The hunt for perfect gift cards, part 2

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Last week I described the beginning of my quest to find the perfect Visa gift cards (see “The hunt for perfect gift cards, part 1“).  As a reminder, here are the characteristics of the “perfect” gift cards that I’m searching for:

  • Low fee as a % of total value.  The ideal gift card would have a fee equal to, or less than, 1% or its maximum value.
  • Ability to earn credit card category bonus points (see “Best Category Bonuses“).
  • The ability to earn store reward points (such as fuel points) would be a big plus.
  • Ability to set the card’s PIN quickly and easily.  I would like to be able to pickup the gift card at one store and then drive over to Walmart to load it to my Bluebird account with minimal fuss in between.
  • High denomination.  Bluebird cards can be loaded up to $1000 per day (and $5000 per month) at Walmart.  If I’m going to visit Walmart anyway, I’d like to load the full $1000 each time.  The fewer gift cards it takes to do this, the better.  In other words, a $1000 gift card would be ideal (but I’ve never seen those in stores), and $500 gift cards are really good.  Cards with lower values are much less attractive.

In part 1, I visited Kroger, Speedway, OfficeMax, and Sears.  At that time I found that Visa gift cards from all four merchants worked fine to load Bluebird.  Overall, the gift card from Kroger was the best deal because I earned fuel points along with the purchase.  And, the OneVanilla card I bought at Speedway was the most convenient because it did not require a PIN to be set in advance.

In the comments of my previous post, a reader named Chris said:

I would like to add that you do NOT have to add a pin to the “Kroger” gift card. Just go to CS at Walmart give them your BB card and then swipe the card as debit, enter any pin and load. It sets up with the first pin too. It even asks if you want cash back!!

If that’s true, that would be huge.  Gift cards from Kroger would be both a fantastic deal and incredibly easy to use.  So, for the second part of this quest, I returned to Kroger to try this out.  I also bought $200 gift cards from Staples and Office Depot to see how those compared…

Kroger

I bought the same $500 U.S. Bank Visa gift card that I had bought before.  Again, I earned 500 fuel points for the purchase.

VisaGiftCard_USBank_thumb2

My goal was to see if I could use this card as a debit card at Walmart without first registering a PIN.  I went to Walmart’s MoneyCenter Express ATM (see “Bluebird swipe reloads via ATM“) to try to use the card to load $500 to my Bluebird card.  When it was time to enter my PIN, I made one up.  The machine tried to authorize the transaction, but it was denied.  I remembered that some gift cards use the last four digits of the card number as the default PIN so I tried again with those numbers, but once again the transaction was denied.  Ugh.  I then called Visa at 866-952-5653 to setup a PIN.  Once done, I tried again.  Again, the transaction was denied.  I then used my phone’s browser to register the card online.  And, I tried again.  Denied again.  Frustrated, I gave up on that card for the day.  I’ll try again this week.

Office Depot

My local Office Depot sells Vanilla Visa gift cards in denominations of $200 with a $6.95 fee.  I bought one and paid with a card that offers 5 points per dollar at office supply stores (see “Best Category Bonuses“). 

Visa Vanilla Office Depot

Since this was a Vanilla gift card sold by the same company as the OneVanilla card I had bought previously at Speedway, I thought that I would be able to use this card without first setting a PIN.  At Walmart, I went to the MoneyCenter Express ATM and attempted to load $200 using a PIN that I made up on the spot.  Success!

Staples

Just like Office Depot, Staples sells Visa gift cards in denominations as high as $200 with a $6.95 fee, but these are issued by MetaBank.  I bought one and paid with a card that offers 5 points per dollar at office supply stores (see “Best Category Bonuses“).

Visa_MetaBank_Staples

I wanted to see if this card could be used without setting a PIN in advance.  At Walmart’s MoneyCenter Express ATM I attempted to load $200 using a PIN that I made up on the spot. Denied.  I tried again, but this time I used the last four digits of the gift card’s 16 digit number.  Success!

Summary

My experiment to use the U.S. Bank gift card bought at Kroger without pre-setting a PIN was a failure, but I don’t know why.  Even after setting the PIN, I wasn’t able to use the card.  I’ll have to do more experiments with these cards to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  If you have experience with these cards, please let me know what you’ve found!

My experiments with gift cards from Office Depot and Staples were successful.  The gift card from Office Depot could be used with any made-up PIN (for the first time use), and the gift card from Staples could be used with the last four digits of the card number as the PIN. 

Let’s look at how the office supply store gift cards rate with each of my criteria:

Low Fee

$6.95 for a $200 gift card is definitely not a low fee at 3.48%.  $500 gift cards have fees close to 1%.  However, $100 gift cards generally have 6% fees, so these are right in the middle.

Category bonus

With the right credit/charge card (see “Best Category Bonuses“), 5X at office supply stores is the best category bonus available.  This goes a long way toward making up for the relatively high gift card fees.

Store Rewards

Neither Office Depot nor Staples give rewards for gift card purchases.

Easy PIN setup

It doesn’t get any easier than this.  No need to register a PIN with either card.  With the Office Depot card, use any PIN you want.  With the Staples card, use the last four digits of the card number.  If you forget which is which, simply always use the last four digits of the card number and you should be good to go.

High Denomination

These cards are in the middle of the pack again on this score.  They’re not nearly as convenient as $500 gift cards, but they’re twice as convenient as $100 gift cards.

Relative value of office supply gift cards

If you don’t mind dealing with $200 cards, then the main problem with the gift cards from Office Depot and Staples is their relatively high fee.  Suppose, though, you use some of the points earned to pay yourself back at one cent per point.  Would these cards still be a good deal?  Here’s the math:

  • Buy $200 Visa gift card for $206.95
  • Earn 5X:  5 X 206.95 = 1035 points
  • Pay back fee with points: -695 points
  • Points remaining: 340
  • Points earned as a multiple of $200 spend: 1.7X

That’s pretty good!  This means that you can buy and liquidate Visa gift cards (through Bluebird) for free and still earn 1.7 points per dollar.  That’s a better earning rate than you would get from buying gift cards at a grocery store with most credit cards, but there are better deals (depending on how you value each type of point earned).  Here are a few examples:

  • Earn 5X at grocery stores (and drug stores & gas stations) for the first year with the special Citi ThankYou Preferred offer.
  • Earn 6% cash back at grocery stores with the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card (capped at $6K per year in spend).
  • Earn 2X at grocery stores with the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card.  This is only a better deal than the office supply options if you earn fuel points for your purchases (as I did at Kroger).

 

Conclusion

I have more work to do to figure out what’s going on with the U.S. Bank card from Kroger, so there’s really no news right now on that front.  As to the $200 gift cards from Office Depot and Staples, I found that they are quite easy to work with, and a really solid way to earn extremely valuable points if you don’t mind dealing with their lower denominations.

What have you found that works well or that doesn’t work at all? Please comment below.

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