FM Intro: While I’m on vacation, I will be
lazily reposting old classic Frequent Miler posts. Today’s post, originally published May 1, 2012, is by far the most widely read post I’ve ever written. It was, at the time, suddenly possible to earn 5X Ultimate Rewards points for all spend, including ATM withdrawals. This was big. Months later, Amex came out with Bluebird (see “Bluebird takes flight and changes the game”) and made the deal even better thanks to Bluebird’s bill pay features (and the ability to move money from Bluebird directly to your bank account). Since then, the ability to buy Vanilla Reload cards with credit cards (a key ingredient to this trick) has become more and more difficult. While it is still possible at various regional stores, I don’t believe that any national chains allow it. Please read the Limitations & Warnings section at the end of the post, though. The last bullet, in particular, is just as relevant today as it was two years ago.
No more gift cards! A single American Express card can earn 5X Ultimate Rewards points, everywhere. Impossible? Read on:
I’ve written several posts about how to earn nearly 5 points per dollar on all purchases. For examples, see ‘5X Everywhere!‘ and ‘Almost too good to be true‘. Both tricks require a Chase Ink business card which earns 5 points per dollar at office supply stores (see ‘How to sign-up for the Ink Bold‘).
In the posts mentioned above, the trick to earning 5X everywhere is to use a Chase Ink card at an Office Supply store to buy Visa gift cards and/or prepaid cards. Since you get 5X from those purchases, you can think of the gift cards (and prepaid cards) as giving you 5 points per dollar when you spend them. (Note: Ink Cards obtained prior to mid-November 2011 do not have the 5X office supply benefit).
The one thing that has stopped me from using the 5X trick for all of my spend is that using gift cards is a hassle. You need to keep track of how much is left on each card, you can’t easily make large purchases, and some online vendors make it very difficult if not impossible to use them. Further, unlike credit cards, gift cards do not offer purchase protection. As I wrote about last week, an app called GoWallet can help a lot, but it doesn’t come close to solving all of these problems.
Luckily I stumbled upon a new opportunity that changes everything:
The American Express Prepaid Card
The American Express Prepaid Card is not a gift card, nor a debit card, nor a credit card. It is simply a ‘prepaid card‘. There are several things that make it unique: 1) No fees (except ATM use. More on that later); 2) Reloadable up to $2500 balance; 3) Purchase protection, roadside assistance, and other perks; 4) No credit check required; 5) ATM withdrawals are allowed; and 6) Partners with Office Depot (see the press release here).
The photo above shows an Office Depot display for this card. The card on the bottom left is a temporary version of the Amex Prepaid Card. If you buy one (for $4.95) you can fill it with up to $500 at the time of purchase and then you can later trade-up to the permanent refillable version of the card. To trade-up, you browse to the website indicated on the temporary card’s packaging and request a permanent card. The new card will arrive in the mail with your name and address registered to it. Once you activate the permanent card, any money left over from the temporary card automagically moves over. An easier approach is to skip Office Depot altogether and simply order the permanent Amex Prepaid card online, for free (here is my affiliate link for the signup: American Express’® Prepaid Card). Each person is allowed up to 3 cards in their name.
To the right of the Amex card, in the photo above, is the Vanilla Reload Network Prepaid Reload Card. These are used to refill the permanent version of the Amex Prepaid Card. Each card has a $3.95 fee and can be loaded with up to $500 at the Office Depot register. To move this money to your Amex card, you simply browse to the Vanilla website and enter in the PIN number from the refill card and the card number from your Amex. You can load up to $1000 in a 24 hour period. Also note a limit of $2500 can be loaded every 28 days. The following is from American Express’ cardmember agreement:
No more than $2,500.00 U.S. may be loaded to the Card in any 28-day period, and no more than $1,000.00 U.S. may be loaded to the Card on any day using a Green Dot’® MoneyPak’®, Vanilla Reload Network’¢ Prepaid Reload or other cash funding source or method accepted by us from time to time. The maximum balance of Available Funds loaded on your Card at any time is $2,500.00 U.S.
What this means
- You can use your Ink credit card to buy $500 reload cards. The purchase shows up on your account as a standard Office Depot purchase so it will give you a total of 5 points per dollar for the purchase. The fee of $3.95 is less than 1 percent (.79%), so you’re way ahead already. NOTE: There is a risk that Office Depot will someday stop allowing these purchases to be made via credit card. An industry insider I spoke with, though, believes that the ability to pay via credit card is not a fluke and should continue indefinitely. Time will tell.
- Since the permanent American Express Prepaid Card can be loaded up to $2500, it has these advantages:
- There is no need to keep multiple gift cards in your wallet.
- You can use it to make large purchases
- You will get purchase protection. It might not be as good of protection as you would have received with a different card, but still:
- It can be used any place that accepts American Express cards. To merchants, this card is indistinguishable from a standard American Express card. There is one exception: American Express says not to use the card for car rentals.
- When using this prepaid card, you essentially earn 5X everywhere. This requires no card juggling, and very little hassle. This means that getting 2.14X from the Sapphire Preferred for dining and travel is no longer the best option for these categories! It’s not even close!
- Up to $400 Per Day:
With the American Express Prepaid Card you can withdraw up to $400 per day via ATM machines. You are subject to fees imposed by the ATM owner. On American Express’ side, the first ATM withdrawal each month is free. Subsequent withdrawals cost $2. This is a great deal even with the fees. For example, suppose you pay $3 to the ATM owner and $2 to Amex to withdraw $250. That comes to a 2% fee. But, remember that you earned almost 5% in the form of points (or more depending on how much you value those points) so you are still well ahead. You’ll obviously do even better if you find a low fee or no fee ATM.
- ATM WARNING: DO NOT ABUSE THE ATM PRIVILEDGE!
American Express is always on the lookout for suspicious behavior. If a person adds money to the Prepaid Card and then withdraws it all as cash, that would look ridiculously suspicious. Worse, American Express does not make money from these ATM withdrawals ($2 is unlikely to be enough to cover their costs), so with a pattern like that they’re not going to like you very much! If you try to convert your Ink purchases to cash through frequent ATM withdrawals, I believe you will get caught and you will have your accounts closed. Trust me, you don’t want that to happen. Use the card for regular credit card purchases and use the ATM feature only for real world ATM withdrawals. Withdraw money only when you really need it. Or, establish a pattern of once per week moderate withdrawals (say $200 or $250) and you should be fine.
How to get the card
There are two ways to get the reloadable Prepaid Card:
OPTION 1: Order directly from American Express for FREE.
- Click here: American Express’® Prepaid Card or simply Google for American Express Prepaid Card to find a non-affiliate link.
- Note the following restrictions:
The permanent American Express Prepaid Card is not available for sale in Arkansas and Vermont.
OPTION 2: Buy the temporary card in-store at Office Depot (as shown above) for $4.95 and then trade up to the permanent card. Note these restrictions (from American Express’ FAQ):
The temporary American Express Prepaid Card is not available for sale in Arkansas, New Jersey or Vermont. Cards purchased by residents in other states cannot be shipped to these two states. In addition, American Express does not sell or ship the Card outside the United States.
A new option: Bluebird
Since writing this post, American Express has unveiled a new prepaid card called Bluebird that is very similar to the prepaid card described above, but has some distinct advantages (such as Bill Pay). For more information, please see “Bluebird takes flight and changes the game.”
LIMITATIONS AND WARNINGS
PLEASE READ THIS!!!!
- Chase has been known to completely shut down all of a person’s accounts when they think they may be a bad credit risk or when they suspect ‘perk abuse’. If you put all of your spend in this one category (and this one store), you will be asking for trouble! Please see my write-up here: ‘Why Chase cancels accounts (and how to protect yourself).’
- The Ink Bold and Ink Plus cards are limited to $50K in purchases per year for the 5X benefit. The Ink Cash and Ink Classic are each limited to $25K. As a result, there is no reason for anyone to purchase more than $4K per month of the refill cards with the Ink Bold/Plus, or $2K per month with the other Ink cards. Even that amount may be too high if you have a high credit card utilization ratio or if you do not have a long and positive credit history. I consider $4K per month to be the upper limit anyone should attempt, but that does not mean $4K per month is safe. You need to evaluate your own situation and establish spending patterns that you are sure will not trigger alarms with Chase. UPDATE: There is a built-in limit to the Amex prepaid card: a maximum of $2500 can be loaded per month.
- Watch out for American Express too! As I detailed above, suspicious ATM activity is a sure way to get flagged and shut down. American Express has extremely sophisticated fraud detection systems. Don’t do anything to draw attention to you!
- Don’t be greedy, please. Even if you only put $1000 per month onto this Amex card, you will earn 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points per year! That’s a lot! If you use this trick in moderation then you should be safe to earn huge numbers of points, year after year, without fear of bank retaliation. If you go too far, you will get shut down. If many people take this too far, the whole deal may get shut down.
- Read “Inking 5X: What’s safe?”
- Be responsible. Don’t do drugs.
More about this technique
- One week later
- How to spend $10,000 in three months, and earn 90K Ultimate Rewards along the way
- Inking 5X: What’s safe?
More about Amex Prepaid cards
- How many Amex prepaid cards can I have?
- Amex Prepaid cards for foreign travel
- American Express Prepaid Card FAQ
- Order the American Express’® Prepaid Card for free (affiliate link)
More about Vanilla Reload cards
- The many flavors of Vanilla
- Where to buy Vanilla Reload Cards
- When thieves steal our points
- Vanilla Scare
- Reloadable Follow-up and Tips for Reloadable Card Newbies by Mommy Points
Alternatives to Amex Prepaid cards
- Bluebird takes flight and changes the game
- Bluebird lands. Questions answered
- Vanilla Reloadables
- Prepaid musings
- NetSpend challenges the throne
- We’re sorry, there is a problem with your account
More about Chase Ink cards
- How to sign up for the Ink Bold (also works for other Ink cards)
- Ink Plus now publicly available!
- The Missing Ink
- Why Chase cancels accounts (and how to protect yourself)
- Chase Ink: Check your X