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Middle Age Miles

MS DPs – Episode 9 – $500 VGC from GiftCards.com

manufactured spend ms dp data point visa gift card vgc GiftCards.com barclays aa aviator business credit card bravo tip or pay app
Visa Gift Card from GiftCards.com (Sunset Cloud design)

In Episode 9 of our Manufactured Spend Data Points (MS DPs) series, we’ll review our purchase of a $500 Visa Gift Card (VGC) that we purchased online from GiftCards.com on August 1.

This was another experiment we’d been looking forward to running. For all of our other experiments to date, we’ve had to go to a store to acquire our GCs. For this experiment, though, we could simply order our GC online from home. The added simplicity is attractive – the less time and effort we have to spend on MS activities, the better. But can we make this effort profitable, or at least useful?

As always, remember that we’re total rookies when it comes to manufactured spend (MS), and we’re sharing experience far more than expertise in this series – including our own mistakes! The trial-and-error process is a huge part of the MS learning experience. Also, remember that we’re exploring online liquidation methods, as we know many people prefer doing this online rather than using methods that require an in-person visit to a store.

Acquisition

As we mentioned, for this experiment we ordered a $500 VGC online from GiftCards.com. We cherry-picked our deal here, ordering through the American AAdvantage e-shopping portal, during a back-to-school promotion period where we would receive bonus miles – in this case, 2,000 AA bonus miles for spending $500 or more:

  • Total purchase price = $508.94
    • GC value = $500
    • Purchase fee = $6.95
    • Shipping fee = $1.99
  • Rewards from cards, offers and/or portals:
    • AA shopping portal, 1x mile/dollar = 507 AA miles
      • Purchase fee counted for the portal but shipping fee did not
      • Worth about $6.34 at our baseline value of 1.25 cents per AA mile
    • AA shopping portal bonus = 2,000 AA miles
      • Worth about $25.00
    • Paid with Barclays AA Aviator Business card earning 1x AA mile/dollar = 509 miles
      • Worth about $6.36
      • We’ll also earn an extra 5% (25 AA miles) on this card if we renew the card next year, but we won’t count those miles for purposes of this analysis

Our AA miles from the portal and bonus have not yet posted, but they seem to have tracked correctly:

In this case, we chose the Barclays AA Aviator Business card for payment because we’re spending on that card toward two bonus thresholds – (1) 3,000 AA Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) when you spend $25,000 in a calendar year, which I will need in order to re-qualify for Executive Platinum status; and (2) an AA companion certificate when you spend $30,000 in your cardholder year (you can read more about these certificates in our article, Everything You Need to Know About Barclays AA Companion Certificates (April 29, 2019)).

We don’t know of any credit card bonus earning categories that would currently be triggered by purchases from GiftCards.com at this time. But for someone in different circumstances, not trying to hit a big-spend threshold on a particular card, it certainly would be possible to earn higher rewards with a different card. You’ll want to do your own math to see what works best.

Turning back to our analysis, here’s our acquisition summary for this $500 VGC:

  • Acquisition Summary:
    • Total cost = $508.94
    • Miles earned = 3,016 AA miles, worth about $37.70
  • VGC characteristics:
    • Variable-load VGC with $500 max load
    • Issuer: MetaBank
      • Note that this was a “Five-Back” card, which has some special characteristics, most notably that it can earn 5% back if you spend the funds with certain participating merchants – see details here
    • Can be registered? Yes
    • Website: www.giftcards.com/activate
    • Card was registered and PIN set prior to any attempted use

Liquidation

It took a while to receive our VGC from GiftCards.com. The timeline was as follows:

  • Thursday, August 1 – Placed order at GiftCards.com
  • Tuesday, August 6 – Received shipment notification email
  • Friday, August 9 – Received VGC in mail

Now, moving on to actual liquidation – Remember that we’re focused on online liquidation methods in this series. It is our understanding that it may be possible to liquidate VGCs from GiftCards.com by purchasing money orders or loading Serve or Bluebird cards, at a lower liquidation cost than what you’ll see here. Your mileage may vary. But those methods require additional trips, time, and localized knowledge, and that’s not what we’re testing at this time.

For starters, we know that we can’t liquidate this MegaBank-issued VGC using Plastiq.

Next, we tried Doxo. We were eventually able to load this VGC successfully to Doxo, although it took a few tries due to receiving an error message that the billing address did not match (we were able to fix this by changing our address to remove the last “+4” digits of the zip code). However, and unfortunately, this VGC was not eligible for fee-free liquidation through DoxoPlus. Instead, it was subject to a fee of $17.50 (3.63%). We canceled the Doxo transaction.

This left us with Bravo as the next-best online liquidation option that we were aware of. In case you haven’t read, we’ve covered Bravo previously in this series, including in Episode 5.

We successfully liquidated the VGC by using Bravo to make a transfer to a “friendly” bank account, like we’ve done with several other cards in this MS DP series.

  • Liquidation method: Bravo
  • Payment: $490.19
  • Fee: $9.81 (2%)

Final Accounting for This Experiment

We acquired and liquidated a $500 gift card for a total cost of $518.75. We acquired 3,016 AA miles, worth about $37.70.

In other words, we purchased 3,016 AA miles for $18.75 – paying 0.62 cents per AA mile. That’s 50% of our baseline value of 1.25 cents per AA mile, so it represents a substantial discount. It’s also a far lower price than AA sells miles at any time. So, we’re happy with this deal – it’s good enough that it can be valuable for people who’d like to purchase AA miles on the cheap.

Extra Value of the Deal for Us Personally

Importantly for our personal situation, we also made progress toward the two big-spend thresholds that we discussed earlier – earning 3,000 EQDs and a companion certificate.

Let’s dig a little deeper to try to quantify how much additional value we got from these pieces:

  • Progress toward earning 3,000 AA EQDs:
    • On the Barclays AA Aviator Business card, it takes $25,000 in spend to earn the 3,000 EQDs. We made about $500 of progress toward the $25k by purchasing this VGC – that is, we covered about 1/50th of the necessary spend.
    • The 3,000 EQDs from this card cover exactly 1/5th of the 15,000 EQDs necessary to achieve Executive Platinum (EXP) status, which is what we want to achieve.
      • For simplicity (and because it’s also true for us), we’re assuming that if we spend 12,000 EQDs, it will necessarily result in us getting the 100,000 EQMs that are also necessary to qualify for Executive Platinum. That way, we can ignore the impact of EQMs for this calculation.
    • We have previously estimated the incremental value of Executive Platinum status above Platinum Pro, to us, at about $3,000.
    • Because the 3,000 EQDs from the Barclays AA Business card cover about 1/5th of reaching EXP, they’re worth about $3000 * 1/5 = $600. Then, because this $500 in spend covers 1/50th of the necessary spend, this spend is worth about $600 * 1/50 = $12
  • Progress toward one-person companion certificate:
    • On the Barclays AA Aviator Business card, it takes $30,000 in spend to earn the companion certificate. We made about $500 of progress toward the $30k by purchasing this VGC – that is, we covered about 1/60th of the necessary spend.
      • Note that, to receive the companion certificate, we also have to renew our card. This usually means paying the annual fee. This year, we received a retention offer of a $95 statement credit to offset the annual fee, and we don’t think that’s uncommon. In hopes that our annual fee is zero – or that we would have paid the $95 annual fee to keep the card irrespective of the companion certificate – we’re going to ignore the annual fee for purposes of this calculation.
    • A reasonable estimate of the value of the one-person companion certificate is $300.
    • Because this $500 in spend covers 1/60th of the $300 estimated value of the companion certificate, this spend is worth $300 * 1/60 = $5

Thus, using our best-estimate quantification methods, the purchase of this VGC earned us a total of about $17 in additional benefits.

And if we add this $17 to the $37.70 baseline value of the AA miles we earned on this transaction, we can say that our benefits are valued at about $54.70. That’s not bad, for an investment of $18.75.

Remember, of course, that this is analysis is specific to us. It would also apply to anyone using the Barclays AA Aviator Business card to generate 3,000 EQDs for Executive Platinum status plus a companion certificate – but that’s probably a very narrow subset of readers! That’s why we separated the credit card benefits out into a separate section of this article. Remember to do the analysis based on your own personal circumstances.

Thinking About GiftCards.com VGC Deals More Generally

Obviously, we cherry-picked our deal here, using the AA e-shopping portal and its back-to-school bonus miles offer to maximize our benefits. What about purchasing VGCs from GiftCards.com more generally? Is it worth it?

For this exercise, we’ll assume that you’d purchase multiple VGCs instead of just one, to cut down on the per-card cost of shipping. Let’s assume a purchase of 10 $500 VGCs at a time. Total fees on that purchase would be $6.95 per card for a total of $69.50, plus $1.99 in shipping, for a grand total of $71.49. Liquidation fees using Bravo (the best online liquidation method for this type of GC of which we’re aware) would be $9.81 each, or $98.10 total. Thus, all-in fees would come to $169.59.

In the ordinary course, the highest-value portal to use for GiftCards.com would probably be to go through Ebates/Rakuten at 1%, with an MR-earning account, to earn 1x MR point per dollar. Then, on the credit card side, best-case scenario would be to use an Ebates Visa card for 3x MR earnings per dollar. (We, of course, haven’t been able to get approved for the Ebates Visa card!) In the 10-card scenario, you’d earn 5,069 MR points from the portal, plus 15,213 MR points on the Ebates Visa card, for a total of 20,282 MR points. At our baseline value of 1.5 cents per MR point, you’d be receiving about $304.23 in value. That’s a fair bit greater than our costs, so this could be an attractive proposition for some people. Another way to look at it is that you’d be “purchasing” the 20,282 MR points for 0.84 cents per point.

That’s an ok result, but not by a lot. Replace the Ebates Visa with any other card and the math gets worse. With the Amex Blue Business Plus card, you’d earn 10,142 MR points worth $152.13, for a total value (including portal earnings) of 15,211 MR points / $228.16 (“purchasing” the MR points for 1.11 cents per point. And that’s if Amex actually awards you MR points and doesn’t shut you down over time. It’s hardly a recipe for riches.

From this analysis, our main takeaway is that if you’re going to do this kind of volume with VGCs from GiftCards.com, you’re probably going to have to forego easy online liquidation and liquidate at lower cost through MOs, Serve/Bluebird/GoBank loads, or the like. The MS whales know how to do this – and it’s far beyond the subject matter of this series or our expertise!

A Few Other Notes on This Experiment and GiftCards.com

At the same time we purchased the VGC from GiftCards.com that we discussed in this episode, we also purchased a $500 MCGC. We haven’t completed the cycle on that card yet. We’ll report back if and when we learn more on the MCGC front.

On our MCGC purchase, we went through the Alaska e-shopping portal to pick up its bonus offer of 1,500 AS miles with $500 in spend, plus earn 0.5 AS miles per dollar. Although our baseline value of AS miles (1.5 cents per mile) is a bit higher than our baseline value of AA miles (1.25 cents per mile), the smaller number of AS miles earned makes it a slightly less valuable deal compared to AA.

There’s also a useful United back-to-school e-shopping portal offer that includes a bonus of 2,500 UA miles for $600 in spend. Note that you’ll have to order 2 gift cards (and pay 2 fees) to collect on this UA bonus if it’s your only UA e-shopping portal spend.

The AA and UA back-to-school portal offers are still available, until 8/18/2019, so you can still cherry-pick those deals if you’d like. (Unfortunately, the AS deal ended a couple of days ago.)


We hope you’ve enjoyed Episode 9 of our MS DPs series. It’s a decent deal, using the portal bonus offers, and it’s been interesting to analyze how GiftCards.com opportunities might scale. Please feel free to comment on our efforts!


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