Archive for the ‘Gift Cards’ Category

Chase Freedom 5x Categories for 2013

November 28, 2012 1 comment

How quickly a year goes by! Chase has just announced the 2013 bonus categories for their no-fee Freedom card. Each quarter, the Freedom gets 5% cash-back/5x Ultimate Rewards points at different categories, up to $1500 per quarter. That means that with $6,000 of precise spending, one can accumulate 30K Ultimate Rewards points.

The Freedom is a card that is a mainstay in my wallet, since it has no annual fee. I also got it long before the beginning of this month, when Chase stopped offering their “Exclusives” program, where Chase Checking holders get an extra 10% on base points and 10 points per transaction.

You can activate 5x on the bonus categories starting the 15th of the month before each quarter (so, December 15th, March 15th, June 15th, and September 15th) up until the next quarter’s activation start date. It’s best to activate 5x as soon as possible, though they are retroactive. Interestingly, I was part of a targeted group this year who got to activate 5x for the entire year all at once, though it doesn’t seem like I’ll get to do that next year.

I keep saying “5x Ultimate Rewards points,” which is a bit of a misnomer. The card is marketed as a cash-back card. Each point is worth a penny. However, if you or your spouse/domestic partner has a Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold, or Chase Ink Plus, you can transfer your Freedom UR points into those accounts to turn them into Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred to United, British Airways, Hyatt, etc.

Here are the bonus categories for 2013:

January 1 – March 31: (activate December 15th – March 14th)

Gas stations


Starbucks (including and mobile phone reloads)

The easiest way to maximize this quarter is to buy $1500 of Vanilla reloads at CVS or Walgreens, though I already have my Amex HHonors with 6x and my Chase Ink where I can buy gift cards at 5x to buy reloads. I go to Starbucks a decent amount and get 5x on my Citi Forward. For me, the best incremental category bonus here is gas stations, since the best I get is 2x on my Ink Bold. I’ll use it for gas, then top it off with drugstore purchases in March. (For Californians, Starbucks is an interesting proposition).

April 1 – June 30: (activate March 15th – June 14th)


Movie Theaters

I don’t spend a lot of time at movie theaters, so I guess restaurants are the way to go. I highly value Ultimate Rewards points, mostly for their partnership with United. My Citi Forward gets 5x Thank You Points at dining, which is worth 5 to 6.65 cents back per dollar, but that will be drawered when Freedom has 5x at restaurants, since Ultimate Rewards points are more flexible. In addition, some restaurants sell gift cards to their own places, including some of my local small-business restaurants.

July 1 – September 30: (activate June 15th – September 14th)

Gas Stations

Theme Parks


Gas stations return for the summer months, and while it might be hard to hit $1500 worth of gas, some places sell gift cards, allowing you to get 5x at other merchants. If you plan a trip to Kohl’s or to a theme park, the Freedom would be a great card to have, since not many cards offer more than 1x.

October 1 – December 31: (activate September 15th – December 31st)

Select department stores (yet to be announced)

Once they announce which department stores it’ll include, it’ll be easier to figure out how to maximize the 5x for this quarter. Again, my Citi Forward already gets 5x ThankYou Points for Amazon, so I might use my Freedom if I’m not going to spend a lot at the department stores listed. Though it is the holiday season, so department stores will be a heavy category for some.

Even if you do not spend a lot at those particular categories, you can always get gift cards for other places. You can get gift cards at gas stations in Q1/Q3, drugstores in Q1, and certain restaurants for their own cards in Q2. One disappointment is that there are no supermarket quarters at all — earlier this year, I was able to easily max out that quarter with gift card purchases.

Lastly, an interesting side-note — I pinged @ChaseSupport on Twitter from my personal account earlier this week to ask about next year’s Freedom 5x categories, and was told to wait a few more days. This morning, I had a DM with a personal message responding to my question a few days prior with the link to the categories. Now that’s how you do social media!

Categories: Chase, Credit Cards, Gift Cards

Get 1.88% cash back on no-fee Amex gift cards

November 24, 2012 2 comments

Note: I would not purchase these gift cards with Citi credit cards (because they might get coded as cash advances) or with Amex credit cards (because it might initiate a financial review).

If you’re not signed up for, feel free to use my referral link (I do get a credit if you make a purchase through BigCrumbs).

Until Monday 11/26/2012, American Express is offering gift cards with no purchase fees, along with free standard shipping (on cards up to $200). In addition, is offering 1.88% cash back on these purchases, up from 1.4% … just do a search for “American Express Gift Card” on the site.

If you are having trouble coming up with minimum spend for a credit card, Amex gift cards are a good way of fixing that problem. By purchasing an Amex gift card, you are “paying forward” your transactions to either meet a deadline for spending or to get points sooner.

If you purchase a card over $200, you can’t do standard shipping, but there are promo codes such as WRAP12P, which will give you free 2-day shipping. However, T&C says that “Cash back is not offered on fee-free promotional codes.” In the end, if you are buying a $200 gift card, you are getting $3.76 cash back; if you buy a $3000 gift card, you earn $56.40 back. I would just go ahead and pay the already-discounted $3 shipping charge, since you come out ahead anyway with less risk.

The points world has fallen in love with prepaid cards and reloads, but those require fees that eat into your points earned. However, they are easier to unload through ATMs and Bill Pay. These Amex gift cards are more tough to unload, but if you can float this amount of money and can see yourself using them as gifts or methods of payments, it’s a good deal for spending on non-Citi/Amex credit cards (except maybe the Chase Ink family of cards, you’re better off purchasing gift cards with fees for 5x at office-supply stores).

STAPLES has a temporary consolation offer for Ink cardholders

November 12, 2012 5 comments

Feeling blue about Office Depot’s decision to stop selling Vanilla Reloads? I know I am. Props to @aegt on Twitter, though, for notifying me this morning about this deal from STAPLES.

Between November 11 (yesterday) and November 24, STAPLES is giving a $15 Staples Gift Card for each $100+ Visa/Mastercard gift card you purchase. The activation fee is $5.95 for $100 gift cards and $6.95 for $200 gift cards. That fee is more than made up with the gift card, which you can turn around to use or sell on sites like Cardpool (though they only take gift cards >;$25 for STAPLES).

As for what you can do with these gift cards, you can use them like you would any prepaid gift card – if you purchase the cards with your Chase Ink Bold/Plus, it’ll still be a “5x somewhere else” solution. Others are opting to liquidate with Payments via Amazon. Me … I still have a Serve account that I didn’t close to get Bluebird, and it just so happens that Visa gift cards (but not Mastercard) play well with Serve as debit cards (as long as you register them with the Gift Card Mall’s website first). It’s free to load up to $200/day and $1000/month until March 15, 2013. I have used Serve to pay others for money I borrowed or owed.

I went to my local STAPLES today (which I have been otherwise neglecting for the Office Depot further down the road lately) and bought three $200 Visa gift cards (the yellow ones) with my Ink Bold — I’m trying to see if buying a $200 Visa will get me a $30 Staples Gift Card and save me some activation fees and grant me access to Cardpool selling if they come as separate gift cards. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try again later with $100 cards. Since my purchase was over $500, I had to do the manager authorization dance, though the clerk realized what I was up to when the rebate form printed. Luckily, these rebates work with, so I’ve already submitted the rebates online.

Edit: Looks like my rebate has already been processed. And that’s a very pleasant surprise 🙂

30 * 3 = 135 for very large values of 30

Edit2: Staples figured it out —

Dear Valued Staples Customer,

We have identified you as one of the consumers who may have visited the
Staples Easy Rebate site to track your rebate. Upon tracking your
submission, you may have noticed that the value of your rebate might
have calculated incorrectly.

Please know that we are working to correct this issue.  When you
receive your Staples gift card in the mail,  it will be loaded with
the correct reward value.

We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

As always, thanks for shopping at Staples.

Staples Rebate Team

Now I’m curious what the “correct” rebate amount is.

Categories: Credit Cards, Gift Cards

Tips and Tricks: Free Experian Score, Avoiding Authorization Charges on Gift Cards, and Boarding with a Frequent Flyer Card

October 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Free Experian Credit Score from US Bank
If you got in on the US Bank FlexPerks Olympics deal, you can get a free Experian Credit Score by logging into your US Bank online account.


What’s great about this is that it’s an Experian score. CreditKarma checks TransUnion, which is useful, but Experian is the most used credit bureau whenever I apply for new cards. You can imagine how ecstatic I was when I saw I had a 768 even after 10 inquiries in the past 2 years! For comparison, my score was a 744 in October 2011 from the same Experian site. Not bad!

US Bank also sent out letters with credit scores if you applied for the card. I got this in order to see where I stood after all my applications, as I won’t be applying for any new credit cards until 2013. I don’t know how long this offer will last, but it would be a great thing to check before your next set of credit card applications.

Avoid temporary authorization charges online
Kudos to gezzuzz at Flyertalk for bringing this my attention.

This really has to do with gift cards or prepaid cards. When you add these cards to your online accounts (on places like, the merchant takes a $1 temporary authorization to validate the card. On a non-credit card, this temporarily reduces your balance by $1, which can make it difficult to cash it out completely.

For example, if I get a $25 Visa gift card and add it to an online payment account, the merchant might take a $1 temporary authorization, making my balance only $24. The authorization can last for as long as a week, meaning I have to wait 7 days to cash out the gift card. It’s really a #FirstWorldProblem more than anything, but with multiple gift cards, this can add up.

One way to try and avoid this is to enter the card with a wrong expiration date. After the card is in the system, go back in to edit it and change the expiration date. In true science nerd fashion, I experimented with 2 gift cards, using one as a control: entering a correct expiration date at first created a $1 test authorization, while entering a wrong one and editing it a minute later did not.

Use a Delta Skymiles card to board
Lucky recently posted about 7 things not to do while flying.

One of the things to not do was to use an e-boarding pass. I have had mixed experiences with e-BPs and so usually have a paper boarding pass with me. However, one trick I learned last year is that many Delta airports will take a Skymiles or Skymiles Medallion card as a boarding document. If the gate machine is the one that scans a ticket barcode, it should be able to read the barcode on the back of your Medallion card. When you scan it, a receipt should print with your flight number and seat assignment.

You still need a BP for security, since those aren’t Delta-specific readers, but many security stations accept e-Boarding Passes as well. I know from experience that these technique works at LAX (I was running late for a flight and had just enough battery life to get through security, then pull out my Gold Medallion card to board).

I’m not sure what other airlines allow this — feel free to comment if you know of another airline that allows this!

Categories: Delta, Gift Cards, US Bank

A Caffeine-Induced Points High

September 7, 2012 14 comments

Tupac once proclaimed that California knows how to party. It also knows how to make points-junkie friendly laws.

According to this chart, California is one of several states that allows consumers to “cash-back” a merchant gift card. Look at the first column for the states and the fifth column for “redeemable for cash” laws. Out of all the states that allow it, California’s law is the most generous — the only stipulation is that each card have a value of less than $10. This means that if you buy a $25 gift card through a portal and spend $18.85, the merchant is obligated to give you $6.15 in cash if you request it.

This law applies to all sorts of merchants, as long as they offer a branded gift card. This excludes American Express, Visa, or other prepaid general transaction gift cards.

Today, I’ll talk about a specific, lucrative example — Starbucks. It’s one of the places I visit at least a couple times a week — it’s a great place for me to sit back, catch up on wi-fi and internet when I’m out and about, and drink some mediocre semi-burnt coffee. What I like a lot about Starbucks is their rewards system – it’s a transactional-based model, where you get a free drink for every 15 “stars” (transactions). Whenever I purchase multiple things, I buy them in separate transactions (usually by realizing right after I buy a coffee that, “OH, I also want a bagel!”). Of course, when the free drink comes in, I tend to do a venti triple shot whatever-the-most-expensive-drink-is redemption. It’s the points-junkie mantra — “earn low, redeem high.”

You can get these rewards by registering a Starbucks gift card to a Starbucks account. Once you reach 30 stars, you’ll get Starbucks Gold status. While you’ll get one gold card, any Starbucks gift card that’s connected to your account will earn Starbucks Stars.

Taking advantage of the law.

First, a disclaimer. The law says that you must have less than $10 on the card. For calculation purposes, I’m going to do a situation where you end up with $9 on the card (because I hate coins).

Let’s say you buy a $50 Starbucks gift card. And let’s say you buy it at an office-supply store, with a Chase Ink card. For a $50 card, you’ll earn 250 Ultimate Rewards points. You only have to spend $41 to get that card to $9, where you can cash out. Thus, for $41 of spend, you’ve earned 250 Ultimate Rewards points, or 6.1 UR/$ at Starbucks. Not bad – Chase Freedom comes close to that if you get 5.1x + 10 points per transaction during this quarter’s restaurant bonus (Starbucks is a qualifying merchant).

It gets better.

Staples recently increased the price of their $50 Starbucks gift cards to $51.99. However, Staples also has a 4x bonus through the Ultimate Rewards Shopping Portal (which is sometimes 5x). For an extra $2, you earn an extra 218 Ultimate Rewards points. Considering that an Ultimate Rewards point is worth at minimum a penny, you’re still coming out at a 18¢ profit on incremental points. Since most people tend to value Ultimate Rewards points closer to 2¢ each due to their partnerships with United and Hyatt, you’re coming out with a $2.36 profit. This is a no-brainer in my book. Spend the extra $2!

Once you spend $41 on that card, you can cash out. For about $43 of spending ($41 on the Starbucks gift card + $2 to Staples), you’ve earned 468 Ultimate rewards points, or 10.9 UR points/$ at Starbucks.

Oh, but it gets even better.

I did this earlier with the Chase Freedom at grocery stores when that earned 5x. I could buy a $15 gift card at a grocery store, spend it down to $9 and cash out. For $6 of spending at Starbucks, I earned 86.5 Ultimate Rewards points (since I got 5x on the $15, an extra 10 points for the transaction, and an extra 1.5 points for the 10% bonus). That came out to 14.4 UR points/$.

In fact, once in a while, I find multi-packs of 3 Starbucks cards for $30 at a local grocery … $10 each! If you have a 5x grocery card and spend $1 on each card, you can cash out for 54.3 UR points/$.

But here is where it gets fun. Once you have a Starbucks account online, you can transfer balances between cards. Since I tend to visit Starbucks anyway, I transfer balances to my card to be just above $10. Once in the store, I purchase an item to bring the balance below $10, then ask to cash out.

The pot’o’gold here is finding Starbucks cards being sold for incredibly low prices. I’ve seen my local grocery store sell single cards for $15, and multiple card packs with $10 gift cards and sometimes $5 gift cards. This is very rare – I’ve only seen these in the wild one or two times. However, this means that if you find eleven $5 gift cards, you can actually transfer money to it from your $50 card and cash out without a single purchase. If you can buy the $5 gift cards on Freedom during a 5x grocery quarter, and the $50 card through the Staples portal, that’s 760 UR points for…. $2? That’s 380 UR points/$! Frequent Miler, I think I may have found a theoretical Perpetual Point Machine. 😉 Of course, this hinges upon finding that elusive $5 gift card.

The trick works if you can find the cheapest gift cards with the best bonus multiplier. I’ve found the $50 gift card with the 9x-10x multiplier. The cards are also sold at many grocery stores at lower prices, meaning they can be used for cards that have bonuses there. I’m currently working on the spend for my US Bank FlexPerks Visa, where I calculated that I need $3425 of 2x spending to get a maximum of $800 of travel, or a 23.3% return. If I buy a $15 gift card at my grocery store, I’ll get about $3.50 worth of points back. However, I can cash out at $9, so I’ll have earned $3.50 worth of points after spending $6 at Starbucks, or a possible 58% return on my cup of coffee.

Should I have shared this?

Well … I came up with this by myself, so it’s not like I’m stealing this from FT or MP. In fact, I shared it on Flyertalk and only a couple people seemed to take any interest in it. Honestly, the only thing that can be abused about this is buying tons of $5 gift cards and loading them up and cashing them out. Buying higher value cards means that you’ll be doing some purchases at Starbucks. Those $5 gift cards can be very rare — I found them at my local store just once, and have found less $10 cards and more $15 and $25 cards lately. Starbucks could take away the ability to transfer gift card balances, but that might upset everybody else who doesn’t do this sort of thing. They could also only sell really high-value gift cards, but that might upset a lot of people, especially during stocking-stuffer season.

I have found that showing up with multiple gift cards and asking to cash them out without a purchase tends to get a manager involved. One manager told me that they are worried about fraud. While you can push them to follow the law, it’s really not worth your time and effort. That’s why I tend to do them one at a time, and only after a small purchase. Besides, I’d rather keep the possibility of this going as long as possible.

Also, I haven’t shared everything about this, as the people who want to go out and try this might find an infrequent loophole in the transactional process that makes it even more lucrative. But that’s not worth blogging about – I’d rather everyone who tries this find this gem on their own.

Lastly, this is an actual law on the books, not something that Starbucks does out of the kindness of their hearts. The corporation was actually sued for $225,000 in California a few years ago for not obeying this law, and many stores have a sign on their windows that spell out that they will cash-out cards under $10. It’d be tough for them to stop doing this.

What I wanted to show from this is that there is no reason why, if you live in the greatest state in the union, you shouldn’t be earning more than 10 UR/$ for your morning cup o’ joe. And for every 15 of them, you should be earning a free one.

Categories: Gift Cards