Using Vanilla Reloads for Credit Card Rewards - picture of woman using credit card for online purchase
Budget Travel | Using Credit Cards

Using Vanilla Reloads for Credit Card Rewards

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As many of you know, we’re always on the lookout for ways to pursue credit card rewards.  And so far this year, things have gone well.  We’ve signed up for three Southwest Rapid Rewards cards and a Citi AAdvantage MasterCard so far and have hit the minimum spending requirements easily due to our recent home remodel.  But I had a problem, a first world problem.  I really wanted to earn the Southwest Rapid Rewards Companion pass, but I couldn’t come up with a very good strategy for doing so.  Let me explain.

Anyone can earn the Southwest Airlines Companion pass by first earning 110,000 Rapid Rewards points within one calendar year.  Earning a companion pass means that any companion of your choosing gets to fly with you for free (my companion will be Greg of course), even if your flight is paid for with pointswhich is pretty bitchin’.  So this year, I signed up for a personal card and a business card in order to take advantage of the 50,000 sign-up bonus on each.  Since I also earn 1 point per dollar spent, earning the sign-up bonus on each card would net me 104,000 Rapid Rewards points in a matter of months. Boom.

The problem is, 104,000 points is not enough to earn the Companion pass.  To do it, I needed to spend another $6,000 on my card at the very least.  This isn’t a problem in itself, but I have other credit card rewards to pursue and I didn’t want to monopolize my spending for the next 6 months just trying to earn the Companion pass.  Like I said, I’ve got first world problems.

Enter American Express Bluebird

Since I write for Frugal Travel Guy, I am always reading about crazy strategies people use when pursuing rewards.  The most popular strategy by far seems to be signing up for an American Express Bluebird account and using vanilla reloads to fund it.  But, how does that work?

Basically, an American Express Bluebird account is much like any other online checking account, except for one huge detail.  You can buy reloads for your account, called Vanilla Reloads, at many popular chain stores….and you can pay for them with a credit card.  What this means is that you can pay almost any bill with the points-earning card of your choice.  For example, here are a few types of bills that aren’t usually able to be paid for with credit:

  • Your mortgage
  • Your car payment
  • Utility bills
  • Taxes

Although I’m not usually one to try crazy schemes like this, I decided to try it out.  I wanted to know if it really worked and I also wanted to earn that damn Companion pass, got it?  Therefore, I set up a new Bluebird account and embarked on a journey to buy my first vanilla reload.  You can buy Vanilla Reloads at a bunch of stores including Office Depot and CVS and you can put $500 on each card for an activation fee of $3.95.  The only problem is that many stores won’t let you pay for them with a credit card, so there are no guarantees.  Once I made the decision to go this route, I headed to CVS to buy my first Vanilla Reload.

Instead, I bought this:

vnilla gift cardAt this point, this blog post becomes a story of what not to do.  I went into CVS without knowing what a Vanilla Reload looks like and bought a random gift card that said the word “vanilla” on it.  So basically I just bought myself a $500 gift card for no reason, which isn’t awesome at all.  All isn’t lost, of course, because my money is still technically there.  However,  I now have the lame task of paying for groceries or bills on a prepaid Visa gift card.  Let me give you all a piece of advice: Know what a vanilla reload looks like before you go shopping for one, ok?

After all of those shenanigans went down, I headed to Office Depot to see if they had any Vanilla Reloads.  And I was so excited to see that they had a huge-ass stack.  I grabbed a few and headed to the register to load up $1,000 on the real thing.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t greeted with the same enthusiasm I felt internally upon trying to complete my purchase.  The cashier frowned a little, turned to me, and shook his head.

“You can only pay for these with cash,” he said.

Lame.

On my third attempt to buy a Vanilla Reload, I headed back to CVS.  And lo and behold, a whole stack of them were right where they were supposed to be.  Apparently, I just hadn’t seen them the first time around.  Here is what a real Vanilla Reload looks like:

vanilla reloadSo, I bought one, loaded $500 on it, then loaded it into my Bluebird account.  And now, shit’s about to get real.  For the next few months, I am going to pay the following bills on credit by using the Vanilla Reload/Amex Bluebird strategy:

 

 

  • Our Mortgage
  • Rental Property #1 Mortgage
  • Rental Property #2 Mortgage

The grand total of these three bills is around $3,000, which means that I should easily earn the companion pass in two months without using my Southwest card for regular spending.  The total cost for the reloads should be about $48, which is well worth it to me since the other rewards I will be earning will be worth far more than that.  And that’s how you do it.  But, if you choose to employ this strategy, make sure to buy a real Vanilla Reload, and not just a Visa gift card, got it?

Have you ever used this strategy for credit card rewards?  Do you think it’s sad that I bought myself a $500 gift card purely due to my own ignorance?

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41 Comments

  1. Holly
    I was just planning to do the above. Also if you sign up for Amazon payments you can send 1000 a month paying by credit card to someone else. If you send greg a 1000 on your cc than he can deposit it without any fees into your bank account. Great way to hit your spending limits.

    1. Great tip! I haven’t gone that route yet either!

  2. Thanks for sharing Holly! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for as I have a lot of money going out the door each month from our mortgage and student loans which I can’t charge to a credit card. This may be the perfect workaround strategy.

  3. We try to stay away from credit cards but I’m always amazed at the strategies people use to earn credit cards rewards points. It seems like there are lots of free points out there to grab if you’re willing. Do you see any negative effects on your credit rating/finances? Maybe we’ll give it a try one day, those free vacations are enticing.

    1. I don’t really care about my credit score but both of us have scores in the mid-700’s. It doesn’t affect our finances at all because we use the cards for our planned spending and pay them in full each month.

  4. Nice. I always figured that if I was struggling to hit a spending threshold I would buy myself gift cards/credit on Amazon (if that works). Though $6,000 is still more than I’d feel comfortable spending.

    1. I hear ya. Just wait til you have a house and kids! I can spend $6,000 in a breeze once I start counting the mortgage on my home and our rental properties and daycare costs, etc!

  5. I believe you can still use that Vanilla prepaid card if it has a pin and I also believe all prepaid debit cards are required to have a pin now by some law. We don’t have CVS here, so I’ve been considering this myself. There are some posts on Million Mile Secrets about it. It seems Visa and MC debits work at Bluebird with a pin, but Amex ones do not. I just signed up for a Bluebird to pay my property taxes, but haven’t actually tried to put a pre paid debit card on there yet. I’ll let you know if it works.

    1. Ohhhh….maybe I can pay my quarterly estimated taxes with it???

  6. This is awesome Holly! We just had my wife sign up for the SW card and will be getting the business one as well and was looking for a way around this. As for the gift card, at least you can use it on other things. 🙂

  7. Hi Holly,
    So I had to laugh at the timing of your post. My brother has just started using Vanilla Reloads and made this very same mistake yesterday. I thought I’d let you know that the oneVanilla card you bought can be loaded onto your Bluebird. You have to go to Walmart in person. Here’s an article I found about it http://travelwithgrant.com/bluebird/no-vrc-try-one-vanilla/
    Hope this helps, Jessica

    1. Go to Walmart in person? I’m not sure that’s worth it. I hate that place! =) (Thanks for the tip!)

  8. Sounds interesting. I would love to get travel rewards for paying my mortgage and other bills that I can’t put on my credit card.

  9. My local CVS store didn’t allow me to use my credit card…yes very lame. I tried a few places and no luck. Haven’t had time to check out more places. I love how people have come up with ideas to earn points/money.

  10. Holly crap Holly this is an amazing strategy. I feel like by not taking advantage of this, I’m seriously missing out. I really need to get in gear with this travel hacking. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Ryan! I didn’t invest the strategy….just following the herd. Feel free to join the pack! =)

  11. Your creativity with travel hacking never ceases to amaze me, Holly. 🙂 I’m pretty sure I would have made the same mistake too. I don’t know why they would give them such similar names, Maybe they hope people make mistakes so just get more money! A pain for sure but at least you didn’t actually lose the $500! 🙂

  12. This is very timely as I was just about to start this today at CVS! I got an amazing targeted 70,000 UR bonus from a Chase Ink Plus card, and now I have to meet the spending requirement. Figured it couldn’t hurt to put my mortgage on there if I could…

    I was going to check out a number of articles online to make sure I didn’t screw this up; I know my brother did something similar to you the first time he tried and it was over $1,000.

    1. First of all, super jealous of your targeted offer.

      Second of all, make sure to buy the right thing. Take a pic with you. A ton of gift cards say vanilla on them! It’s tricky!

  13. Tara @ Streets Ahead Living says:

    I second the Amazon Payments method. My husband and I have used that successfully for 18 months and no issue.

    To get $3000 on the Amex Bluebird account, did you have to do multiple purchases? I’d like more detail if you follow up on this.

    1. You can only load $1,000 into your Bluebird account per day if I’m understanding it correctly!

  14. Good stuff, Holly. That’s some clever hacking of credit card rewards.

    We have yet to dip our toes in the water with things like Bluebird, Amazon Payments, and the like. You see, back in our day, when we used credit cards we did it the old fashioned way: by just using the card. Now you kids have the Bluebird, and your iPads, and the Facebooks…

  15. This is hysterical!! I had no idea what a vanilla reload was and I am still not sure I know what a vanilla reload is, but I can’t wait to hear where you fly on Southwest and if you take Greg as your companion or not.

    1. I’m pretty sure I will take him with me anywhere I go =)

  16. My local stores won’t take a credit card payment for giftcards. I suspect there must be a lot of scammers in my area. I’m going to have to check out the amazon payments thing, I hadn’t heard of that yet.

  17. Hey, that Vanilla prepaid card looks a lot like the one my wife bought when I sent her out to buy a Vanilla Reload with her CC to meet a minimum spend! It’s a learning process and my family is right there alongside yours learning the ins and outs of Bluebird and reloads and what not. But then again, 4 marvelous trips this year paid for by points certainly makes it all worth it in the end, right?

    Now excuse me as I go figure out how to get my hands on the $500 I just sent to my wife’s e-mail account via Amazon Payments. lol!

  18. I really like the idea of my companion riding with me for free even if I pay with points that’s pretty sweet. Why have I not taken advantage of this before?

  19. Nice work Holly! I have tried this, but my area stores don’t allow using the credit card. I am going to start using the Amazon payments method!

  20. That’s a cool idea to earn some extra points. I’v always wondered how I could make my mortgage payment with a credit card. For most of us that is the biggest bill we have and could really rack up the points.

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