Vanilla Reloadables

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Vanilla Reload cards are the key to earning 5X everywhere.  They can be purchased at many Office Depot stores with Chase Ink cards which give 5X for office supply purchases.  Once purchased, the value on the card can be loaded onto a reloadable prepaid card.  When you use the reloadable prepaid card for day to day spend, you indirectly earn 5X everywhere.

I originally described the 5X everywhere trick in the post “One card to rule them all.”  In that post I described how to use Vanilla Reload cards in conjunction with American Express Prepaid cards.  The great thing about the Amex cards is that they have almost no fees.  There are no activation fees, no monthly fees, no foreign transaction fees, etc.  The only fee they charge is a $2 ATM withdrawal fee after the first free withdrawal each month.  On the negative side, American Express cards are not accepted by all merchants.  Also, the American Express card cannot be used as a debit card for PIN based transactions.

Other prepaid cards

The Vanilla Reload website shows several participating cards: NetSpend, Mio, Momentum, and MyVanilla.  American Express and PayPal cards also participate in the network, but are not pictured.

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In June I wrote about the NetSpend card (see “NetSpend challenges the throne”) and touted it as a potentially great alternative to the Amex cards.  Shortly afterwards, though, NetSpend closed my account without warning or explanation (see “We’re sorry, there is a problem with your account”).  Since then, other compatible cards have become available and I’ve had some time to research them.

Prepaid cards compared

The tables below summarize the fees and limits of each prepaid card that can be loaded with a Vanilla Reload card:

Fees:

 

Credit transaction

Debit transaction

ATM withdrawal

Foreign Xchange

Other fees of note

Amex Prepaid $0 $0 $2 (first per month free) $0 No other fees!
MyVanilla Visa $0.50 $0.50 $1.95 3.5% $3.95 per month inactivity fee after 90 days;
NetSpend MasterCard or Visa $1 $2 $2.50 3.5% Monthly plans available to eliminate per transaction fees.  $1 per check bill payment.
PayPal MasterCard $0 $0 $1.95 2.5% $4.95 mandatory monthly fee
Momentum Visa $1 $1 $2 3% Optional $10 per month plan eliminates per use fees.  $10 Activation fee.
Mio MasterCard $0 (update: now customers are being charged $0.50) $0.50 $1.50 ? Fees published online and in cardholder agreement are inaccurate.  $2.95 purchase fee (in store).

 

Limits:

 

Per day load via Vanilla Reload

Maximum balance

ATM withdrawal max per day

Amex Prepaid $1000 $2500 $400
MyVanilla $2,500 $9,999 $400
NetSpend $7,500 $15,000 $940
PayPal $2,500 $15,000 $940
Momentum $2,500 $10,000 $1000
Mio $2,500 $9,999 ?

 

A deeper look at each card


American Express Prepaid:
This is by far the most consumer friendly of the reloadable cards in this roundup.  With almost no fees, there is no reason not to get one (or three).  Amazingly it also comes with perks such as roadside assistance and 90 day purchase protection!  The main downsides are: 1) American Express cards are not accepted everywhere; 2) They cannot be used as debit cards; and 3) A maximum of $2500 may be loaded to the card in a 28 day period.  Best use for card:  ATM access, day to day spend, foreign transactions (including ATM withdrawals).  How to get the card:  Order online.

MyVanilla: I wouldn’t recommend using this for day to day spend since you will be charged 50 cents per transaction.  Also, I don’t like the $3.95 per month inactivity fee.  Best use for card: The only reasonable use for this card is to do very few, very large transactions.  For example, load up the card and use it to pay estimated taxes each quarter (see “How to pay Federal taxes with a Vanilla Visa” for an example of how to pay taxes with a debit card).  This way, you can use the card often enough to avoid inactivity fees, but won’t incur too many transaction fees.  Warning: With this type of activity there’s always a good chance that you’re account will be shut down just as mine was with the NetSpend card.  How to get the card: Order online.

NetSpend: This one has even higher fees than the MyVanilla card.  Charging $1 for credit transactions and $2 for debit transactions is ridiculous.  However, they do have a couple of monthly payment plans that eliminate the per transaction fees.  Of course, that doesn’t help much if NetSpend shuts down your account (which has happened to almost everyone I’ve talked to).  Best use for card: Load the card slowly (no more than $500 per week) since quick loads seem to trigger account shutdowns.  Use the $1 Bill Pay feature to cash out by paying bills that cannot otherwise be paid by credit card (or send the check to yourself).  Be prepared to be shut down, whatever you do.  After you are shut down, NetSpend will mail you a check for the balance, but beware that sometimes it takes a very long time to get the check.  How to get the card:  Order online.

PayPal: This card has a mandatory $4.95 monthly fee, but then free credit and debit transactions.  This card belongs to the Allpoint Network so while the card itself charges $1.95 for ATM withdrawals, you won’t get another fee from the ATM operator if you go to an Allpoint Network ATM.  Note that the PayPal card is administered by NetSpend so this card may be just as likely to be shut down as the NetSpend card (but I don’t know that for sure).  Best use for card:  Use this one for day to day spend (you might as well get your money’s worth for the monthly fee), ATM withdrawals at Allpoint ATMs, and any PIN based debit transactions you care to make (for example, when getting groceries, take out extra cash for no charge as part of the grocery purchase).  How to get the card: Order online.

Momentum: Like the NetSpend card, this card offers a choice of paying a monthly fee or per-use credit and debit transaction fees.  The main advantage I see to this card is that it can optionally be linked to a Momentum savings account which appears to have a very good interest rate (but I haven’t examined it in depth).  Best use for card: Very few, very large debit transactions (unless you sign up for the monthly plan).  How to get card: You must show up in person with ID at a participating store.

Mio: Next to the Amex cards, the Mio is my favorite.  I’ve been using one for over two months now without any problems.  The Mio has no monthly fee and no per transaction credit fee.  It is part of the Allpoint ATM Network, so ATM withdrawals cost me only $1.50 all-in when I use an Allpoint ATM.  The card does charge 50 cents per debit transaction so I’ve done very few of those, but it comes in very handy to have this as an option.  The weird thing about this card is that the fee information that comes in the package and that is available online is flat out wrong (at the time of this writing).  Their FAQ mentions all kinds of fees that don’t exist.  So, finding out the real fees for various transactions can be difficult.  That’s why I left a question mark in the table above regarding the Mio card’s foreign transaction fee.  I simply don’t feel that I can trust the information available.  Lastly, I should mention that when I called the MyVanilla card number to ask about that card’s fees I was told that the Mio would soon have new fees.  I don’t know if I can trust what they said (I hope not!), but it is something to watch out for.   Best use for card: Allpoint ATM withdrawals; day to day credit spend; occasional large debit purchases.  How to get the card: Buy the card at a participating store, then call to activate the card.  They will send you a second card with your name on it (and the second card will share the balance of the first card).

UPDATE 10/2/2012: readers are reporting that the Mio now charges 50 cents for each credit transaction.  This makes the Mio equal to the MyVanilla, which is not surprising since they are run by the same company.

Summary

The American Express Prepaid card and the Mio MasterCard top my list of favorite prepaid reloadable cards.  Neither card has a monthly fee, nor do they charge for credit transactions.  Both provide means for inexpensive ATM withdrawals.  I prefer the Amex for foreign use (no foreign transaction fee), but since it’s not accepted everywhere I always also carry a no foreign exchange fee MasterCard or Visa when travelling internationally.  I like that the Mio has larger load limits than the Amex, and that it can be used for debit transactions when needed.  I am worried that Mio fees may change for the worse at some point, but for now it is my go-to card for use domestically.

The main problem with the Mio is that it is not available everywhere and cannot be ordered online.  You can look for participating stores here or simply visit a local Dollar General store as they tend to carry them.  If you’re unable to get a Mio, but still want an option other than the Amex, consider going with the PayPal card.  If you use it often enough, you may find that it is worth the $4.95 monthly fee.  And, since debit transactions are free with this card, you can take out cash when you pay by debit at large retail stores.  This way, you may make up for the $4.95 fee simply by avoiding ATM charges.  Note, though, that the PayPal card is administered by NetSpend, so you may not like that option if you’re not a fan of NetSpend.

UPDATE 10/2/2012: readers are reporting that the Mio now charges 50 cents for each credit transaction. This makes the Mio equal to the MyVanilla, which is not surprising since they are run by the same company.

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.
  • 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!
  • Prepaid cards are primarily targeted towards people without checking accounts or credit cards.  As a result, large value loads and withdrawals will look suspicious to the issuing bank and may lead to your account getting shut down.  Be prepared to wait 6 weeks or more to get your money back if this happens.
  • Don’t be greedy, please. Even if you only put $1000 per month onto one of these cards, 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.

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Comments

  1. Be careful on volume with Mio, they can come down hard on you for any real level of volume… Demanding SS card, picture ID, receipts and scans of every reload card you ever loaded. Even after that, they said they were closing the account and were conducting an investigation before I could have a check for what was on my account.

    They said that I couldn’t have my funds until they completed their investigation, but a certified mail letter demanding they close my account and send me my funds got my money back in about 30 days…

  2. Kaptain — how much volume does it take to get this investigation? What’s with these card companies. It should be none of their business what you buy and how much you spend as long as you’re using their product and making them money.

  3. Were you doing just debits, or a substantial amount of credit transactions too? I guess you don’t fit the poor underbanked consumer profile so they think something illegal must be going on.

  4. I have used my new Mio Debit Mastercard 5 times so far and have noticed that I am being charged the $.50 for each transaction – for my account, I am not getting the “free transaction fee for the time being” but rather am being hit with it from day one of opening the account. Perhaps FM’s older account status still allows him to get the transactions for free. YMMV.

  5. @FM — I used Mio yesterday for a credit purchase at a grocery store and now it charges me $.50 for those as well :) Bummer, you’ll probably notice it too. From now on I’m only using it for big debits, and a few large credit transactions. The card is useless to me otherwise.

  6. Just checked my statement after reading all these reports, and indeed the “incorrect” pricing they used to have in their terms and conditions finally is getting applied to us. Back to AMEX and Reload-it based cards for me. I suspect Mio will quickly learn their lesson and lose customers, because now Chase and WF provide substantially similar products with very low fees.

  7. Now that Mio is $.50 for credit and debit transactions, the break-even point between the Mio and the PayPal card is 10 transactions. Your usage pattern will determine the better deal, but that’s where the crossover lies.

    (I leave pure ATM transactions out of the equation since it’s cheaper to buy a pack of gum and get cash back than it is to pay the ATM fee.)

  8. Not sure if I missed this or not – I have AmEx SPG, Citi AA Visa and Citi AA AmEx. Can any 3 of these be used for AmEx card and Vanilla reload cards to meet minimum spends? Or only Chase cards to buy the debit and reload cards?

  9. Does it make sense that buying Vanilla reloads on AMEX SPG or Chase SP card earns the points. For example, buy one Vanilla $500 for $3.95, reloads it into AMEX PP, withdraw $400 from an ATM for $1.25 and spend the rest of money. At the end, you will get either 500 SPG or UR points at the cost of $5.20, or about 1 point per 1.04Cent. Does it make sense to anyone?

  10. I got a Mio card and was excited to start using it but it’s too bad that they’ve now put in the $0.50 fee on credit transactions.

  11. My $.50 per transaction charges were for credit purchases. I have not done any debit transactions yet.

    At this point my plan is to use my Mio Mastercard only for purchases that can not be made using an AX Card (prepaid). I will use it wherever the return after the $.50 is considered is more than 2% (which is what I can get on another everyday use card I have) I think $25.00 is my purchase threshold limit (2.25% return on a purchase of that size after considering the .50 purchase.

    I will use any other card where I can get a better category deal greater than 2.25% such as gas (5%), groceries(6%), restaurant (5%), etc. In essence, when all else fails, I will then use the Mio for any purchase over 25.00 where AX is not accepted. Naturally the larger the purchases the better the return. I have several monthly purchases that cannot be purchased with AX that are large.

  12. 1. Is there a monthly fee (or inactivity fee) for Mio?

    2. Can I buy prepaid debit vanilla card (with pin) in OD? (i assume it is same as MyVanilla)?

    Thanks.

    • Allen: 1) No monthly fee for the Mio (at least not yet). 2) No. You can get a prepaid debit card with pin elsewhere and then buy vanilla reload cards at OD for loading the debit card.

  13. Can the PayPal and the MyVanilla cards to be used for grocery cash back and for purchasing money orders? If so, what are the limits?

  14. few new bee questions.. 1)I bought one Amex prepaid card from OD and Tried to use @ target & at a Gas station within 10 minutes – Declined? Did anyone had the same exp?
    Do I need to wait for sometime? 3) I cannot find Vanilla Reload cards in OD. Just one question, Why can’t I just continue buying the Prepaid cards everytime? 4) I also saw other Visa cards which can be loaded upto 500 in OD. Can I buy them and use it..since Visa is acceptable everywhere. Why do I have to search for Vanilla cards only? Am I missing something? Please help.

    • RK:
      1) Yes, give it some time.
      3) You can, they’re just less convenient & no ATM use
      4) Those work too, but no ATM use and you can’t register your full address (so they don’t work everywhere)

  15. RK — yes, you’re missing something, please re-read all the 5-10 posts related to this and the associated comments to learn how this works. Why do people keep coming here and just expect FM or someone else to regurgitate the info over and over in the comments.

  16. So I’m not alone in noticing that ODs rarely have the reload cards anymore. Is there an official (or unofficial) statement from OD on why this is the case? They seem to have the AMEX prepaid cards in good stock, so we might just have to get those. I’ve only done this once so far, and the manager had to be called and the clerk had to call the credit card company.

  17. My OD told me last month they had stopped carrying reload cards but now they’re back in stock. After they had to call the bank once, I called Chase and the rep took off the phone call requirement (apparently it’s tied to the card, not the store). At both ODs I go to, a mgr is called to approve the sale and my ID. I’d rather they do that than not carry the reloads.

  18. I know a friend of mine got her IB closed/canceled by chase. Since than I stopped doing this because it is just way too risky for me. I use it mainly for gas purchases for the 2 points per dollar deal.

    You are not profitable to Chase and I am sure this practice is a count down to account closure.

  19. So, it is necessary to use a prepaid debit card such as MyVanilla and Mio because you can’t use those VISA gift/debit cards for true PIN-based transactions? Thanks for clarifying!

  20. My friend who told me about the Ink Bold deal got all his chase accounts closed last week. No reasons were given but it was because he was putting too much of office supply purchase on the ink bold.

    I will limit my monthly purchase at no more than 2.5k.

  21. Got my “Vanilla” card today and loaded with $2500 to pay my car thru bmw financials and it doe NOT go thru. So much for pure “debit” card. So disappointing.
    Charge smart won;t take payments greater than $1500 either. Dead locked here

  22. Suddenly the MIO card has all sorts of fees??!? Web site mentions at least 4.95 monthly fee, or 12.00/month with unlimited transactions etc. ?? How are you getting no monthly fees? And no ATM fees? Very confusing–seems like they are changing their ‘pricing’ by the minute! Sounds completely flaky and unreliable–looks like it is in the midst of changing for MIO. And PAYPAL is just begging for account closure and freezing of account funds-which happened to me–no customer service and Paypal loves to freeze accounts for no reason–even on EBAY. The only reliable card here is AMEX. Let’s hope the new Walmart AMEX joint Bluebird will allow for PIN and debit transactions– since reliability is great. Any update on flaky MIO?

  23. There is a huge downside to the Vanilla prepaid Visa that does not seem to be mentioned. The max daily spend on the card is $3000! I just loaded my card up to get ready to pay my property taxes and just found this out (to use a debit card on my county website, I must pay with 1 transaction only). Now I’m stuck with $7k on my card.
    May I suggest adding the max daily spend info to the overview of cards?

  24. I can’t buy more than a $495 money order with my MyVanilla; it won’t let me do a debit transaction for anything more than that. Has anyone been able to do 1K MOs with the card yet? Also, how many $500 reloads have you been able to load in a day on the card AND been able to use those funds in the same day? This card seems to, well, suck, at least so far.

  25. Apologies if this has been reported already, but I didn’t see it…

    Can anyone confirm how Citi treats the purchase of a Vanilla Reload card? “Purchase” or “Cash Advance”?

  26. Has anyone ever bought a vanilla reload at a 7-eleven? FM has the list of reload locations listed on the vanillareload website ever been validated? I have only seen them at the OD locations listed on the vanillareload.com website. 7-Eleven website doesnt list vanilla reloads as for sale, only vanilla does.

  27. Thanks for the answer about the Citi AA VISA.

    Does anyone know for certain how the US Air VISA treats loading a Wells Fargo prepaid card?

  28. Hey FM, you might want to change the “Reloadable” to “Reload” at the top of this page. Was using the same term till getting corrected in the major FT thread after various people asked if this card was reloadable.

    • WishyAnand: This post is about “reloadables” not “reload cards”. Reloadables are the prepaid cards (Mio, NetSpend, Bluebird, etc.). Reload cards are the Vanilla Reload cards. So, since this post is about the prepaid cards, not the reload cards, I believe the title is correct.

  29. I am really frustrated. I have gone to each possible shop here in Chicago. I was unable to see Vanilla Reload.

    I don’t care about 5% cashback, 1% cashback or anything. All I care about is that I have to spend some minimum amount for my credit card. So, I dont mind buying Vanilla at CVS, 7/11 or anywhere.

    Can anyone please tell me if he or she has seen these cards anywhere in Chicago downtown or close to Aurora/Naperville suburb? Any shop?

    Thanks so much !!

    • @windycitydeveloper-try Walgreens. Many have them. You may have to try a few before you find one that will let you pay with credit. I was lucky on my third one.

  30. Ah I see FM. Initial image of the vanilla reload card under the title confused me. All my local ODs are out just when I finally here that my Ink was approved:-(

  31. I such as the beneficial details you offer you inside your content articles.I’ll bookmark your web log and check out all over again the following continually.I’m extremely totally sure I will master quite a lot of latest stuff best the following! Fine luck for your following!

  32. Does anybody know what the monthly limit is for purchasing money order via a pin based debit transaction? I was told my customer service that the monthly limit is $10,000 but I have done much less but today the debit transaction got denied. Also, are these limits based on a calendar month or a rolling 30 day window?

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