Gift Cards Now Have PINs, and Why That Matters

Living in the Pacific Northwest has its benefits, but access to the tools for manufactured spend on credit cards is not one of them. Attentive readers will have picked up by now that it is virtually impossible to buy Vanilla Reloads in Seattle. There are no CVS stores in the entire state of Washington …or Oregon, Idaho, or several other states for that matter.

No CVS

Walgreens carries Vanilla Reloads, but they demand cash. Not even a debit card will suffice. I have spent days driving to the (very) few Plaid Pantry and Valero outlets nearby, and they also turn up dry. So we have to be resourceful here. I tried the Wells Fargo prepaid card, but the option to load it with another credit card will end on May 1. I have actually considered making my brother and sister additional cardholders so they can buy Vanilla Reloads on my behalf now.

But how long will that last? CVS already caps many Vanilla Reload purchases at two per transaction. I laugh at the stories I read about people’s “territories” and hiding cards behind other brands to save them for future use. It seems like an awful lot of effort, even if Vanilla Reloads are sold nearby.

There Is Another Way

I am not the first to break the news that Federal Reserve guidelines now require that all prepaid gift cards have a PIN (Hat Tip to Million Mile Secrets and this FlyerTalk thread started by jk2). But I don’t think it’s gotten nearly the attention it deserves. This is BIG NEWS in the Pacific Northwest where we have no other easy options, and it could be good news for others, too, as I discuss near the end.

Gift Cards

As luck would have it, Daraius found that Kroger supermarkets were already carrying PIN-enabled gift cards when he checked. QFC, one of Kroger’s brands, happens to have a large presence around Seattle and Portland. He was only able to find a $100 gift card, but I have never failed to find stacks of $500 cards at several nearby QFCs. I just got back yesterday from Walmart after setting the PIN on my phone and successfully loaded the entire balance onto my Bluebird with zero complications.

That is the one condition. You need to have a Walmart nearby to load the cards in person. But that I have. It may be a 15-20 minute drive, but CVS is hours by plane. So here’s what to do, step-by-step.

Step 1: Look for cards issued by US Bank National Association.

This information is printed on the back. The cards normally look like they have a big wrapped present on them, with a Visa or MasterCard logo. Get $500 cards if possible to reduce your cost.

Step 2: Pay with your preferred method.

My clerk at QFC asked for a photo ID, but that was all.

Step 3: Set the PIN.

Call 1-866-952-5653. Press 1 to continue in English and then press 2 for “other enquiries.” You’ll be asked to enter your card number followed by the pound sign. You’ll also be asked to enter the three-digit security code on the back. Finally, you can press 3 to set a PIN.

Step 4: Use like any other debit card.

The most logical place to buy $500 gift cards is at QFC. There are many locations, it counts as a grocery store for bonus purposes, and it has no problem taking credit cards. I have not found a nearby office supply store that carries $500 cards; they are all now capped at $200. This can still be a good deal as you’ll learn below.

Remember that you can load up to $1,000 per day and $5,000 per month onto your Bluebird card. Because these gift cards function as standard debit cards, you will need to visit a physical Walmart location and use either the Walmart Money Center ATM or visit one of the clerks at the register or customer service desk.

Choose One or More Cards for Manufactured Spend

Here are some of the better cards you should consider using to purchase Visa or MasterCard gift cards (I’ve seen some American Express gift cards, too, but have not yet tried them). I am assuming each $500 card will have a $5.95 activation fee, which will be the cost of your miles in addition to any time or other inconvenience.

Starwood Preferred Guest American Express — 1.19 cents per point
1 point per dollar on general purchases = 500 points

British Airways Visa by Chase — 0.952 cents per point
1.25 points per dollar on general purchases = 625 points

United MileagePlus Club Visa by Chase — 0.793 cents per mile
1.5 miles per dollar on all purchases = 750 miles

Ink Bold Visa by Chase — 0.595 cents per point
5 points per dollar at office supply stores = 1,000 points ($200 card maximum)

Premier Rewards Gold American Express — 0.595 cents per point
2 points per dollar on grocery purchases = 1,000 points

Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard — 0.541 cents per point
2 “miles” per dollar on all purchases, plus 10% rebate on redemptions = 1,100 miles

Each of these points currencies has a different value, so being cheapest to earn is not the end of the conversation. I can usually get 2.5 cents per point in value from SPG’s Starpoints, so my “return on investment” is about 1.3 cents on every point earned through manufactured spend, or 110% (net gain divided by cost). Using valuations like this, I created the table below. You may disagree with my exact numbers, but I think we will be close enough that the order remains relatively unaffected.

Manufactured Spend ROI

From the table, we learn that the greatest return on investment comes from Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and MileagePlus, though Starwood Preferred Guest remains a reasonable alternative.

There are caveats here. Membership Rewards and Starpoints are good values, but you don’t want to risk an American Express financial review by getting greedy. And to get such a low cost for Ultimate Rewards points, you have to buy five times as many gift cards in lower denominations. Lots of plastic to carry around. Personally, I would likely use those points with United, and it may be easier to accept a higher cost for the sake of convenience using the MileagePlus Club Visa at a grocery store.

Could you have bought Visa and MasterCard gift cards before? Yes, and load them onto an American Express for Target prepaid card. But we don’t have those here, either. Only a handful of stores participate, and they’re in eastern Washington, several hours away. None are in Oregon. Plus, you’d still have to pay additional fees to load the card. Adding a PIN to gift cards makes it easier to rely on local retail partners and also take advantage of Bluebird’s better features like bill pay and writing checks.

I hope this gets you started thinking about new opportunities for manufactured spend, especially those of you living in areas where it has not recently been practical. If nothing else, the opportunity to buy gift cards at a variety of locations and with a variety of cards can help reduce the likelihood of fraud alerts and financial reviews.

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Damon

    Scott; how about the option to load the BB online via debit card, as these PIN gift cards can now be considered debit?? Possible?

    • Scottrick

      Online loads permit only $100 per day. I suppose that’s an option, but it would be a hassle. I like to get these things over and done with, which is why I’m less keen on buying $200 cards at an office supply store, for example.

      • Damon

        Ok; I’m stationed in Germany so figuring my best option.

  • tonytonytony

    Im still using the mileage plus select card which gives me 2 points per dollar spent at office supplies stores and restaurants ( i think) would you recvomend using that card.

    • Scottrick

      I believe it earns two points on gas, home improvement, and grocery purchases, not office supplies. Check and confirm with Chase first. It could work out, but I didn’t recommend it because the card is no longer available to new cardholders.

  • JA

    Can you use a cash advance to take the funds off the debit?

    • Scottrick

      You can’t withdraw the cash from a prepaid gift card at an ATM. The PIN is only there to facilitate purchases, and loading a Bluebird is classified as a purchase.

  • rick b

    You’re forgetting Thank You preferred, which is 5x for the first year for gas, groceries, drugstores.

    • Scottrick

      That’s a good choice if you remember to stop using it after the first year, but the game will have probably changed by then anyway ;)

  • ford

    Why no AMEX BCP/BCE? I setup Mrs. Ford with BCP, I have BCE and when we’ve hit the $6k cap on both, we’ll turn to PRG.

    I probably wound up at the same QFC as you last weekend when this broke. I’ve also only had my id checked at Safeway if you want to spread out your trips. I want to find a gas station that sells visa/mc gcs in $500 denominations, I’ve only been able to find $50 max so far. I don’t even know if that has ever existed, but it would be great for BCP/BCE/Freedom/other rotators. I don’t drive, but do purchases inside the gas station count as “gas” category or convenience, or does it vary by card/merchant coding?

    • Scottrick

      This is not a personal finance blog, so I try to stick to miles and points. I don’t disagree that 6% cash back is a great deal that nets a profit.

      • Ford

        Sorry to be a total noob about it, but I’ve never purchased a vanilla reload. I’ve got some of the gift cards and have activated their PINs, could I now go back to Walgreens and buy Vanilla Reloads with my “debit” gift cards? $3.95 is worth it to me vs. driving to Walmart in Couv.

        • Scottrick

          You could, if they’re willing to take them. Some Walgreens only take cash. That’s an interesting idea and would avoid the trip to Walmart. But it also increases your costs because now you have to pay to activate both the gift card and the Vanilla Reload.

          • Ford

            I tried at a few last weekend and they said cash only though, it’s pretty crazy they won’t even allow debit purchases. It’s 2013, who the hell carries around $500 in cash…

    • http://www.facebook.com/jennifer.church.378 Jennifer Church

      IME, only “pay at the pump” has counted for any bonuses or gas category spend.

  • daPang

    Quick question. How do you ‘transfer’ the money from Visa/Master debitcard into Bluebird at Walmart?

    • Scottrick

      Go into Walmart and tell any employee at the MoneyCenter desk or the cash register that you want to reload your Bluebird card, and tell them you’ll pay with your debit card. They will take and swipe the Bluebird card and ask for the amount. You will approve the amount on the payment terminal and then swipe your payment card like any other transaction.

      Using the MoneyCenter ATM, you want to look for the button that says “Walmart Money Card” or something to that effect and follow the prompts. It will not be labeled as Bluebird, but it has the same function.

  • Muerl

    Any reason you don’t mention Surpass, with its 6x on Groceries?

    Personally If I go this route I would use MP Select, but as you say thats not offered anymore. Right now I have 13 CVSs within 2 miles of my house, and one where I change from Train to Bus on my commute so VRs are not a worry

    • Scottrick

      I didn’t mention it because I find Hilton points are not worth very much (for me and my travel habits, at least); there are certainly other cards you migth consider besides the subset I listed.

      Surpass at 6X would earn 3,000 points, for a cost of 0.198 cents each. A common valuation I read late last year was 0.6 cents each, and with the devaluation nearly doubling redemption costs, I’ll cut that down to 0.4 cents. So you are making about a 100% ROI. Not bad, but I think there are better options on the list above.

      I would rather collect Membership Rewards and transfer to Hilton in times when I need them, rather than be stuck with only Hilton points and no other options.

  • zs58

    According to the Bluebird FAQ, debit card deposits are capped at $100-per-day.

    https://bluebird.com/faqs?linknav=us-Prepaid-Bluebird-Home-Faqs#fees-and-limits

    This would be pretty limiting to the above strategy, making the effort (to me, at least) and time involved a bit excessive. Is there a higher ($1000) limit for in-store debit card reloads that I am missing?

    • Scottrick

      Yes, $100 online and $1,000 in stores.

      You could theoretically load $100 a day and never leave your home, but that would cap your load at about $3,000 per month. Since the card can take up to $5,000 per month, you are leaving $2,000 of potential manufactured spend untapped.

      • zs58

        Thanks Scott – wondering if you had any idea what level of gift card spend would trigger raised eyebrows at AMEX?

        • Scottrick

          I’m a conservative guy. I’m sure there are people out there putting $10K a month on their cards, and maybe they get away with it. Personally, I wouldn’t put more than $2-3K a month on the same Amex card from the same store. That’s one reason I created the table. I like collecting points in several programs, and having the option to buy gift cards with several different credit cards meets that goal while lowering the risk of raising red flags.

  • Dan T.

    Any idea on using Target Amex to load Bluebird? Target Amex already has PIN. I guess nobody mention it because it’s not a gift card right?

    • Scottrick

      I think the problem there is that you would load the Target Amex using the same Visa/MC gift cards, but Target Amex also has a $3 load fee. This was a reasonable option when Vanilla Reload wasn’t available because Target would just swipe the gift card at the register without a PIN. But now that such gift cards have PINs, you can avoid the load fee by using Bluebird. To the best of my knowledge, you could not directly load Target Amex with a credit card.

      Target Amex could be unloaded at an ATM, so going the extra step to transfer from gift cards to Target Amex, and then from Target Amex to Bluebird seems unnecessary.

      • Dan T

        My Target allows me to load using credit card. So I load $1000 for $3 fee. I can get $400 cash for $1.25 fee at Costco. The next $400 cash would cost me $4.25. If I can use Bluebird, then I just buy 1003 points for $3 fee or less than 0.3 cent/point.

        • Scottrick

          Good to know. Someday I’ll get a Target Amex, maybe when I visit my parents in California. But I’m sure not going to drive to Yakima just for the sake of manufactured spend.

  • Elaine

    Thanks, Scott. As a fellow PNWer, I especially appreciate the local strategy. Will keep an eye out for the $500 cards at supermarkets. Do you know if one can load them onto BB at the smaller Walmarts, which are basically just grocery stores? I forget their name….

    • Scottrick

      I haven’t tried to do that. It would be an interesting experiment. Maybe I’ll try tomorrow!

    • kofucious

      I have loaded Bluebird at 3 of the Walmarts in Renton, Bellevue (Factoria & Lake Hills) with gift cards from Fred Meyer, Walmart giftcard, and Office Depot. All have been successful. Only the Walmart in Renton has the self-service ATM to reload it yourself. The two at Bellevue you need to go to the register or customer service counter.

  • HikerT

    You are underestimating the true cost. You need to capture opportunity cost in the equation. For example, instead of putting manufactured spend on the 1.5x United card you could have put it on a 2% cash back card. You are giving up 2 cents for every 1.5 united miles you earn with manufactured spend, so your real cost is 1.33 cents per United mile (ignoring annual fees). Similarly for SPG. Your opportunity cost is higher if you fail to tap capacity from options that generate more than 2 cents of value (granted those are typically capped and have opportunity costs if you push it too hard, but if you don’t tap them you are leaving money on the table). Manufactured spend doesn’t make miles cheaper any more than your annual salary makes miles cheaper – it just makes them more affordable. You still need to make smart decisions in terms of where to put the spend.

    • Scottrick

      I’m not sure I agree with you, but please let me know if my response still doesn’t make sense.

      If I used a 2% cash back card and bought a $500 card + $5.95 activation fee, then I would get back $10.12 in rewards ($505.95 * 0.02). My cost is $5.95, since I can’t get that back, so I am ahead $4.17.

      If I used a United Club card that earns 1.5 miles per dollar, which I value at 2 cents each, then I would get back $15.18 worth of miles ($505.95 * 1.5 * 0.02). My cost is still $5.95, and I am ahead $9.23.

      The opportunity cost of choosing not to get cash back doesn’t make the miles or points worth any less. It’s just a different form of reward. I can get a cash reward, which has very obvious, fixed value. Or I can get a miles/points reward, whose value I’ve tried to estimate but can still be affected by forces beyond my control.

      I do agree that you should look for ways to earn miles/points that return more than 2 cents in value per dollar. But that’s just for the purposes of comparing the best rewards option. It does not actually cost me 2 cents more to choose miles just because I could have picked cash instead.

      • HikerT

        It doesn’t matter what you value United miles at. If you have the United 1.5x card and a 2% cash back card you have at least 2 options. First option, put the manufactured spend on the UA card. You earn 1.5 miles. What it costs you in fees, time, effort, fuel, etc. is irrelevant because it washes out in the equation. Second option, put the manufactured spend on the 2% card. Same fees, same time & effort, same gas bill, the only difference is 1.5 miles vs. 2 cents. You gave up 2 cents for those 1.5 miles. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you paid less.

        • Scottrick

          You’re right. I gave up 2 cents to get 1.5 miles instead. I value 1.5 miles at 3 cents. So it makes more sense to get the miles. I think this is the same argument I made.

          I think we’re disagreeing over how to think about manufactured spend, not on the real value of the miles or points. Whatever cards I use, I get a reward. I can do manufactured spend with a cash back card and turn a profit as long as I pay less than 2 cents in order to get 2 cents back. But I can get more value from the miles, so I use a miles-earning card instead.

          • HikerT

            The reason it’s important to properly account for all costs (including a cash back comparison with the same time, effort, risk, etc.) is to make
            optimal decisions. Once you do that you can subjectively compare to how much the miles or points are worth to you and decide whether option A is better than option B. Even if you would
            speculatively buy United miles at 1.33 cents, that doesn’t mean you should put
            manufactured spend on the 1.5x UA card. The Ink / OD option is probably a better choice if you want UA miles. The cost there is 1 cent per UR (comparing to the cash you give up by not using AMEX Simply Cash which earns 5% at OD, but otherwise your time, effort, number of GCs purchased / liquidated, gas, etc. is exactly the same). You could argue the cost is less because AMEX Simply Cash has a lower cap than Ink, but at least we can put an upper bound on the cost at 1 cent. This is definitely better than the 1.33 cent cost with the United 1.5x card.

          • HikerT

            Actually, now that I think about it, I think I’m wrong. :) What really matters is the frictional cost per mile which I was ignoring and you were calculating (although it looks like your numbers are little off). For example, with the 1.5x UA card, if you buy $500 GCs w/ $5.95 fee you will earn $505.95 x 1.5 = 759 miles, and your cost per mile is $5.95 / 759 miles = .78 cents. If you bought $200 GCs at OD w/ $6.95 fee you will earn $206.95 x 5 = 1035 UR, and your cost per UR is $6.95 / 1035 UR = .67 cents. Of course, these costs will be higher to the extent there are additional fees to cash out, how much you value your time, effort, etc. Anyway, apologies for the hijack.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ed1chandler Ed Chandler

    In my experience (and it appears that others are experiencing the same) that the USBank *MasterCard* gift cards are not loading to BlueBird. I have no personal experience with the USBank *VISA* gift cards, but anecdotal evidence indicates that they do.

    Can anyone else corroborate or refute this “MasterCard bad, VISA good” hypothesis?

    • Scottrick

      I’ve always bought Visa cards. They work fine.

    • FlightRisked

      Just got rejected at Walmart today.

  • Dan T

    Can’t use Target Amex to load Bluebird; confirmed by FrequentMiler

  • ikonos

    good work on the local front. keep it up scott.

  • magnus

    Another bonus for the Seattle folk. Buying the gift cards counts towards Gas rewards at QFC. (just 1x for the variable cards)

  • disqust101

    Hat tip to MMS??? He took it from FT for goodness sakes. At least have the sense to credit the OP at FT instead of troll who ripped off the info

    • Scottrick

      Sorry. The giant picture of shiny gift cards at the top distracted me from the text above it. I’ve updated the post to provide proper credit.

  • Guest

    I could be wrong, but looking at the BlueBird site, if you look at the detailed fees/limits (not the pop-up on the front page), it says that Debit loads are limited to $100/ day and cost $2, no exception at Walmart. Only Cash loads at Walmart are free..

    • Scottrick

      Then there are a lot of fees that have yet to be deducted from my Bluebird account, because I haven’t been charged any except when loading the card online.

      • Brian

        I am wondering if anyone else has or hasn’t been charged. It shows on the site they charge $2 to load with a debit. Maybe that is online only?

        • Scottrick

          That’s online only. I load in-store for free.

  • deltaqueue

    Does this process workd for MyVanilla debit reloads as well? They’re issued by Bancorp Bank, so I’m guessing not…

    • Scottrick

      In theory it should work for all prepaid debit cards, but the specifics are different for each one. I’ve used Vanilla Visa, but not MyVanilla, so I don’t know the exact process for creating a PIN.

  • Mfzoey

    I went to the Factoria, Wa. Walmart today and was unsuccessful in loading my Bluebird account with the above mentioned debit cards. :-( Has this deal expired? Or, should I try the Renton, Walmart which is much larger?

    • Scottrick

      I haven’t tried it recently, but yours is the first mention I’ve heard that people are having trouble loading with a gift card. Are you sure you correctly set the PIN? What exactly was the problem?

      • Mfzoey

        Yes, I set the pin correctly. My balance on mygiftcardsite.com shows that $500 was taken out and then credited back again from Walmart. I called the 1-800 # and they told me that I couldn’t deposit gift cards. I’m going to try the ATM machine at the Renton store. I’ll keep you posted. Please lmk what happens if you try it again. Thanks!

  • Brian

    Can you also load using a Walmart gift card?

    • Scottrick

      I haven’t tried, but I worry that would make it too easy to track what you’re doing.

  • FlightRisked

    Hi Scott, I’m in Oregon, trying to load this US Bank gift card to my BB account at Walmart. The cashier seemed to think it wouldn’t be a problem, but they’d charge me $3.00 to do it. I said okay, just get through it, but then the transaction got rejected. The card reader said something like “debit not allowed on this card”. Have you heard or experienced this?

    • Scottrick

      This is not good news. Perhaps it’s been shut down. I guess I have about $2K in cards to work through…

      • FlightRisked

        Just found a MoneyCenter Kiosk and it worked! Perhaps both employees I tried, didn’t know what they were doing.

  • ronniet43

    hack my gift card to foot locker

  • Theresa

    Hi; I live in the portland area and have lately been finding the $200 debit MC’s at Staples and Office max. Using the phone # you provided above, I have been adding the pin to each card, taking them to my nearest Walmart, and loading them into my BB account. However, I saw the debit enabled gift cards by US National Bank (mentioned anove in your blog) recently at my Oswego Albertsons for UP to the $500 amounts. These appear to be purchasable by CC.

  • http://richwrites.bytecave.net Rich

    Hello Scott. I’ve been searching all over for a method to use here in Seattle that will let me purchase Visa gift cards with a credit card. I tried this a couple days ago at the 2 QFC stores in Redmond but both stores say “cash only.” Are you still having luck getting these with a credit card in the Seattle area? Thanks again for all your great advice!

    • Scottrick

      That’s interesting. I haven’t tried to buy any recently, but in the past I have never had a problem buying gift cards at QFC. The cashiers even encouraged me to use a store card to pick up fuel points back when that loophole was available!

      • http://richwrites.bytecave.net Rich

        Well, rats, no luck in Woodinville today either. Hoping I’m just getting the “tough” cashiers! Thanks, Rich

  • Zuby

    Scott – How about buying a money order at the USPS by using the US Bank Gift Card? Will that work? or why not buy the money order at Walmart?

    • Scottrick

      I tried that and it didn’t work (MC version). I don’t bother with Walmart anymore because it’s a very long drive.

  • AlwaysNever

    Thank you very much for the article. I wanted to add that I was able to get a MasterCard gift card from Safeway, $505.95 paid with my credit card. The card is gold and purple with a wrapped gift on the side.

    The little paper inside gave me a phone number which I called and added a PIN through the automated system quite quickly. Now if I just lived closer to WalMart. I’m going to try to do a few different things with this: buy money order at Safewat, pay Target RedCard in store, etc. Maybe Amazon Payments is the way… I am trying to hit the $5000 of the Chase Business Ink card. The lack of CVS in Portland is making this difficult. All suggestions welcome.

  • AlwaysNever

    I just wanted to confirm that I was able to successfully pay my Target RedCard balance at the Target Guest Services counter using a MasterCard Gift Card which I purchased with a credit card at Safeway and to which I later added a PIN following the instructions which came with the card. Please note that Safeway did not award any gas points for the purchase of this kind of gift card.

    This may not work for everyone, but if you buy at Target, or probably at some other store where you can pay the balance on the card with a debit card than this will work as a method of “manufacturing spend” on your credit card.

    Just to run the numbers, if you buy $500 at Target with a RedCard you get a discount of $25. If you buy a Mastercard Gift card at Safeway for $5.95 and charge it with $500 then you net a savings of about $19 using this method. Of course, if you don’t buy $500 worth at Target this won’t work out for you.

  • incaroads

    I bought a Visa gift card today at Fred Meyer in Portland and had the cashier load it for $500. She gave me a receipt that contained the number to call to set the PIN, but when I opened the gift card packaging I discovered that the card already comes with a 4-digit PIN. I assume I just use this PIN, and don’t need to make a phone call? This is my first foray into using gift cards and Bluebird. A visit to Walmart is next–fingers crossed.

    • Scottrick

      Some cards have a phone number on the back of the packaging. I would call that rather than the number on the receipt. Other cards you set the PIN when you make your first transaction. It really depends on the type. I am guessing you have the first.

    • Angie Loquiao

      Did you buy it with a credit card? I can’t find any Portland stores that allow you to purchase with a credit card.

      • Always-Never

        I was able to buy MasterCard gift cards at the Safeway downtown 10th and Jefferson and also at the one near Barbur and Multnomah. No trouble at all, except that they will want to check your ID.

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  • schilpa

    Does qfc still allow gc purchases using credit cards?any other places around Bellevue eastside I can buy gc’s using credit cards?thanks.

    • Scottrick

      As far as I know.