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


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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