Blogging Manufactured Spending

Is Manufactured Spending a Waste of Time?

After yesterday’s post about my productive week of manufactured spending, I received a lot of questions from people about how I spend my points and miles and whether I even need to earn that many to begin with. To be clear, I don’t usually generate this much spend in a typical week. It’s only in the last 2-3 months that I’ve increased my numbers to this level. Prior to that, the highest number of gift cards I churned in a week was probably $23,500. When I took my family to Asia last summer, half the miles were earned from credit card sign-up bonuses and the majority of the miles I did earn through gift card churning were earned when it was possible to off-set the fees completely thanks to shopping portal cash back offers on Amex gift cards.

Earn bonus miles, elite status, and companion passes on your credit card spending through the end of the year!

Over the past few months I’ve come up with an efficient route, a Simon Mall location that’s ms friendly, and some great cash back portal offers that off-set most or all of the fees associated with manufactured spending. All of this has made gift card churning much less time consuming, allowing me to increase my numbers substantially. Noticeably absent from my posts lately are any trip reports. So what do I do with all the miles I earn and am I wasting my time with this hobby? For the most part, I save my miles up for one big family trip every year. As well as the occasional weekend getaway and an emergency fund. That being said, the majority of my miles are spent on trips for family members. 

Last month, my aunt passed away in Toronto. My parents flew out the next day and I was able to cover their roundtrip airfare with just 25,000 miles. I flew out a few days later and my roundtrip fare came to 37,500 miles. That’s almost 90,000 airline miles used for a single trip! It was worth it, considering our return flight was right after NBA All-Star weekend and fares were $800 roundtrip. Over the past two years, there have been several family emergencies like this. I’ve been able to book my parents on the next flight without having to worry about the exorbitant cost of last minute airfare. The fact that the international flights were almost always in premium cabins was also a plus because it made their travel experience more comfortable during stressful times. 

There have been happier times as well: Engagement parties and weddings around the world that I was able to fly my parents to at a fraction of the cost. When my brother decided to spend his spring break volunteering in Managua, he didn’t have to spend over $1,000 on airfare like his friends did. When my sister wanted to visit family in London in the middle of summer, she didn’t have to save up for the trip like most teenagers would do. As a kid, my parents took us all over Europe and the U.S., always focused on making sure we had fun (even when we’d go to Vegas). I always wanted to be in a position to repay them for it and this hobby has made that possible.

After an incredible trip to Sydney in 2013, where I met most of my dad’s family for the first time (who gave me a warm welcome and threw me a huge birthday bash), I was able to repay their hospitality just a little bit by flying my aunt and uncle to the U.S. During the trip, my great aunt passed away and my uncle found solace in the fact that he got to reunite with her after 30+ years. And when my younger cousin turned 18, I was able to book her a room at the Park Hyatt Sydney for a slumber party and a day in the city with her friends.

All of this amounts to millions of points and miles spent (and thousands of dollars saved). The luxury hotel stays and international flights would have put a dent in my wallet that Suze Orman would not have approved of. And yes, I could have just let everyone pay for their own travel and instead used the miles to continuously fly around the world in style (and trust me, I’ve been tempted to do just that). However, I get just as much joy out of redeeming miles for my family. If that means I get to take fewer first class trips by myself, I’m fine with that.

Ironically enough, I wasn’t able to do any of this back when I worked 40+ hours a week. Now I’m in a position where I can support myself on a 5-hour work week as a freelance writer while also earning miles to travel when I want. I get to sleep past 6 AM (a luxury I’d hopelessly wished for when my alarm would buzz at this ungodly hour every weekday). I can spend as much time with my family as I want. And I can read and binge watch tv shows to my heart’s content. Do think about my career? Yes, and I’m taking steps to move ahead on that front because I want what I do for a living to matter on a greater level. But this hobby has given me the freedom to be picky about which path to pursue, without sacrificing quality of life.

So is spending 5-10 hours a week on manufactured spending a waste of time? No. While I may not use all the miles I earn, I do redeem them for people I care about. Plus, it’s fun and more productive than collecting bobblehead dolls.

As a reformed wokaholic, I realize that working constantly isn’t everything. I missed out on some important experiences as a consequence of putting work ahead of everything. Now I know better. So when someone tells me I’d be better off channeling my spare time towards learning a new skill, working a second job, or starting a business, I see those as valid suggestions. While I do spend some of my time doing those things, it’s all about achieving balance. It’s not healthy to spend all your time working. And it’s not healthy to spend all your time churning gift cards or traveling. I’d like to think I’ve achieved a healthy balance.

Life is about more than being endlessly productive. Been there, done that, and I’ve got the premature gray hairs and frown lines to prove it. As my sister always says, “Work smart, not hard”. I’m living by this mantra and it has worked well for me so far.

This post is a departure from my usual ice cold tone (and maybe a bit too personal). But I wanted to share my thoughts honestly on a topic that I’m frequently asked about. I’d love your feedback as well. How much time and effort do you spend on manufactured spending, and do you consider it a waste of time?

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  1. Stanley miller

    I presume most of the gift cards were transferred to money orders for deposit

    • Yes. Though I did use a few for direct payments to the bank branch (i.e. Ink Plus) so I could use that credit line for more ms.

      • Even at your lower levels of monthly MS (say $10K-$20K, not the $38K binge), that’s a lot of money orders to be depositing. How do you handle that without your bank(s) starting to look at you sideways and having AML concerns? Given the death of BB/Serve, that’s a pretty big concern I think a lot of folks have in a new way, because of the shift towards using MOs. I’m not innately worried about the IRS learning about a $10K+ transaction – or many of them – because the MS activity is perfectly legal. But I do not want Chase or whoever else to think there is nefarious activity and close my accounts. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks for all your insights in the blog.

        • It’s only been a few months since I’ve increased my ms to this level, so time will tell if my appraoch works. At the moment, I have a secondary WF account I’m depositing most of the mo’s into and if that gets shut down, it doesn’t really affect my banking activities (nor my card churning plans). I do occasionally use an mo to pay off credit cards in-branch (Chase, Bofa, sometimes Citi) so I can keep ms’ing with those cards efficiently. That being said, I’m trying to keep it to a minimum since it’s been reported that paying with mo’s can get you shut down as well.

  2. Great thing and don’t let othr people judge your level of happiness!!

    I am a non USA resident and just got approved for a BOFA Travel Creditcard. So I can start testing this hobby and hopefully build up a credit)history.

    Some practical questions :

    1) Do you need a Social security number in USA to build credit-history. I got the card without the social security number
    2) Do the grocery gift-cards ( are they genuine visa/MC cards or just local branch cards also be able to transfer it to money order. Or just the visa/mc ones?
    3) Can you change an E-gift visa into a Money Order? Problem I have is that I do not have a permanent address in USA, so I would do some pleasure trips into USA to visit, have vacation and spent some hours playing the system 😉
    4) Can the grocery shops GC being loaded into an app that loads all creditcards?
    5) Can the E-visa bein loaded into an app that loads all creditcards?

    I will explain 4+5. In Europe there is a super card coming out late March. It is called Curve. There you have 1 physical Mastercard. ANd you can load into the app, all kind of creditcards. In the app you can then design which app you will use to pay a bill. In theory you can load XXX cards into the app, and just carry the card with you. That would make it for us Europeans great if we could load some e-visas.

    If people in USA want this card, I can buy them and bring it or ship it to them. As for the moment only available in Europe. It can also load Amex into the Mastercard and you get also cash-withdrawals for free ( limited!! )

    This is the link with info of this card :

    This is my referral link : ( Please take it away if not adequate posting! )

    Thank you. An European guy looking yealously to my American Hobbyist and their millions of miles 😉

    • Unfortunately I don’t know enough about how the process works for folks without SSN’s. Glad to hear it worked out for you though. To answer your other questions:

      2) You can only use Visa/MC gift cards to buy money orders. Grocery brand cards would not work for this.

      3) You need a physical card for money order purchases, so unfortunately you cannot use a e-gift visa. But while you’re here, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding a place to buy Visa gift cards.

      4) The GoWallet app lets you store all your gift cards in one place, but this is an extra step that can be time consuming (and unnecessary) if you’re doing large numbers of card purchases.

      5) There are apps here similar to Curve, like Coin.

      • Thanks for the answers.

        Curve is a physical mastercard with an app to choose the card you want to use. Is Gowallet also somthing like that? The website cannot connect to the database.

        What is con? You have a website for it?

  3. Totally agree! I would say over half of my miles are typically flights or hotels I get for family members. Either emergency flights or just ones I know they are not in the position to pay for but really need. I always keep a stash of miles available for emergency flights..enough for us to get anywhere in the country within hours. If a business flight drops my miles below my “emergency stash minimum balance” then I will take coach…half the enjoyment of doing the whole miles thing is the freedom it provides…even if you don’t constantly use that freedom…knowing it is there makes it worth it!

  4. hollyatclubthrifty


    I love how you are willing to spend points and miles on your parents and family! That’s what it’s all about, in my opinion. My parents won’t go too far from home, but I’ve managed to take them to the Caribbean a few times on miles – and we’re all going twice again this year. Those trips are priceless, and it’s totally worth the hassle to make them happen!

    I hardly ever MS. With two kids and a 40+ hour work week, I just don’t have time. I feel like I can’t even keep groceries in this house, let alone buy and unload gift cards!

    But my younger (pre-kid) self probably would have been all over it!

    At the end of the day, it’s your life! It does sound like you have a life you’re happy with and a healthy balance over all.

  5. “This post is a departure from my usual ice cold tone…”
    Here, I’ll help. To the person that asked if it’s a waste of time: Yes, for you it is. Because you obviously lack the ability to see the forest through the trees.

  6. ^Can someone explain why the letter “eye” is missing from all of the comments?

  7. Thanks for the detailed post on my sing the miles. I’d still love an answer to my question yesterday. What do the miles cost? I read these blogs and I would love to know what 45,000 miles ends up costing. I know what I can use them for and the value of a flight.

    • Wow so many iPad typo autocorrects! Sorry. I really am curious about the value you receive in buying miles this way. I keep doing the math and am trying to decide if I want to ramp up.

    • Sorry Pam. A few people asked that question and I must have missed yours. Normally, 45k miles would cost around $370 to buy and liquidate. I’ve managed to lower most of my expenses by buying Visas from during cash back promotions. At Simon Mall, I spend $18,000 on two Barclay Arrival cards. This earned me around $360 worth of travel cash and cost me about $154 to liquidate. The great thing about this is that a family member recently agreed to charge $900 worth of airfare on these cards, so I’ll be able to redeem those miles at a profit (though I’m waiting for one last purchase round before I that).

      On one occasion, my Arrival card got declined, so I had to use my SPG card, which earned me 9,500 points and will ultimately cost around $82 in purchase and liquidating fees. When I transfer these points to miles (and factor in the 5k bonus on 20k transfers), 9,500 points will equal 11,875 airline miles (1.25 miles per $1 spent). These points will get me way more value than the $82 spent, but on the other hand the cost was largely off-set by the “cash back” profit I earned through the Arrival card.

      • Whoa! $370 for 45k miles!? That’s REALLY expensive! Maybe you’re new to MS’ing? I can get that many miles for less than $100. You obviously are not utilizing cards with bonus categories. I would recommend evaluating what cards you’re using and think about mixing up your spending habits. Barclaycard Arrivals? LOL those are sooo 2014.

        • $370 is how much it would normally cost without cash back portals and other discounts, not how much I spent. Might want to read the remaining paragraph. Arrival gets you a solid 2.1 return. It’s not 5%, but you have to ms with more than one card.

  8. Since it looks like most of your MS is for the future often unplanned trips, I wonder – how do you determine which cards (which airlines/hotels) to put your MS on? If the trips are unplanned, you can’t really know for sure. So – when doing it like that, speculatively – do you have preferred cards you do MS on? Or you use them equally?
    I also do some of MS for the future travel, and I am always torn – which card to use the most. Hope to hear from you – either here or in some future post – the reasoning of where MS should go if there is no specific redemption in mind.

    • Good question. In general, I try to keep at least 50k miles across my Alaska, United/UR, and Alaska accounts. Usually, I manage to have more than that. On the rare occasion when I don’t have the miles or hotel points for a particular award, I simply charge it to my Arrival card, which buys me 120 days to come up with the miles needed. Luckily, I haven’t had to do this much (other than the occasional hotel booking), so it hasn’t been a problem thus far.

  9. Feroz Khan

    Hi Ariana,

    I loved your last post and since you asked for comments, here I am. I had wanted to send comments before but your life sounded so busy I felt you may not have the time to read them.

    I read your column religiously and have a folder in which I save each one. I know they are on your website but I would rather have my own stash of the information so I never lose them.

    Each time I read what you write, it motivates me to follow your routine but I don’t do it. The reason is lack of courage. What if something went wrong? What if I got stuck with loads of gift cards? What if they stopped issuing money orders at Walmart? and on and on and on. Also, the amounts you talk about are large sums of money for me.

    I did do what you started doing earlier in life. I got myself credit cards and with signup bonuses and took a flight to my homeland, Karachi, Pakistan. I sat in Business Class for the first time in my life and loved the idea of lying flat on an airplane seat. Should have gone to sleep but was enjoying the feeling so much, I didn’t sleep much.

    Just thought I would write two words because you requested them. Some day when I have the guts you have, I may follow your routine. Reading your posts encourages me as they tell me there are always solutions. I am retired and have all the time in the world. Four years ago my wife passed away and it has made me a lonely person. Travel is a welcome change from the environment where I am constantly reminded of my departed love. When I am not traveling I am writing short stories about my life, making watercolor paintings and playing old songs on my flute.

    Not wanting to get too mushy and personal, I will stop. Would love to hear from you.

    • Thanks for sharing, Feroz. Very sorry to hear about your wife but glad to know travel has helped you deal with the loss. I find being around family during difficult times helps tremendously, and it’s great that you were able to do that with the help of points and miles.

  10. You go, girl! This post is my favorite one ever!!!!! Thank you for sharing with us. VERY inspiring!

  11. MS is never a waste of time if you love the end result. My wife and I love to travel, so I love to collect points. Points and miles programs are always devaluing, so you can never have enough.

  12. Wow, I just noticed that all the “i’s on my last post disappeared. What’s up with that?

  13. It’s on all your posts! Lol!

  14. MS isn’t a waste of time if it works for you, but lots of people would consider it as a shady method since it mostly works when lazy employees don’t do their jobs properly. If Walmart, Serve/Bluebird, and other options welcomed paying for money orders or loading their prepaid card with visa gift cards, then basically everyone would consider it completely ethical.

    To me on an ethical level, MS would be akin to someone buying expensive items such as dress and gowns to wear for holiday parties or top of the line digital camera before a vacation with the intention to return it as soon as possible for a full refund.

    People will have different opinions whether MS is ethical or a waste of time, but this being the political season, I’ll bet the press would have a field day if they found out if any of the presidential candidates engaged in manufactured spending.

    • I agree, it is borderline shady. However, the reason WM is banning gift cards is because they associate that with money laundering (credit card thieves getting a hold of someone’s card and then “cashing out” by purchasing gift cards and then mo’s). We’re not doing that, so ultimately it’s not harmful to WM. But I do understand people who aren’t quite as comfortable with that as I am.

  15. 5 hr work week? I wish I have that freedom! For some reason I kept thinking that you are taking time off to study for grad school, and doing MS to get out of the studying routine.

    • I’m really lucky that I can make a living from a few writing assignments per week (largely thanks to FTG). I do want to go to grad school but have been putting that off so I can better prepare myself to be a competitive candidate. I’ve got lots of stuff I’m working on now, and if some of it doesn’t pan out, I’ll be applying for grad school in the fall.

  16. What a wonderful compliment to you and your family. Its so refreshing to find someone so selfless. I too am very family oriented and get a lot of pleasure out of doing things for them and to help them. I believe it shows in your blog as well (not cold). You are always very good to answer comments and explain further if needed. That’s rare these days!!! Thank you for all the times you have made it understandable for me 🙂

  17. I wish I had the guts to do that volume of spend! In about 2 months I would have most of my needs for the year completed. 🙂 But my envy aside – thanks for this post. I enjoy getting to hear the personal side in addition to how helpful you’ve always been with how to get things done.

  18. Robert Szabo

    Sorry guys, I’m new to MS and also to this blog,but i like it! It is the only blog that I know of, that gives people straight information about MS.
    I do have a question:
    I ordered an Amex Serve card and waiting to arrive in the mail. When it comes to MS, what can I use this card/account for?

  19. How do you manage to easily transfer miles to your family? I was under the impression that transferring miles is discouraged or even impossible with many programs.

    • I actually just get credit cards for the adults in my family, sign myself as an authorized user, and spend the required amount to earn the sign-up bonus and any other miles they might need. My younger sister doesn’t have a credit card yet, so I just earn extra miles on my account to cover her travel expenses.

  20. I always love your posts, but this one was especially great.

  21. I really admire that you are willing/helping to spend points and miles on your family. Ever since my BB “dies,” I have not been to WMT for months. I just earn points the hard way by using the CCs to pay/buy things that are needed 🙂 It took me several years to get my MSEE while working full time. So for graduate school, please start as soon as you can and it would go by quickly. Thanks.

  22. I’ve recently tried 10 or 11 WM stores in various parts of southern & central Calif.–all either had out-of-order Moneycenter ATMs or none at all in place. Today I FINALLY found a Moneycenter in a WM Neighborhood Market with a SHORT line ahead of me, and a youngish cashier who let me put $150 on my BB card using a giftcard and did not ask to see the card. Filled with optimism, I went next door to the gigantic regular WM store where I found what appeared to be a working Moneycenter ATM! But dang, I got a error message when trying to load the BB card using a GC.
    My only reliable success with MS has been buying MO’s at one of my local grocery stores that accepts “debit cards” for MO purchases. But even then, when I’ve taken the MO (a SMALL amount, between $150 to $450). into a Chase bank to pay down a Chase credit card, I’ve had bank tellers let me know that I could be paying the credit card online. Yeah, like, duh…? I’m completely petrified about trying to load the BB card at a WM cash register with another million customers behind me. So I’m thinking I’ll just shut down my BB account and keep soldiering on with the small MO purchases. Thanks for listening and for your insights (I’m a bit jealous of how much $ you are able to MS, but it does serve to inspire and educate us).

  23. Great post Ariana, I’m a regular reader and fellow (smaller scaler) MS’er. I got into this a few years ago and since then have used miles for me and my family to make several trips to India in business class. Is there a better use for my miles and could I have done more ‘free’ trips in coach? Probably but like your post says, it’s what it’s worth to you that makes this hobby worth it. I had gotten a bit lazy in my MS’ing as of late and don’t have a Simon Mall in my area. I bought GC from Staples online using my Ink cards and cycled through Kate – I had virtually no human interaction and it was pretty awesome. But all 7(!) of my BB got shutdown, 5 the first time and 2 earlier this month. My question is this: are MO and signup bonuses (which are rarer now since there is a once per lifetime on AMEX) the best use of my time? I love UR points as they are the most versatile for my travel needs… Thanks for all the wonderful advice and your interesting posts

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