One card to rule them all

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 ‘€œ5X Everywhere!‘€ and ‘€œAlmost too good to be true‘€. Both tricks require a Chase Ink business card which earns 5 points per dollar at office supply stores (see ‘€œHow 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 ‘€œprepaid 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).

Photo Apr 12, 11 32 26 AM

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!

ATM Use

  • 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.

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 ‘€œperk 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: ‘€œWhy 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

More about Amex Prepaid cards

More about Vanilla Reload cards

Alternatives to Amex Prepaid cards

More about Chase Ink cards

 


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Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by American Express. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of American Express, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by American Express. This site may be compensated through American Express Affiliate Program.

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Comments

  1. I would like to purchase prepaid card for my quarterly estimated tax payments. However, using $500 VISA Pre-paid gift cards is not enough. However, if I get the Amex Prepaid Card and load it up to $2500, I believe I will be charged the credit card fee, as opposed to the $3.50 (approx.) debit card fee with VISA. The percentage fee makes the strategy unprofitable.

    Is there a way to buy a $500 VISA Debit Card, upgrade it, buy the Vanilla Re-load Cards, then load $2500 on the card, and then turn around and use the $2500 for an estimated tax payment at the $3.50 (approx.) flat debit card fee? The representative at Vanilla Reload told me that their product works with Amex, Mio, Paypal and Netspend.

    Thanks in advance for your help!

    • Craig: you don’t need to buy Vanilla Visas at all. Buy Vanilla Reload cards and load them to a NetSpend or Mio card and then use that as a debit card for your taxes. One caution: NetSpend is quick to shut down people who do things like this, but you’ll probably get away with it at least once.

  2. I notice there are several brands of cards bearing the netspend barcode logo. Does anyone know if these cards are interchangable in terms of what prepaid cards they can be used to load. For example – can anycard with a netspend barcode logo be used to load an Amex Prepaid (and not just the nominally vanilla branded one)?

    • Stevdealin: Great question about the Mio. I’d like to know that as well. I’ve been using the Mio for over a month now as my primary day to day card with a once a month ATM withdrawal. I haven’t pushed it yet by trying to pay taxes or anything like that. I use credit (not debit) transactions exclusively in order to avoid fees (other than the $1.50 ATM fee). Since Mio belongs to the Allpoints network, there are no additional fees at those ATMs other than the $1.50

  3. If there a debit card vendor that will:
    (a) not shut me down quickly when I only use the card for quarterly estimated income tax payments (like Netspend and Milo)
    (b) accepts Vanilla Prepaid Cards, which will allow me to purchase them ($4K/month) at Office Depot and accumulate UR points at 5x (Ink Bold)
    (c) Will result in only a (approx.) $3.50 debit card fee when I use the card to pay my quarterly estimated income tax payments.

    As I understand it, Milo and Netspend will shut me down quickly with this strategy. Is this correct?
    Also, I could load up a PayPal account or Amex prepaid card, but I believe the fee will be higher than $3.50. Is this correct?

    If I could come up wit a solution to this, then I would be able to max out my 5x bonus with Chase for estimated income tax payments that I have to make anyways, with little cost for me. Thanks in advance for your help with this!!

  4. Say a local bank charges a $2 fee for a ATM withdraw.

    Why wouldn’t you just keep buying temporary cards for $402? You’d withdraw $400, use that towards the cost of $407.95?

    In the end you would be paying $7.95 for 2000 UR points?

  5. I was going to sign up for the Ink Bold card soon, but I’m now I’m interested in the Ink Plus, which is basically the credit card version of the Bold. Can anyone confirm that the Plus has the same bonuses when shopping via the UR Mall?

  6. After reading this article about the Amex Prepaid card from OD, I might need to try it. Are there any Costco Executive members here that purchased a Amex Prepaid card, used it successfully at Costco, and can confirm that they do indeed receive their yearly 2% discount as well?

    Thanks!

  7. Has anyone noticed that they are pulling the reload cards incredibly quickly?

    I went to the OD in Edison, NJ four months ago and they had the cards and then went back 3 months ago and they said that the vendor pulled the cards.
    I then went to the OD in Plymouth meeting, PA two months ago they had the cards and then went two weeks ago and they had pulled the cards. Does anybody know of any ODs in the philadelphia area that still carry the AmEx prepaid reload cards?

    Thanks!

  8. I agree that FM goes a long way in sharing information with users and I apply through cards through his links always since I found about his site.

    Good job FM. Way to go !!!

  9. Quarterly taxes due this week and still would like to figure out how to use a card to do this without paying a % fee. Not sure it will be worth it. A debit card would work but it would have to be one with a large amount. Around $10K

  10. I have been having trouble withdrawing Amex prepaid card via Allpoint ATM at a McDonalds. There are different options to withdraw from; Checking, Savings, or Credit Card. Which one does everyone usually choose? I tried Checking three times for $300 and go an error “this type of transaction is currently not available.”

    It seems that the Allpoint ATMs at McDonalds have sponsors that charge the fee? I’ve never actually used Allpoint ATMs but everytime I tried one, it said this ATM is sponsored by Actors LLC (or something) in NYC and a fee of $.99 will be charged. It’s $2 or so at CVS Allpoint ATMs in Pittsburgh. So it’s not exactly free…?

    • I’ve had trouble at McDonald’s too with it limiting me to $200. I have only been able to do checking. But with the fees, what’s up with that? Allpoint are supposed to be free but I’ve used 4 different ones and ALL have had a fee. Curious as to how we find the free ones?

      • Devon / Thanh P: Allpoint ATMs are only free for cards that are part of the allpoint network. The Mio card (which can be reloaded with Vanilla reload cards) is part of the network so when you use a Mio card the Allpoint ATMs are free (but Mio charges $1.50). I’ve used Amex cards at Allpoint ATMs without problem, but not at McDonalds. Yes, I select “checking” when I use ATMs. I haven’t found any ATMs yet that are free for everyone.

  11. All – I had a quick question. When someone charges a prepaid card using a credit card and withdraws that thru ATM..is that considered money laundering? I ask cuz i recently visited a store and asked to pay for a moneydot with a CC and they said it has been stopped cuz people are using this for laundering.. I just wanted to make sure what everyone thinks about it?

    • mq0123: “money laundering” is when you obtain money illegally and need to basically get rid of the evidence. People in that circumstance often do things like this in order to convert money from one form to another. So, no, it’s not money laundering unless you fund the prepaid card with stolen funds or a stolen credit card.

  12. I loaded 2 cards today under 2 different people and was able to load $2000 on 1 card within 6 hours since it was Monday for 2 reloads and Tuesday for the other 2 (eastern time). So maybe it’s not a 24-hour period. Though all 4 transactions show as Monday on the AMEX site which is weird …

    However, on the other card, it wouldn’t go, probably because it’s only been 26 days since I first loaded the card with $200 through my checking account, to get the gift card. It looks like any initial loads count as part of the $2500 in 28 days. If I loaded today, it’d be $2700 in a 28-day period which is a no-go.

    Speaking of which, I still haven’t received my bonus gift cards for opening during August … are people still waiting on those?

  13. All…so far so good for the past three months…my statement just closed and I got paid big time. They even gave me the Plus, which I already used today for 3K. Thanks FrequentMiler for you genius idea!!!

  14. I was cruising along in May-Aug, but now I have to drive 1 hour to get the reloads…I guess it’s still worth it.

    I saw reloads at Walgreen’s, but that does me no good. I don’t have a CC with a drugstore bonus, and am not sure if Walgreen’s would even take a CC to buy the reloads.

  15. FrequentMiler…I need you help.I applied and was denied for the 50K Southwest card at the end of August. Do you think that if I get the card today, thru Recon,I will get the 50K or will I be stuck with their current promotion of 25K? Thanks in advance for you help. I really want the companion pass this year.

  16. Thank you very much FrequentMiler. Now I just have to decide if I am going to take the risk of getting it. I might have already pushed my luck with my all my other operations. I am always afraid of my operations being shut down. Thanks for the info though.

  17. Life is good. I just got approve for the SW card,thru recon, and I am on my way of earning my companion pass this year. Additionally, I was given more ammunication for my two favorites (Bold and Plus), and I am ready to attack. Thanks again FrequentMiler for your excellent idea. It seems too easy for me to conduct these operations;however, I am always afraid of being shut down any minute now for these same easy operations.

  18. @Frequent Miler: do credit cards know what ITEMS one purchases with the Credit Card?

    Say I buy stuff at Staples with the Chase Ink Bold. Do they know if those items are computer vs. gift cards? It’s my understanding the Chase closes account for perks abuse, but I can’t understand whether they’d know if a $500 purchase of gift cards is just gift cards compared to normal items. (I realize they’d catch it if you suddently start buying thousands…but my question is more general than that: does Chase know the items you buy or just the total from the store?)

  19. At the Office Depot I use, there were none on display, clerk looks them up, they have none, and the 6 nearest stores have none. Other clerk asks the manager, eventually he gets a batch from his office and sells me one, he had to approve the transaction, scrutinized my ID, etc. NP getting it loaded onto the Amex when I got back to the hotel.

    Not sure what’s going on there. This Office Depot used to be a reliable place to get the vanilla reload card. Hope this isn’t the end of the deal at OD. I have to get them here when I’m the bay area for work, there is no OD on Maui.

    -David

  20. {…}what’s totally awesome is that the more I use the bold,the more they increase my limit on it. It’s like they are setting my up for a fall(closing all my accounts).They increased my limit twice this past week!

  21. As my gift to you, The Frequent Miler and all your fans for your wonderful idea, I am going to reveal a secret that you might not know already. Until September 30,2012 PNC is offering a checking account sign-on bonus for $150;as the cherry on top, you can fund your initial deposit(max $2000) with a rewards earning credit card(except for Citi,which charges as cash advance).If you don’t want the checking account with the sign-on bonus, you can still apply for the other types of PNC checking and savings account(which all can be initially funded with a rewards earning credit card). I hope this helps you as you have helped me with the Bold,Plus,SW.

  22. This is great with rewards2cash.com I used them to get even more money since you can sell your UR points to them for more than chase pays.

  23. How are these cards rung up at the register?

    The Store manager scanned the card, and then entered an amount, i.e. $400, but it kept saying that the balance exceeded the “floor maximum” or something along the lines.

    We tried several cards.
    No go.

  24. The thing is the same manager rang up a card for me a week earlier. He was very cooperative and even offered to ring up some other prepaid cards for me. Not sure what’s going on.

  25. You CAN get the card in Arkansas! Look on the Amex site, it’s VT and AK that it’s not available in…AK is Alaska, NOT Arkansas!!!!

  26. Dave: the following is taken directly from the American Express FAQ. Where do you see “VT and AK”?:

    The permanent American Express Prepaid Card is not available for sale in Arkansas and Vermont. 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

  27. The Frequent Miler, do you know if we have to pay taxes on the cash back we get from Ink or from any rewards earning card? Thanks in advance.

  28. Can someone correct this newbie if im wrong?

    1)Step one get Amex prepaid card via amex website for free
    2)Buy $500 vanilla reload GC at safeway using amex HH for 6x points
    3)Upload the reload (love how it sounds) onto the amex prepaid and use it amazon to buy new tires?

    Is this newbie off base?

  29. I found that all three OD in my area are out of vanilla and AMEX $500 GC. The manager told me they won’t get anymore…

    Does this happen to you guys?

  30. The Office Depot I often buy was out of the the reload card Manager said all OD have pulled them… so no more one card rull them all?

  31. went to OD in los angeles and was able to buy $1000 worth this morning. There were only two vanilla reloadable cards remaining. Weird thing was that they had to call by phone to enter an authorization code.

  32. Got my Ink Bold two weeks ago. Used my new Ink card to pay into my wife’s account via Amazonpayments and bought a AMEX prepaid card for 500$. Both transactions are showing as “work related” in the description? Does it mean, it’s considered as “office” purchase? Anyone tried this? I am still waiting for the first statement.

  33. “an app called GoWallet can help a lot” linked page does not work anymore in case other comments did not already point that out.

    Thanks for your great great blog!

  34. Thank you for all the work you put into this, I wanted to start supplementing my travel and after spending 4 hrs reading your blog I have a good understanding of this.

  35. They definitely caught on here with all the orders flooding in. I did not do this one. Out of Stock on a downloaded product LOL.

    • Another option is to get the no fee Ink Cash or Ink Classic card. They also offer 5X office supplies, etc., but points can’t be transferred to airlines & hotel programs unless you have another premium card (like the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, or Ink Bold)

  36. I have three old school amex prepaid card. I wonder how I can load money in it with any cc related methods nowadays. There is only one choice under my account, which is bank transfer. Also VR and MP are mostly not allowed to buy with cc. Any idea?

  37. So, Vanilla now doesn’t allow PIN LOAD. They only allow SWIPE LOAD.

    What is the way out? How do I transfer money from Vanilla to Amex?

    Thanks for your time.

    • Can you give me more info about what you are trying to accomplish? What type of Vanilla do you have? e.g. Vanilla reload card, Vanilla Visa card, My Vanilla?
      What type of Amex card do you want to load it to?

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