I’ve been participating in the manufactured spending game for about two years now and doing it in a fairly cautious, responsible way. Back when Vanilla Reloads were sold at Office Depot and people were getting their Ink accounts shut down for abusing the 5x point office supply category, I played it safe by staying at around $2,000 per month. Sure, I didn’t earn as much as others who really went for it, but I still have my Ink card and continue to earn 5x on some of my core expenses. Rick Ingersoll’s motto, “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered” really rings true.
Last week I wrote about my trip to Walmart, where I unloaded $4,300 in gift cards and picked up money orders with my Alaska Airlines debit card. There was a long line at the Money Center and I spent a total of 45 minutes in the store. Some folks, especially on Twitter, took this to mean I spent 45 minutes hogging the kiosk and drawing attention to myself. One guy went as far as to Tweet out a link to my post and include @Walmart in a brilliant maneuver:
While the tweet was clearly an attack on me for a perceived wrongdoing, it’s important to avoid emotional outbursts like this one. This type of tweet is far more damaging than any post a blogger could write on the topic. I realize most of my readers are much smarter than this, but still think it’s time to outline some good practices for those of us who care to keep this hobby going past our temper tantrums:
1. Don’t alert the media. You know the mantra, “Don’t call the airline” (in case of a mistake fare). The same applies to manufactured spending. If you think my post chronicling my manufactured spending strategy to a small audience on my blog is damaging, what do you think will happen when you alert the store where the manufactured spending activity is happening? Especially when this is a major source of manufactured spending for folks in the travel hacking community. Be discreet and don’t explain what you’re doing to store employees, banks, or anyone else involved in the process.
Back in the Vanilla Reload days, the cashier at my go-to CVS once asked me why I was buying them. Rather than explain the details of VR’s + Bluebird + Bill Pay, I simply stated that it was a tool I used to budget my household expenses.
Speaking of the media, at times I’ve been asked about travel hacking schemes by journalists. One guy even pointed to things being discussed in Flyertalk threads and asked me to elaborate, but I refused to talk about anything that may get shut down as a result of widespread media attention. Mattress running? Yes. After all, a loyalty program executive I spoke to expressed that he saw nothing wrong with the practice and considered various hacks as members being “engaged” with the program. Anything that can get shut down, I steer clear off promoting to a large (or the wrong) audience and I suggest you do the same. This includes shooting yourself in the foot (or more appropriately, committing a murder/suicide) by tweeting @Walmart about manufactured spending.
2. Avoid abuse. Take advantage of a good promotion, but don’t exploit it to the point where you draw attention to yourself. Sometimes when a great deal comes around, it’s easy to get carried away and abuse it. As I stated in one of my earliest posts, the relationship between travel hackers and businesses should be mutually beneficial.
3. Stay below the radar. When I’m buying gift cards or putting any kind of manufactured spend on my card, I make sure the amount doesn’t raise a red flag at the register, with the bank, or any parties involved in the transaction. This means I keep manufactured spending under $5,000 per credit card, I don’t buy $5,000 in gift cards in-store at a time, I don’t try to use four different gift cards to buy a money order, and I definitely don’t walk up to the register and try to unload more than one gift card onto Bluebird.
4. Don’t spend it all in one place. This ties in with staying below the radar: Don’t put all of your manufactured spending activity on one card, or buy all of your gift cards in one place. Unloading can be difficult, but as I’ve outlined in the Newbie Guide, there are a variety of options for doing so.
Ultimately it comes down to keeping your spending relatively low, not blabbing to the wrong crowd about your hobby, and staying low-key. As someone who’s been doing this for two years now, I can attest that this thing has longevity as long as you’re responsible and do your part to preserve it. At times I may write about a great offer but I don’t advocate anyone abuse it. If you read about me generating $40,000 in manufactured spending in a month, know that it’s not all done in one place. Similarly, when you read about me spending 45 minutes inside a Walmart buying money orders and loading Bluebird, I’m not hogging the Bluebird kiosk the entire time in clear view of the staff while 30 people stand behind me giving me death stares.
That being said, I hope everyone follows this advice as it benefits us all and ensures we’ll be earning (and hopefully traveling) for years to come.