Finding the hidden secrets of manufactured spending (on Nick’s mind)

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Tim published a post last week in which he mentiotned in passing that he spends a lot of money at office supply stores. A few readers demanded answers, wanting to know how Tim was doing it (not really how he was spending so much at office supply stores but rather about his next steps after a good office supply store deal). Some have gone so far as to suggest that bloggers who write about manufactured spending have a responsibility to readers to explain how it is done (along with appropriate caveats). Since this topic of sharing how to manufacture X amount of spend comes up often enough, I thought it was worth addressing the topic.

Fair warning: this post will have the secrets you need but probably not the secrets you want. I think the reason you don’t read more about “secret” manufactured spending techniques is less because of some gatekeeper hiding the secrets and more because there are fewer secrets to be found than you expect — but knowing what to look for can help you discover things that work before they inevitably disappear.

Manufactured spending has risks. Don’t get in over your head.

Before I get into any more detail, let me be clear that manufactured spending carries numerous inherent risks.

There is of course the risk of shut down from an issuer (perhaps losing all of your accumulated rewards in the process). That risk may extend to authorized users on your accounts and to all types of deposit and brokerage accounts with the bank, not necessarily just your credit card accounts (I don’t mean to say that the bank will steal your money, but they may tell you that you need to take your retirement account somewhere else).

There is the risk of losing stuff. Ever washed a money order in a pants pocket? Misplaced a gift card? Found a $500 Visa gift card mistakenly tucked away in a drawer full of otherwise fully redeemed cards? Torn up the house looking for that stack of money orders that you saw this morning and were intending to deposit but now can’t find? Stood at the checkout counter while the cashier announced your total in a voice loud enough for everyone within three blocks to hear that you were walking out with thousands in gift cards in that easy-to-grab plastic bag in your hand? Yeah, I’ve experienced all of those.

There is the risk of things changing. Found a great liquidation method? Awesome. What are you going to do if that stops working tomorrow? Do you have a backup to your backup? What if a global pandemic suddenly shuts down the world and you aren’t leaving home for a while? Can you afford to pay the bill when it comes due if you suddenly have no liquidation methods?

There is the risk of a bank closing your bank account. Banks don’t like people who make lots of big cash deposits because, while that’s not illegal, it is a behavior often associated with people doing illegal things (selling drugs, laundering money, etc). Some banks view money orders more or less the same as cash. The bank isn’t in the policing or private investigation business, so it’s easier for them to close your account than try to figure out if you’re a drug dealer or a points enthusiast.

The point is that there are risks. I always tell newcomers to start very slowly, test carefully, and consider the risks.

Why people don’t share the “secrets”

When the topic of manufacturing spend comes up, there are often some readers who want more detail. We cover all of the basics in our Manufactured Spending Complete Guide. In fact, that resource covers a wide range of methods both current and past and should be plenty to get you started in testing what works in your area.

Still, not many methods are universally applicable. Most of them require some effort and certainly include some risk. Our resource outlines the high-level techniques, but the nitty-gritty details can vary. Things that work at one type of store in one region might not work at all in another region or might be cashier-dependent or even payment terminal-dependent somewhere else. We don’t split things out into that level of detail. That’s partly because we aren’t present in all regions to test, but more importantly things change. What worked last month or last year might have changed slightly last week, so knowing today’s specifics is less helpful than knowing the general techniques to test.

In response to someone who asked for more details about how and where Tim is manufacturing spend, I compared it to learning how to hunt. If I told you there was a deer on my lawn the other day, that knowledge wouldn’t be useful to you today since that deer is long gone and you don’t live in my neighborhood anyway. Much more useful to you would be if I show you what deer / deer tracks look like and how to set up a tree stand. Then you can hunt for deer in your own neck of the woods. (No, I’m not a hunter, I just live in a rural area 🙂

Our Manufactured Spending Complete Guide is meant to help you find those deer. But let’s be honest: you really want to find a unicorn. All we really want is a perpetual points machine that will allow us to manufacture spend without cost or limit, preferably in our pajamas.

The main trouble with unicorn hunting is that the creature is mythical. That unlimited pajama points path probably doesn’t exist. But let’s imagine for a second that it did. If you found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, would you hand out maps? Would they do any good after the first two people showed up with a couple of large suitcases? To be clear, I haven’t found that mythical pot of gold, I just understand why someone who has is probably going to keep that knowledge to himself/herself (and why you probably should keep it close to the vest if you stumble upon it).

Much like the deer example, if I found a pot of gold or someone else tipped me off as to where I could find it, telling you how to get there wouldn’t do you much good. By the time you got there, the pot would likely be empty. Such is the case with easy manufactured spending methods. Those who have followed the hobby for a long time probably remember things like Bluebird and Redbird that lasted for a short while but didn’t make it for long. I kid you not when I say that the day when my first Target Redbird arrived in the mail was the day that the ability to load it with a credit card was reported to be dead. We’ve all been there.

For those unfamiliar, Redbird was a reloadable prepaid card you could buy and reload at Target. What made it special was that, for a while, it could be loaded with a credit card for no fee at a Target store. You could load a few thousand bucks at a time up to monthly limits, which meant that people were basically printing points with no fee. It sounds like it was glorious, but alas it was short-lived.

Dead deal history is your real roadmap

To me, there is value in knowing about the history of something like Redbird because it helps you recognize that bird’s cousins. That isn’t a hint — I don’t know of a Redbird-like option that exists today. However, I’m always on the hunt for a new prepaid card wondering how and where it can be loaded (and similarly on the hunt for the the next Citigold deal or the new incarnation of many different dead deals).

In fact, I just saw a reloadable card I’d never heard of at a store the other day and I immediately wondered whether it could be loaded with a credit card or if not with a debit card and whether that could be done online or in-store only and at which stores, etc. I have a number of friends who are deeper into manufactured spending than I am, so my next step is to check around in my circle to see if anyone else has tried this out. Assuming they haven’t, it’ll be on me to “be the data point I wish to see”. I am 95% sure that it’ll be a waste of time and a little bit of money in testing it, but my point is that I only looked at it with interest because I know how Bluebird and Redbird worked and so I keep my eye out for stuff cut from that thread.

If I find the next Redbird of the world, would I write about it? That depends. Greg has written before about his criteria for deciding what to publish (See: Blogging the line). I guess we’d cross that bridge when we come to it.

Regardless, if we did publish the road map to the next Redbird, it wouldn’t be alive for long. The biggest risk in widely publishing something like that probably isn’t that “too many people would do it”, it’s how hard some will push it. Office supply store gift card deals are widely advertised in weekly flyers seen by millions and written about on dozens of blogs. “Everybody doing it” isn’t the problem, it’s those who will do it in volume beyond what you might imagine that kill deals. It’s not the fact that a hundred people come in and buy gift cards, it’s the one person who will come in and clear out the entire rack of gift cards if allowed to do so that kills the deal (and hence the per-customer limits that are sometimes enforced differently in different areas).

And as such, I don’t see incredible value in knowing any singular current “secret” since the wide publication of such a secret would inevitably kill the method quickly and you’d be back at square one. Similarly, if Tim is buying money orders with his gift cards, it really doesn’t matter to me where he’s buying them since he lives on the opposite side of the country from me and so my local options won’t match his anyway. I’ve taken a road trip or two with some gift cards on me, but I’m probably not going to fly to Tim’s house with a trench coat full of cards to follow in his footsteps. And the places where I can easily buy money orders in large quantity won’t matter much to Tim since they don’t exist in his area. And for my friends who live in New York City, this whole buying a money order thing probably isn’t a thing at all. They might need to look to other angles or take their MS game on the road.

More valuable to me is knowing what to seek or that there is something to seek at all — if someone like Tim is MSing $X more than I am, I know that there are more methods to be found or more volume that could be done. If I’m reading about some specific type of gift card that I’ve never bought, I need to ask myself why someone is writing about it and whether there is something unique or different about one card type or another. Of course it helps to have friends in the game. Friends have shared numerous tips in confidence over the years about things I may have never considered or never found on my own. I always say that it helps to connect with others in the hobby (preferably in your area) as many of the best tips come from that type of network. I’ve obviously been incredibly fortunate to tap into a broader network than many, but events like FTU or the Chicago Seminars are great opportunities to find folks into the hobby with whom you can share valuable tips.

As Greg discusses in that Blogging the line post, when someone has shared a tip in confidence, we have always respected that while reserving the right to write about things that are publicly advertised or widely published elsewhere or when they were things we were already researching to write about.

When things are publicly-advertised, like office supply gift card sales, we write about those. In a similar sort of example, a couple of years ago we wrote about a fantastic Visa Gift Card deal at a warehouse store and our rationale for publishing it publicly was that the sign on the rack showed a $0.00 activation fee and you don’t get much more publicly-advertised than that. We tend to write about those types of publicly-advertised methods, but I know from hearing stories of the glory days that there have been other less-publicly-advertised situations where gift cards rang up with no fee. Or there was that couple in the big IRS court case who were apparently able to buy a money order with a credit card directly for a time years ago. Those types of things typically aren’t out there in the public eye and so the way they are found is trial and error and recognition of past patterns (or when friends share that knowledge with you).

I used to hate reading Flyertalk because I would come across so many old threads about things that were no longer true, whether it be an award chart sweet spot or manufactured spending technique. Over time, though, I came to appreciate understanding the way things used to work. Often, that can help you find a diamond in the rough because history repeats itself. The dead deals are your roadmap to finding new ones that sprout up in their place.

A recent example that comes to mind is Speedway. Almost a year ago, Stephen reported at GC Galore that Speedway was offering rewards on Visa Gift Cards. The short version of the story is that each card earned more in rewards than the cost of the activation fee for most of the past year. Unfortunately, that died last week. It was a great deal while it lasted, but it seems to be dead.

Stories like that about a great deal that is no longer alive used to annoy me because I didn’t think it helped me today to know about what worked until last week. However, over time, I’ve come to realize the value in hearing about dead deals. Miles Per Day is a blog that is well known for writing about dead deals after they are gone. Last month, Vinh wrote about a similar dead deal at Safeway. What I like about reading stories like these are the hints they give me toward looking for patterns — whether that’s a rewards program that could bonus gift card spend or a change in gift card types that may make some sort of difference. Knowing the dead deal stories means I can look for what may be alive elsewhere.

To be clear, I’m not hinting at any specific live deal. Rather I think that the knowledge about how those worked certainly may be applicable elsewhere.

I probably manufacture more spend than many readers, but not nearly as much as the heavy hitters in the game. Part of that is because of risk aversion: I’m more of a risk-taker than some of my family members, but I’d preferably like to keep my accounts intact if I can.

Don’t get me wrong, I am jealous of those who went for Teslas over hot wheels toys and I’m always intrigued by creative plays to stack extra cash back. But I’m less likely than some to push those things all the way to the limits even when I know about them. I take a more measured approach.

Still, that means I am always curious about what’s next. And the same is true for my wife — she will often ask me whether a card can be used for this or that — we’re always looking for the next big thing. We think about what worked before and any time a new Fintech comes out with something reminiscent of a past opportunity, we’ll run through the paces of what might be possible. There are so many of those new Fintech startups with venture capital to burn that there are bound to be new opportunities all the time. Most of them won’t last. Indeed, even the ones that get shared in confidence rarely last as long as one would hope — but the good news is that new opportunities do come around.

And so if I discovered the Redbird of 2022, I don’t think it would do a lot of good to write about it. I guess if I were the one that discovered it, maybe we would publish it, but we would do so knowing that it probably wouldn’t last. In fact, we frequently alert readers to the fact that one deal or another likely won’t last and to get in while they can. To me, those short-term wins are fun both to share and to utilize, but much more important to me in finding the secrets of manufactured spending is knowing what has worked so you can recognize new opportunities as they arise. They won’t always pan out, and you’ll waste some time and effort along the way, but if you’re into the game the excitement comes in the thrill of the hunt.

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This is a burner, I'll never tell

I found the next Citigold & I might be the only person who’s ever found it. $140k in bank acct funding in 3 months. And it works with Amex. I’ll take it to my grave.

Mochi

yet a clown, ‘the only person’, lol

Grant

Hey Nick, thanks for the walk down memory lane and your perspective on finding future MS opportunities. I think it is very important to think about which bridges you can burn and which ones you should tread lightly with. If it is a bank in which you have lots of cards (like Chase and AMEX), I prefer to play it safe. If it is a small regional bank / credit union that you wouldn’t lose sleep over if it got shut down, you can be more risky. I’ve been in the miles and points game for about 10 years and have decades of future miles and points (knocks on wood) left, so I prefer the slow and steady pace. I would hate to get a “lifetime ban” now and regret it years down the road when there is a new CC or product from that company that I really want.

rxgeek

I used to educate my best friend on stuff like Bluebird and Redbird. He wanted to travel with me on points. But, every time he signed up, the deal ended a couple weeks later. I blame him and stopped doing that. He wasn’t that motivated anyway. Now he is back to using his Delta card and hopes he can use his Sky pesos.

John

Never hit it all too hard, but had a local bank shut me down and Barclay shut me down 5 years ago and still cannot get approved at Barclay’s since then. It can happen even without hitting things hard.

DaninMCI

It’s a deep subject but a decent blog post on this. So, Nick, I can relate to your Redbird situation of yours. I opened a Bluebird near the end of that lifecycle and managed to load a little to it once. I never got shut down, mine is still active. Any ideas on how it could be used at this point. Once in a blue moon I actually still see a Kiosk at small-town Wal-marts (I travel a lot in rural areas).

Fun sidebar on the Speedway story. I was listening to the Chris Hansen “to catch a predator” podcast recently and he had a story about one of the guys he caught that was a head accountant for Speedway. Unrelated but caught my eye. Oh, he lost his job and went to prison.

Niz

Just heard today about a local credit union that will let you pay your HELOC with a credit card, zero fees. Tempted to move mine!

Reno Joe

If the argument is that “real” MSers don’t need this article because they already know the strategies, then they certainly don’t need any of the articles about Staples deals and Simon VGC discounts because they should already know when those are going on.

Novices need the alerts about the Staples and the Simons. That’s who is reading those articles. Not the skilled MSer. And, it’s the novices who need to be warned about liquidity issues. Not the skilled MSer. And, that’s the target audience of this article. Consider it a public service announcement. But, don’t criticize the FM team for trying to help a newbie avoid a personal financial train wreck. Think beyond just yourself.

Last edited 3 months ago by Reno Joe
DSK

Personally, I thought Nick wrote a great article. There are many people just starting out in the Hobby who want all the benefits without putting in any of the time. Personally, I’m willing to take some risk but not much–I’ve never been shut down by a bank, never missed getting a credit card I wanted (generally after going through reconsideration, but that’s OK), and very rarely missed getting a bonus I wanted. I realize that there are those like Vinh who fly high and more power to them. Everyone has to figure out their own level of what they are willing to risk for big rewards and what they are willing to lose if it doesn’t work out. If you are a die-hard MSer, this isn’t your article. For a newbie (and I’m not a newbie but I admire good writing), this is gold.

Buddy M.

I agree that posting ways to MS is a good way to kill it but you could email it to your readers who ask for ways to MS. I would definitely appreciate a heads up if something comes up to get more points relatively easily and without much expense. Been having a hard time lately thinking of ways to even meet minimum spend to get new credit card bonuses. My go to way stopped working in late January. This is unfortunately going to reduce my new cc signups to 1 or 2 a year.

Pat

COME ON ! Did you just need to fill up space. We all know a good MS “trick” does not get spread around but for very close friends/family. The praise here about ” thank you Nick,you are teaching us to think” takes the cake.

DO PUBLISH USEFUL NEWS OR WAYS …Don’t just bloviate !

Jake

Take a fish given to you – beginner level. Learn how to find the fish – intermediate level. Learn which fish to take, which fish to leave, and which fish will bite your arm off – advanced level.

Richard

So here’s my take. MS deals come and go. Redbird, Bluebird, Vanilla GC’s, US Mint coins, they all had their day. The only ones who really greatly benefited from them were the Hogs. They abused these methods to their death, and we all lost out because of it. Now there may be a new Bird on the horizon. Read the recent posts from Greg and Nick, and you know what they are buzzing about. If this new method proves to be MSable, the privileged 100 who have early access to this deal will more than likely kill it before any of us have a chance at it. Now, Greg, and Nick, and Stephen, and Tim may be responsible enough to hold back, but what about the other 96 privileged ones? It’s not like finding a pot at the end of a rainbow, or capturing a unicorn. It’s become a canned hunt, with only a few hunters allowed in the woods. The hunt coordinators will see how they hunt, and change the rules before the rest of us even get our pants on.

Bob

I’m not sure if it was known, but you could fake all of your referrals to move up the Curve waitlist. You just needed to add email addresses. They never verified if they were real people. I suspect the people who got to the top 100 all gamed it including our authors. I discovered this when waitlist was open, but just didn’t want to spend the time spoofing the emails addresses with virtual machines.

Last edited 3 months ago by Bob
Lynn

Well said, Nick! Many people want everything handed to them with no effort on their part. Friends wonder how I travel so much, but really don’t want to know about the effort and reading I put in to do it!!

DaninMCI

I agree. I was in a business meeting with my small team of a dozen people who know I’m into miles and points. Just before a break, my boss said “Hey Dan can you give us 10 minutes on how to better take advantage of miles and points”. 10 minutes? Sure. I did my best.

George the Blogger

OY VEY that was a long piece, you owe me 5 minutes of my life back

Jake

Ha! If only there was some way to stop reading a free article you don’t like ….

J thomas

Completely useless

StephenH

A great article! Teaching how to fish will help someone much more in the long run.

Reno Joe

Nick, thanks. This is exactly the article I had hoped you would publish. Teaching one to hunt is an excellent analogy.

I don’t MS but I stay up on it. As I’ve seen the tried and true methods get shut down, I’ve been concerned for newbies who read about Simon VGCs (for example) and go charging out (no pun intended) to buy them. And then they’re stuck.

I apologize if my prior comments sounded inappropriate. My thoughts were with the newbies.

Again, great article. Republish it periodically.

Last edited 3 months ago by Reno Joe
Mbh

I think there are two specific aspects of MS I’ve had to learn the hard way. One is that to really do much MS at all you need time. People who work 40-50 hours a week and travel (thanks to this game) 4-5 weeks a year just don’t have time to do a lot of MS. Second, and related, you need to be able to pivot and act fast. As mentioned, deals pop up quickly and are gone a few days later. I don’t have the ability to do that.

I fondly remember MOs, Wally, Redbird, but for now I have to stick with category spending and a few good new card bonuses each year (even those are much tougher than they were 6-8 years ago).

Dugroz Reports

I’m a regular 40 hr. per week guy, and although I’ve “only” been in the game 3 years, my pattern kinda looks like this: There are about 3-5 really intense MS periods per year (a special on gift cards, etc) and then lay low the rest of the time. Those 3-5 times, yeah — it takes a lot of time, but worth it.

I know some people may be even busier and can’t do that, but it works for me.

Dan

This is really good food for thought and makes a lot of sense, along with Tim’s article about the Ink Cash. Thank you for sharing it!

Carl Pietrantonio

Great article, Nick! One of this blogs best in a long time. Yes, exploring is awesome and there are lucky spots out there. Had one that worked for a long time and was true pajama points, but then things changed and there they went. I’ve gotten lazy but there are a couple local things I might go try soon just because. You’re on the money with this one as people have to think for themselves and not just post circle and arrow directions to deals that will die fast.

YoniPDX

DoC used to be a gold mine like FT for DP (till about 4-6 m into COVID).

The historical comments used to be golden, now it’s slowing turning into another Reddit with tons of meaningless comments.

Risk are part of the game remember people getting taken by the TPM circa 2018/19.

I think Vinh (MPD) is the king of shutdowns – as the expression goes but pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.
Think Vinh must be part cat with so many lives.

Now its about getting the information early and fast. Deals die far faster since the COVID era – I miss the days when people traveled for business and spent work days in offices.

Stew podaso

Anything Nick comes up with can’t be that great, you still push buying GC Home Depot when Fluz you can get 6k a day

rick b

This whole long-winded post can be summarized as “if you’re not a serious MSer who knows a bunch of people in secret chatrooms, don’t waste time trying to find a lucrative MS deal”. Someone like that MAY stumble on a deal once in a great while, but people with jobs and a life don’t have time to test portals and GCs to poke holes in the system.

The problem about dead deals is they maybe teach you something when you’re new to this. But to those of us who’ve been around MS for a while, we know all the general patterns.

The real value are loophole deals, something not working like it should. That’s been the patter for any great MS play in past few years. And yes, they do get discussed and abused to death, but only in small circles on private chat rooms. Not exactly useful for any average user.

Just look at how people get silenced on FT or reddit if they even dare mention a hit of a good MS play. And your buddy MPD loves to censor and delete comments from anyone who posts too much in public.

Last edited 3 months ago by rick b
Anthony

Manufactured Spending is very different depending on what region you are in. Certain stores have technology in place that prevent certain cards to work and some stores have policies ask to see the card, sometimes you need to get a certain cashier.

Chaser123!

A place look for unicorns is the cryptoverse. A world where you can use your CC to purchase (fund) and use their debit card to spend and move money all over for very low fees. Its complex especially when you factor tax ramifications. But I think there is a lot of opportunity.

THEsocalledfan

I can’t stress the importance of networking and adaptability when things change. One of my buddies turned me onto an idea a few years ago that had potential, but it was was hard to justify the time investment. Well, some little changes happened, and it turned into a gold mine that is still operating. I just got another curve ball that affects my game, yet, I can adjust a little with slightly more effort, and the game will continue for now. This is the stuff folks need to focus on.

ssss

You are training people to think. Brilliant!