Musings from the Middle: Big Bucks
For those of you expecting a column about deer from reading the title, sorry to disappoint. The closest I could come to writing about deer is the time someone tricked me into eating venison sausage. My intestines and bowels were not as easily fooled. Now moving along, pardon the pun.
The bucks I am referencing are the ones us shoppers get when we frequent some of our favorite retailers, and they attempt to entice us back in with the promise of a future discount.
In my purse right now, I have no less than five awaiting offers. They are colorfully eye-catching and the size of real money. I like the feel of the slick, magazine quality paper, but I also have them on my app, through text, via a network of neighbors reminding me, pop up email alerts, and carrier pigeon.
Part of the trick to unlocking all these fantastic bucks and cash deals is commandeering dates for their use. I haven’t reached the point of planning my work schedule around how I can get to all those places and get those bucks spent before they expire, but I am guilty of clipping them to my weekly to do list (and yes, by confessing to having a weekly to do list, I realize I am aging myself right before your eyes).
When you get them, they are usually three to four weeks out before they can be used. Do you realize what can happen in three weeks? I could have changed purses, vacuumed my car, put away my winter coats! Maybe even slept?!
I have forgotten a good friend’s birthday and two dentist appointments---and almost Easter, but due to a grocery store Peeps display, I was saved that embarrassment-- all in the last three months. No way I am remembering exactly when to start saving.
But retailers have gotten smarter. They know we will forget. Now they remind me the week before, two days out, and at midnight on the day the cash savings start.
Once in the storefront or online store, I now really test my smarts when I try to remember the sets of rules accompanying each discount. Do I apply it on top of other discounts? Do I need that total before I try to get free shipping? If I order from the kiosk and pick up in the store, will it save me even more?
I get very confused, kind of like when I was in school and they talked about the Prime Meridian. All the other kids seemed to understand. Why couldn’t I?
If I had time, I would petition the Retail Federation of America, which I hope is a thing, to regulate these extra cash options. Moms would lobby the decision-makers to come together. “Learn how to use them at one place, and it covers them all,” we would say, in impassioned speeches before the Federation. It would really help those slow on the uptake like yours truly.
Besides the obvious savings, there are some other perks to being a financial wizard. Hardly anyone ever touts one of the benefits of mad money as vocabulary improvement, but I have learned you almost have to speak another language to use them.
Should I stack the savings? Can my cash accrue? How do I multiply my earning? Is today the right day to redeem them? Have I accumulated points?
And there is no way your math skills don’t improve as you apply the 20% department rebate, then calculate the cash reward, prior to applying the app discount to see if you still have enough for free shipping.
Like with any really good thing, there are also some pitfalls to pursuing these paybacks. I inevitably get to the register or to the online checkout only to find I am about three dollars short of what I need to get my dividend. I own an inordinate amount of headbands, tiny mirrors, notepads, and socks, all of which cost about three dollars, items that helped me reach that next level of currency.
In addition to the small things I invested in to reach exorbitant spending levels, I may have also made some advance purchases that didn’t quite work out, just to use those free dollars. Guessing jeans and tennis shoe sizes for a growing child is no game.
I gambled on some 6x’s for my daughter back in the day and also some ‘desirable size’ clothes for me that never got worn. Bargain-seekers have a heyday with clothes that still have tags on them at our annual garage sale, evidence of my bad guessing attempts.
Another time, I started a near Facebook riot when I offered my savings to friends. “I have some free bucks I can’t use, “ I posted, feeling generous.
Within minutes, maybe seconds, three friends had spoken for them. I literally had to toss a coin because two of the time-stamped replies came in the same minute. The one who lost was a good friend. Note the past tense. People are serious about discounts.
An additional pitfall is running the risk of being in line behind someone who is really, really good at this spending and saving game. Take a recent example from Bold Gravy, retailer’s name disguised to protect the innocent. Please read this next part using the voice of a Dateline correspondent like Keith Morrison or Lester Holt to create the intrigue it truly deserves.
“How did Sara get the big discounts? It surprised even the savviest of retailers and many people around her, who knew nothing about this part of Sara’s life. Watch this store surveillance video of her clever, nearly criminal, operation on a recent Saturday morning.”
I was behind said Sara recently, proud of myself for having just the right amount of items tabulated to use my accrued cash. She pulled her carts (plural) to the register and produced her impressive stack of mad money to show the cashier, who blinked nervously and called for backup. This was clearly gonna’ be big.
Sara neatly piled her items onto the counter, seemingly already having sorted them into categories. She watched the tally on the register intently. She nodded occasionally with approval. At one point she tilted her head to the side as if to question the clerk’s entry.
But the near crisis was averted when the register applied the anticipated discount and the next item was entered. At the end, the now heavily sweating clerk scanned and applied the multiple discounts, save one, which the register rejected. The supervisor stepped in and tried again to no avail, and the drama escalated. Sara’s total surfaced.
By now she had drawn a crowd, and we were elbowing each other as we saw that she was just $1.58 short of being able to use her full stack of moola. She triumphantly grabbed a lip gloss from the teaser rack in front of the register, opened it, slicked it across her lips for effect, and tossed it on the counter to be applied to her total. We gasped.
Sara took what looked like a small bow as the clerk announced her total after applying the discounts. She owed $8.37 cents for a pile of clothes that looked like it would easily have dressed a small country.
“Can you break a $50?” she said, smiling. Smart aleck. Nothing like a Sara to make you feel bad about your own saving skills. Store staff escorted her to her car as the rest of us schlepped our own bags.
If surveyed, I suppose most of us cash collectors would tell you that the benefits outweigh the problems of playing this game of big finance. The high of having bragging rights when we have finally reached the pinnacle of profit is a good one.
Oh, these shoes? “Five bucks, “ I say, completely ignoring the other $100 I spent to get my cash, disregarding the five hours of work I spent attempting to use it, and hoping no one else has witnessed Sara’s recent triumph.
Cathy is a retired public school English teacher and Public Information Officer.
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