypothesis for now is that you can load up to $2,500 per day (Serve's daily cash load limit, per the Serve website), by visiting 5 different Family Dollar store locations.

Family Dollar loads have their drawbacks

Those with access to more store locations will benefit most from this fact, and not just because you need access to 5 stores in order to complete 5, $500 loads.

In addition to the one-load-per-store-per-day limitation, Family Dollar registers also have an overreactive fraud detection algorithm, such that you might be unable to load your Serve card at any given store even once, depending on that store location's previous daily load activity, as I described here.

And of course, as my experience today showed, Family Dollar stores are not necessarily reliable partners; both technical difficulties and undertrained personnel can make life more frustrating that you'd like.


I know there are metropolitan areas with dozens of Family Dollar locations, and for residents of those areas the possibility of multiple, same-day Serve loads using OneVanilla cards is yet another advantage of Serve over Bluebird.

As Serve becomes ever more useful than Bluebird, it seems to me that it must be a matter of time until Bluebird cards are discontinued and Serve remains as American Express's flagship prepaid card product.

News from the front: TD Go and online Bluebird debit load limits

As I mentioned last week, I am currently traveling, hence the lighter-than-usual posting schedule. But there are two quick hits I want to share with readers before I head to the rodeo.

TD Go (slowly) sloughs off this mortal coil

As my regular readers know, I recently moved from a state where TD Go cards were issued to one where they are not. I conveniently forgot to change the billing address on my linked credit card, which gave me a few more months of cheap manufactured spend, but I'm now seeing reports (apologies to whoever posted it first) that starting September 3, TD Go cards will allow funding only from TD Bank-issued credit cards (which presumably won't award whatever rewards currency TD Bank is issuing these days).

While TD Go's $3,000 monthly load limit was a rounding error of manufactured spend, it was a cheap rounding error, and it will be missed.

Bluebird raises online debit load limits

In addition to a $2,500 daily and $5,000 calendar monthly cash load limits, American Express's Bluebird checking account alternative also allows $1,000 in monthly online debit loads.

Since the product was launched, the only way to reach that $1,000 monthly load limit has been through online loads capped at $100 per calendar day. While painless, those 10 online loads have always a bit of a recurring nuisance.

Responding, no doubt, to the plaintiff cries of travel hackers everywhere, American Express has raised those daily online debit load limits to $200.


Together with PayPal's move to calendar-monthly My Cash load limits and Bluebird's change to $2,500 daily cash load limits (from the previous, $1,000 daily load limit), the working travel hacker's life has been simplified immensely in just the past few weeks.

And the only sacrifice the travel hacking gods demanded was $3,000 in unbonused spend.

I'll take it.

Charlotte preview: Vanilla Reloadables

As readers know, there will be a gathering in Charlotte this weekend of some of the participants in the March manufactured spending competition (#milemadness) and readers who are interested in getting to know us better. Additionally, we'll be joined by some of the more, shall we say, reclusive members of the travel hacking community. I'm very excited to be presenting, and even more excited to be able to meet some folks I only know over e-mail or through enigmatic posts on FlyerTalk.

This week I though I'd share some reflections on my experience in the competition, and maybe elicit some subjects from readers and Charlotte attendees for further conversations.

I lost #milemadness – but that's ok

The manufactured spending competition privileged speed of liquidation, since you couldn't manufacture additional spend until you had liquidated an instrument, whether it was Vanilla Reload Network reload cards or electronics you bought for resale.

Additionally, all the spend we manufactured was "weighted" by the "Fair Trading Price" of the points currencies we earned. Whatever the advantages or disadvantages of FTP as a system for pricing points, it meant that those who were earning Ultimate Rewards points – especially at high multiples – were able to easily lap those of us stuck manufacturing almost any other points currency.

On the other hand, I ultimately manufactured about $43,000 in spend during the four weeks of the competition, or about $1,500 per day, an amount that I'm perfectly satisfied with. The ability to manufacture that much spend on a sustained basis puts all of my travel and financial goals within reach, which is one reason I finally became confident enough to decide to start blogging and writing full time.

Vanilla Reloadables

In today's Charlotte preview, I want to explain the reloadable prepaid debit cards I used to manufacture a big chunk of that $43,000.

"But FQF," you may well object, "Vanilla Reloads aren't a viable tool anymore! Why would anyone be interested in that?"

The answer, of course, is people who still have access to Vanilla Reloads.

Bluebird ($5,000)

Bluebird, and its cousin Serve, forms the hard core of most manufactured spending strategies.

  • Limits: $1,000 per day, $5,000 per calendar month;
  • Loading: online using Vanilla Reload Network, or in-store at any Walmart register;
  • Unloading: transfer to a linked bank account, or pay bills directly;
  • Adverse action: none.

JH Preferred ($11,000)

The JH Preferred card is a branded clone of the generic MyVanilla Debit cards. However, it's still possible to sign up for a JH Preferred card even if you've already used up all 3 of your MyVanilla Debit shutdowns.

  • Limits: $2,500 per day, $5,000 per month published, limits only loosely enforced in practice;
  • Loading: online using Vanilla Reload Network;
  • Unloading: PIN-based transactions at Walmart;
  • Adverse action: Many reports of shutdowns for over-the-counter bank cash disbursements.

Momentum ($4,000)

The Momentum prepaid card can only be applied for in-person at a limited number of check-cashing establishments. It's a very expensive and abusive product, with a high risk of shutdown.

  • Limits: $2,500 per day (5 loads);
  • Loading: online using Vanilla Reload Network;
  • Unloading: $1 over-the-counter bank cash disbursement for the entire card balance;
  • Adverse action: closed after third cash withdrawal.

HR Block Emerald ($5,000)

This is a great product that can be a bit tricky to sign up for, since you need to either have your taxes done in-branch at a HR Block location, or convince them to give you a card without having your taxes done. It is similar to Bluebird, but cost $3.74 to load at Walmart registers.

  • Limits: $1,000 per day, $5,000 per rolling 30-day period;
  • Loading: online using Vanilla Reload Network or in-person at any Walmart register (costs $3.74);
  • Unloading: ACH pull directly from the account;
  • Adverse action: none.


There you have it: a full $25,000 of my total manufactured spend during the competition was through Vanilla reloadable prepaid debit cards.

On the one hand, that's not a terribly creative approach to manufacturing spend. On the other hand, even if I were earning at a rate of one mile per dollar, that means I could have spent $197.50 (plus unloading costs, plus time) for enough miles to fly roundtrip anywhere in the continental US.

"What's the best credit card?"

I have a lot of family and friends who typically find themselves somewhere between amusement, shock, and awe when I talk about this crazy game we play. But sooner or later when they foresee a big upcoming expense, whether it's a wedding, a move, or a remodel, they come to me and ask, "Alright hotshot, you're the expert, what's the best credit card?"

After all, here I am, a starving artist trying to push books out the door and get people to pay for a blog they can read for free, but I take long weekends a few times a month and three or four long vacations each year – in first class, whenever possible. Nonetheless, my answer is almost always the same:

It doesn't really work like that.

Sure, I'll pass along a particularly good signup bonus, like the 55,000 mile Chase United MileagePlus Explorer offer I recommended to my Polish friend, or the 50,000 mile Citi Platinum Select / AAdvantage offer I signed up for earlier this month, since those bonuses are so high even a rookie is sure to get a good enough value that I'll be able to sleep at night.

One Question

Mile-and-point-earning credits cards are not right for everybody, and in fact they're right for almost nobody. When my brother recently asked what credit cards his friend should sign up for, the only question I asked was,

"Is she a businessman who is allowed to charge business travel to her personal credit card, and/or is she crazy?"

If the answer to both is no, a mile-and-point-earning credit card is not right for her.

One Size Fits All? Cash Back.

The best credit for the average civilian is the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card. It earns 2% cash back everywhere American Express is accepted, and has no annual fee. American Express isn't accepted everywhere, so our average civilian should carry a backup Visa, MasterCard, or Discover. I have both a Chase Freedom Visa and Discover it card, for example, and I'll be doing a product change to the Citi Dividend Platinum Select once I use up my ThankYou point balance from my current ThankYou Preferred card.

Even better, the rewards balance on Chase Freedom and Discover it cards can be used at their full value on purchases, so users can use their rewards immediately for online purchases, rather than waiting for them to accumulate. For example, Discover requires a $50 rewards balance to redeem for cash, the swine.

Foreign Transaction Fees

I would slightly lean towards the Discover it because it doesn't have a foreign transaction fee, so for the very occasional international trip the average user takes, that would provide some real savings. Discover cards are processed on the Diner's Club network, so they have quite good acceptance overseas, although somewhat less than Visa or MasterCard (and much better than American Express).

Of course a free Bluebird account also doesn't have foreign transaction fees, and can be used as an ATM card at many international ATMs, but does operate on the American Express card network so acceptance could be a problem depending on the destination.

The Exceptions

Of course, if you are a businessman who charges company expenses to your personal credit card, or you are crazy, travel hacking is an amazingly lucrative hobby that allows you to travel the world for pennies on the dollar. Buy my book! Read my blog! If you like it, consider setting up a monthly PayPal subscription! But when your friends ask, tell them the same thing I told my brother: a solid 2% cash back card is going to get them farther, faster, then messing around with co-branded credit cards that earn just one mile or point per dollar.

Free online debit loads to Bluebird

A few days ago there was an uptick in interest in Bluebird, when cardholders received an e-mail telling us that from now on online debit card loads would be free.

For a little background, debit card loads in-store at Walmart have always been free, and capped at $1,000 per day and $5,000 per month, a limit that's shared with Vanilla Reload Network loads. The low cap is unfortunate, but this does give the flexibility to use the $5,000 cap to drain gift cards or Visa Buxx cards, if that's a more lucrative option for you than buying Vanilla Reload Network cards, as it is for some people.

I had a bit of trouble setting up my Bluebird account for online debit loads, so I want to share my experience and let you know what to expect if you decide to take advantage of this new free option.

The Card

I decided to add my business PayPal debit card, which earns 1% cash back on signature and online transactions, and is loadable using PayPal My Cash cards. The principle here is that I can load my PayPal account with $1,000 at a cost of $7.90, then drain the account at 1% cash back, earning $10. In this way I'll manufacture $1,008 in lucrative gas station spend, and a small profit of $2.10.

The Problem

The card was successfully added to my account, but I wasn't able to add funds. Instead, I received this curious error message: 

This request cannot be completed at this time. Your Permanent Bluebird card must be activated before adding money using your bank account. If you’ve received your Permanent Bluebird card and already activated it, please call Account Protection Services at 1.800.660.2454. Our hours of operation are 9am - 8pm EST, Monday - Friday. If not, your Permanent Bluebird card will be delivered within 7-10 business days of your completed registration.

A quick trip to Flyertalk revealed that I wasn't the only one experiencing this problem. However, I was able to continue loading my account normally using Vanilla Reload Network cards, and bill pay out the funds, so the whole situation was extremely murky.

The Solution

A few days later, I received a call from Bluebird's "Account Protection Services," who asked me to verify that I had an account, and that I was trying to add debit cards to it. I confirmed that, and she then asked me to fax in a copy of my driver's license and the front of the debit cards I was trying to add. 

After a quick trip to the office, I called back to make sure they'd received my fax.  It took the representative 3 tries to find it, but when she did, she was immediately able to verify my name and the card numbers of my debit cards, and lifted the hold on my account.

I then logged back into Bluebird and was able to successfully load $100 from my PayPal debit card. 


Here are my thoughts on online debit loads so far:

  • Don't be worried if you aren't immediately able to use a new debit card – you may have to go through the same slightly inconvenient process;
  • Be sure to only add debit cards that have your name on the front. Anonymous gift cards could cause real problems with your account; 
  • The $1,000 monthly limit on debit card loads is in addition to your $5,000 monthly in-store and Vanilla Reload limit; 
  • You can set up 10 recurring $100 loads each month, so you don't have to log in to Bluebird each day;
  • But if you do, be sure you have enough money in your debit card account to cover the scheduled transactions!

What are your experiences with online debit loads? 

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.