Why Do Points Enthusiasts Go Crazy Over Gift Cards?

by joeheg

If you read other websites that talk about points and miles, you’ll see articles about purchasing gift cards, and you might wonder, “Why? What’s the purpose of using a credit card to buy gift cards?”

Before we get started, know that people who are really into the game will talk endlessly about gift cards. This isn’t that type of article. Nothing I’m going to include will make you think, “Should I do that?” However, there are a few basics you need to understand.

Types of gift cards

The first things you need to know are the different types of gift cards.

First is the one most people are familiar with – store gift cards. Most stores sell their own gift cards but many also sell cards for other merchants, otherwise called third-party gift cards. These are the cards for Amazon.com, Panera Bread, Olive Garden, Netflix, or any other card you might pay $15 – $250 for, when you want to give a gift to someone but don’t really want to put much time into thinking about what to buy.

There’s another type of gift card that doesn’t have any requirement on where to spend it. This type of gift card is usually a Visa or American Express gift card that allows you to load an amount that can be spent anywhere the card is accepted. These gift cards are useful when you’re not sure what to get someone, but you can’t give them cash. Since these gift cards aren’t limited to any particular merchant, the card company usually adds a few dollars as an activation fee, which means that a $100 card will cost $103.99 to purchase ($100 + $3.99 activation fee).

The last type of card mentioned is a reloadable card. Those fall outside the scope of this article.

Now that we know the types of cards, why would you go out and buy gift cards to use for yourself?

Maximize bonus categories

When you walk through the supermarket, you’ll walk past a wall of gift cards for every type of store imaginable. Restaurants, gas stations, department stores, online stores, hotels, airlines, and spa treatments all have gift cards. While the primary purpose is for people looking for a quick gift, it’s also a way for people looking for extra credit card points to maximize their spending.

Say you need to get some new sneakers. No matter how much you usually spend on sneakers, you can get gift cards for Famous Footwear and Foot Locker at your local supermarket.

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You might only earn 1 to 2 points for purchases at either of these stores, but if you purchase a gift card with a card that maximizes spending at supermarkets, you can earn 4 or 5 points per dollar. You can also take advantage of any card that has rotating spending categories, like the Chase Freedom Flex.

You’re not limited to grocery stores. When you start looking around, you see there are plenty of places that sell gift cards. Drug stores, gas stations, home improvement stores and office supply stores all have large gift card racks (I know you were waiting for that one). Just find a card that pays a good bonus for that store and get a few cards for places you usually shop but don’t earn many points for your purchases.

Gift card sales

Some companies will often put gift cards on sale. This may be through a website selling gift cards like eBay or Gyft or right from their own website or stores. You’ll also see specials around the holidays that will include a “bonus” gift card with purchase. These offers are instant money back for you, and I’m always a fan of paying less. Just don’t spend money you either don’t have or buy gift cards for things you won’t use in a reasonable time. You don’t want to be sitting around a year later wondering when you’ll be going to Buffalo Wild Wings again.

Office supply stores

Most people think of Staples or Office Depot as a place to pick up printer paper or toner, school supplies and office furniture. But if you have a Chase Ink Cash Business card, they’re the place to purchase gift cards. That’s because office supply store purchases earn 5% back on your first $25,000 of purchases every year. If you have another premium Chase card, like the Sapphire Preferred, you can transfer your Ink Cash balance to that card, and your 5% cashback becomes 5 Ultimate Rewards per dollar. That’s an unmatched return in almost any category.

Visa and AMEX gift cards

While it’s easy to understand why you would purchase a third-party or store gift card, the reason for buying Visa or AMEX gift cards gets a bit more complicated. We’re walking close to the world of manufactured spending,” and that’s not my specialty.

Oversimplifying the process, the reason you’d buy these gift cards is to earn more miles. This doesn’t make sense when the cost of a gift card and fees is worth more than the miles you’d get. Take the above example of paying $3.99 to activate a gift card of $100 where you’ll earn 5x points.

  • Cost of card $103.99
  • Out-of-pocket cost $3.99 (Card has $100 value)
  • 519 points earned (103.99 x 5)
  • Cost per point $0.0078 (0.78 cents per point)

In this example, you’d be buying points for 0.78 cents each, which isn’t bad for Ultimate Rewards points but horrible for Hilton points. Even if you’re getting decent value, there’s another problem with buying gift cards to get points: scale.

You’ve only earned 519 points for your trouble and time, and you now have to spend a $100 gift card. Using gift cards for purchases is fine, but you wouldn’t use them for anything for which you’d need warranty coverage or travel protections. If you use them where you could be earning points anyway, why did you go through all the trouble?

The math can admittedly get better when stores have specials where they’ll reduce or even eliminate the activation fee, but what would you do with that much money tied up in gift cards? (Please remember, I’m ignoring manufactured spending techniques on purpose. It’s like the math you learned in school, only to discover it was all wrong two years later.)

Meeting minimum spending requirements

The purchase of gift cards to meet the minimum spending requirements for a credit card sign-up bonus used to be great advice. If you were only a few hundred dollars short, you could get some cards for places where you’d spend the money anyway, like a gas station or supermarket. This isn’t so much the case anymore, thanks to the American Express RATs (Rewards Abuse Team).

While I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because of people buying a $50 Chili’s gift card with their AMEX that the bank needed to change the rules, we all have to live in the new normal.

Purchases to meet the spend requirement do NOT include fees or interest charges, balance transfers, cash advances, purchases of traveler’s checks, purchases or reloading of prepaid cards, purchases of gift cards, person-to-person payments, or purchases of any cash equivalents.

You may be able to buy a gift card here or there with your AMEX but don’t go buying thousands of dollars in cards to meet a spending requirement, or you’ll end up with your bonus taken away and might even have your accounts shut down. Remember that since AMEX is their own payment processor, they know every item you buy.

Personally, if I have a new AMEX card and am meeting a spending requirement, I’ll avoid purchasing any gift cards to be safe.

Final Thoughts

I hope this gives you an idea of when it does and doesn’t make sense to use a credit card to purchase gift cards. Adding this tool to your toolbox can help you earn extra points for your everyday spending, which while not as exciting as racking up signup bonuses, is a dependable way to build up your points balances over months and years.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

1 comment

Dave April 22, 2024 - 12:13 pm

Kinda done with gift cards. Restaurants especially.


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