My Week in Points November 4-10: Is this a game?

“The game.” I have been hearing that a lot lately.

Last week I did not do a darn thing miles and points while I was out of the country on a business trip, so was going to skip this week’s entry. Then I started catching up on the madness of crowds chasing tulips bluebirds.

I keep hearing the ever-more elaborate gyrations and schemes to earn miles and points as a “game” in a way that unsettles me. I consulted several dictionaries and the entries for game are varied, two from the Oxford Dictionary are:

noun
1 a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.
verb
2 [with object] manipulate (a situation), typically in a way that is unfair or unscrupulous: it was very easy for a few big companies to game the system
I have at times, reluctantly, taken the side of big companies for which I typically have little sympathy. Whether or not the airlines, hotels, card issuers et al see this a game is not what is troubling me because they see what is happening and have the resources to respond however they want, sometimes in ways that are permissive to the outliers, some restrictive, as they weigh the knock-on effects to their general  customer population.
It is the magic beans aspect of this that gives me pause. The notion of a ‘game’ downplays the very real potential consequences, and can sweep up any of us in the intoxicating fun. People are spending thousands of dollars in prepaid card fees and innumerable hours of their time, both with immediate real-world cost, in exchange for miles and points of uncertain value. Cash reserves are tapped. Cards are opened on behalf of family members that dimly understand what is happening. Accounts can be shut down with points forfeited.
Indeed, that first-class award seat to Bali costs a lot more than advertised, and many people are jumping in that may never realize their expected value.
I signed up for Bluebird this week and bought my first Vanilla reload card. Yes, this seems laughable to many, but until I did a large amount of research, identified a specific purpose  (my apartment rent payment), and quantified the benefit, I stayed clear. The potential payoff of many of these schemes compared to the time, hard cash investment,and risk, is not justified for me. Critically, some of these schemes I do not fully understand the mechanics and risks, and unless I am willing to spend the time to fully understand them, I am not going to proceed, no matter how tempting that quick score.
The experts know the risks and rewards and maybe some have enough time and funds that it is just a game. For me, it is dangerous to think of my time and money as a game, that thinking can lead to foolish things and I am not immune to melodious birdsong and fragrant blooms.

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  • starboundflyer

    Score one for prudence and realism. I’m not a Debbie Downer by nature, but this community could stand a few examples of restraint.

  • smittytabb

    I agree with you and indeed have not yet tasted vanilla nor been tempted by the Siren’s, make that Bluebird’s, song. Met you at the Chicago Do BTW and have enjoyed following the blog ever since…

  • Bornadiva

    Thank you. About time somebody showed a reality check. Thank you.

  • I always interested in what people believe is “fair” or “greedy” or being a “hog” or the whole pigs n hogs slaughtered thing. Who determines “what” your are in these instances? How much is too much? I wonder if a blogger would write an article describing what they think is going too far. I would be interested to see where I stack up.

  • @MileageUpdate – I have no qualms taking on the ethics and norms of this, but I confess I have mostly ignored the subject until recent curiosity and the ability to pay my crippling apartment rent with Bluebird caught my interest. I see there are quite a few debates running about this, some nasty, some childish, some well-reasoned. As my opinion crystallizes, I will post if I think I have something to add. There are personal standards (would I want my obituary to say that I spent my days staking out Office Depot stores?) and community norms (killing the deal) at play here, plus ethical and legal considerations. A game theorist will enjoy this!

  • P T

    Amen.

  • LarryInNYC

    The thing about these sorts of deals is that I can’t imagine that any company ever planned to allow the purchase of cash using credit. I’m pretty sure that any instance in which it’s possible to execute a transaction like that is a failure on the part of the merchant.
    .
    At a value of 1 cent per point and 5 points per dollar, the sale of a $500 VR code is “costing” someone $25.00. Yet the actual money changing hands is $3.95. And that’s not $3.95 profit, because VR still has to operate and distribute the cards out of that. But even assuming that it is pure profit the whole transaction results in a net $21.05 loss collectively to the parties involved.
    .
    Even at one point per dollar (using non-bonused cards), the card holder is being refunded $5.00 on a $3.95 sale. That can’t make sense, or be sustainable.
    .
    What does it REALLY cost to get cash off a credit card? I think it’s 3% of the amount plus interest from the day of withdrawal (not the end of the billing period). Therefore, the real cost of $500 worth of cash purchased with a credit card is probably about $20 to $25, not $3.95 — and not subject to mileage earning of any kind.

  • @LarryInNYC – and then the companies have to weigh whether or not to kill it, hurting the intended market, just to stop the small percent who abuse it and ironically complain that others kill it for them!

  • LarryInNYC

    @RTC: I don’t think it’s a matter of abuse. Every transaction like this is a money-loser for someone along the chain — as much as $21 on a $4 transaction! I’m pretty sure that the “terms and conditions” of the credit cards generally forbid the purchase of “cash-like instruments”, for exactly this reason.
    .
    In other words, whenever you buy cash with a credit card you’re not engaging in a transaction (even a money-losing transaction) envisioned or permitted by the card issuer. Instead, you’re taking advantage of the complexity of enforcing the restrictions on the use of the card for this type of transaction.
    .
    At least, that’s what it looks like to me.

  • James

    Re: cash like iinstruments

    Do you think this applies to regular gift cards as well? Buying then at Staples for 5x with Ink is quite great too. I’m talking about store gc. Wondering if Chaae could ban for that

  • @James – the commenters know much more than I, but my gut feeling is that if you go from no office supplies spend to suddenly 50k/year, Chase may take an interest and some creative explaining may be needed, “oh, that, well that used to be on my Amex card…that doesn’t exist…and neither does the business.” 😉 For some the short-term benefit outweighs potential long-term risks.