A Field Guide to Manufactured Spending

Credit for much of what I know about this topic goes to the author of a new blog, Smart Travel Hacking. I highly encourage you to read his guide on How to Manufacture Spend Safely in conjunction with this article, in order to develop a comprehensive grasp of the current state of play in MS.


Manufactured spending (MS) is a delicate game. If done incorrectly, it can be a huge waste of your resources and can tie up your money for a long, long time. On the other hand, if done correctly, it can earn you millions of points a year, funding luxury trip after luxury trip, to the extent that you never even need to think about points anymore – you’ll know you have more than enough points to go wherever you want, whenever you want.

Think about how the practice of cycling through credit card signup bonuses far outstrips the average person’s behaviour of earning points from regular spending. Well, MS is to signup bonuses, as signup bonuses are to earning points via regular spending. It’s simply a different order of magnitude.

I always encourage people to learn about MS methods through in-person meetups, like the one I hosted in Toronto last year, because it’s a lot easier to build trust with fellow participants in settings like this.

Today, though, I wanted to gather together some of the most useful general insights I’ve gleaned over many years of earning points via MS, so that when you do have a method you’re ready to deploy, you’re able to do so as effectively as possible.

This is a continuation of my Mileage Mindset pieces on MS, and it’s a rather advanced article for those of you who are ready to make the leap to the next stage of earning points. I encourage everyone to go at their own pace, so if you’re still trying to get comfortable with cycling through signup bonuses, it may be worthwhile to buckle down and optimize your game in that particular corner for now.


1. Just Do It

As I’ve previously mentioned, MS isn’t for everyone. It’s inherently exploitative and lays the burden of your free travel on some third party, so you must first be comfortable with the ethics of “getting something at the expense of someone else”. (If you’re already churning credit cards, I think it’s safe to assume that you fit the bill.)

Once that particular hurdle has been overcome, there remains that sketchiness feeling – you know what I’m talking about. I don’t think anyone can deny that doing things like loading prepaid apps, withdrawing thousands of dollars from ATMs, and overpaying your bills and asking for a refund just looks and smells a little sketchy at first glance.

You have to be comfortable with that feeling, and recognizing that what you’re doing boils down to moving your own money around, which anyone is of course well within their rights to do.

Next, a prudent step is to evaluate the risk involved. Remember that if you follow the steps outlined in this article, there’s very little real risk of you losing any money – there’s an endless number of things out there you could do with your money that would put your financial well-being at greater risk. At worst, though, you’ll get some of your money tied up for a while, so you need to evaluate your comfort with that. To be safe, don’t MS with more money than you can float for, say, a three-month period!

From there, the only remaining step is to take action and just go out there and give your proposed MS method a try. I know all too many people who know about MS methods but, for one reason or another, hesitate to carry them out. If it’s because you have more lucrative pursuits that you’d rather spend time on, that’s fair enough. But otherwise you’d better get started, because if you don’t, you’ll never be able to...


2. Look for Opportunities to Scale

Scaling up is the most important stage in the life-cycle of any MS method. Sure, back in the heyday of the AC Conversion Card, earning 2,000 points per day was one hell of a deal... but if you scaled up to 5+ cards, that earning power became truly scary.

When looking for ways to scale, you need to:

  1. Figure out the limitation of the MS opportunity; and
  2. Figure out how to get around that limitation
 
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For example, with AC Conversion, each individual was limited to one card, and attempts to get multiple cards for each person would result in additional cards getting shut down. So the only way to scale up was to get family and friends to order their own cards.

And remember that inherent sketchiness feeling that people have with regards to MS? That meant that sometimes the only way to entice family and friends to get cards for you was to offer them money in exchange.

Most MS methods out there follow a similar path. The limitation often takes the form of only being able to generate X amount of points within a Y period, and the way around that limitation is usually to get more accounts. And once you get the hang of it with one MS method, it gets a lot easier to apply the same lessons to future methods as well.


3. Keep Detailed Records

The practice of churning credit cards requires solid organizational skills, but MS takes record-keeping to a different level.

You have to track the money you spend, reconciling what flows into your MS method with the charges that appear on your credit card statement.

You have to track the money you get back, ensuring that it matches your expectation and that you haven’t “lost” money somewhere along the way to, say, a malfunctioning ATM or a glitchy app.

And you have to track the fees that you incur as you MS, since these can add up quickly (even as your points balances grow at an even faster rate).

What’s more, there are challenges along each step of the way. Credit card charges often take quite a few days to change from “pending” to “posted”, and in this time it can be exceedingly difficult to tell which charge is which, especially if you have dozens upon dozens of transactions.

And things don’t always go perfectly – I remember AC Conversion once had an ordeal where declined attempts to load the card were still getting charged to credit cards. This required a three-way conference call with AC Conversion and the credit card’s chargeback department to resolve. If you weren’t keeping meticulous records, you could’ve easily missed this and found yourself short thousands of dollars a few months later.

If you’re looking to MS at an advanced level, it’s definitely worthwhile to sharpen up those Excel skills, so that you don’t find yourself frantically trying to resolve some nasty surprises.


4. Know When to Be Transparent...

Earning points via MS often involves some level of human interaction. For example, no one wants to spend half an hour depositing tens of thousands of dollars in cash at the ATM, so it’ll usually save you time by going to the teller. After a few trips to the bank, the tellers just might ask you what on God’s green earth you’re doing depositing so much money so frequently.

Banks are well within their rights to audit suspicious activity, and MS activity unfortunately looks an awful lot like money laundering from a compliance officer’s perspective. You’re a lot more likely to draw suspicion if you act twitchy and standoffish when interacting with your tellers, so I’ve found that the best practice is to be open and transparent in your dealings with your bank.

 
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An answer like “I’m moving money around in order to earn credit card points” is usually fine, and in some cases might pique the teller’s interest enough to get them interested in the game (or even to use your referral link!) After all, as long as the bank is comfortable that the money is yours, they have no reason to go poking around.

Side note here: Banks reserve the right to “exit” customers at any time, for any reason (i.e., shut down all your accounts and stop doing business with you). It may be prudent to carry out your MS chequing activity and your regular banking with separate banks, in case your MS activity comes to the attention of a compliance officer with an itchy trigger finger.


5. ...and When to Have a Cover Story

On the other hand, if the party asking you questions might play a role in getting the MS method shut down, then it might be helpful to have a cover story at hand.

An example that comes to mind is back when the good folks over at AC Conversion were curious why so many people were loading and withdrawing $2,000 per day on their cards. The cover story of “yeah we’re just trying to see how the card works”, vague and unconvincing as it was, proved enough to keep them at bay for another six months or so before they cracked down.

Often times, when low-level customer service representatives and supervisors see something suspicious, they’re only obligated to ask the question and document the reason. It’s not until senior management gets involved that a shutdown would be on the cards. Use this to your advantage by having a cover story on hand – it doesn’t really matter what it is – and knowing when to deploy it.

Lastly, I’d advise to be nice to all the people who play a part in your MS, and try your best to build camaraderie with people you repeatedly interact with. A smile on your face makes a big difference, and having people "on your side" makes your life tremendously easier.


6. Be Wise to the Cost of MS

MS isn’t free. With certain MS methods, you’re paying a certain amount of money out-of-pocket in order to receive a return that’s worth far more. With others (such as AC Conversion or Tilt), you don’t pay anything out-of-pocket, but there’s still an opportunity cost.

As I’ve mentioned before, things almost never go perfectly in this game. Sooner or later, something happens that prevents you from getting your money back immediately, and the time it takes to resolve the issue can range from a few days to a few months.

For example, I once tried to use the Paytm app to overpay a biller and ask the biller directly for a refund cheque – one of the most common and adaptable MS methods around. However, when I asked the biller for a refund, they were wise to what I was doing and were, unsurprisingly, quite unhappy about it. They told me to take it up with Paytm to get my money back, and the entire process took over two months before I saw my money back in my account.

If I had invested that money instead, it could’ve earned a very decent return in those intervening months. So it’s important to keep in mind your opportunity costs and to make sure that you’re comfortable with them.

(Hilariously, Paytm sent out the following email a few months later, presumably after all too many people tried doing the same thing.)

 
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Another example pertains to MS methods that involve withdrawing and depositing money at ATMs. When you visit the ATM so often, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into one that malfunctions and does one of the following:

  1. The ATM eats your card, meaning you have to order a replacement
  2. The ATM dispenses less money than you withdrew, but still debits the correct amount from your account, leaving you short
  3. The ATM eats your money when you’re trying to deposit it into your bank account, leaving you short

The above situations all create interruptions in your MS routine, and in cases 2) and 3) it can often take months to file a dispute with the card issuer and/or the ATM operator and get your money back.

Not seeing your money for months at a time can certainly be a stressful experience, which is why it’s best to go in with a healthy mindset that things can and will go wrong, and that’s okay because you’ll get your money back and the points that you earn will render the opportunity costs worthwhile.


Conclusion

MS is an advanced and sometimes black-hat subtopic within the world of travel rewards. You won’t find MS methods discussed in public, though I hope that the guidance in this article helps you succeed with any MS method you do encounter.

While credit card companies can choose to enforce once-in-a-lifetime limits on signup bonuses at any moment, MS will always exist, because corporate inefficiencies will always exist. That’s why it’s important to get in the right mindset if you’re serious about using points to fund extravagant travels in the long-term.