Friday, April 23, 2010

You Call That a Bargain?

Like everyone else I love a good deal. But perhaps even more, I hate losing out on the chance to get a good deal when it's offered. So when an email arrived from Air Tran telling me I had enough points for a free flight, I was delighted. Then I read on and immediately had to worry that I'd lose the deal: My points would expire unless I booked a flight within the next 45 days. So now I have to go somewhere. Well, I earned those points by frequent trips to Boston, and I have to go again in a month, so why not make the next flight free? Sounds good, right? But here's the thing: If you book on Air Tran at least a couple of weeks in advance, flights to Boston from BWI are ridiculously cheap, just thirty-nine bucks. Still, a free flight is a free flight, and if I don't book that flight, the points are gone for good. Booking now seems the thing to do. As I'm planning my trip, I realize there's a wrinkle that makes this bargain less than it would appear. Air Tran charges $15 per bag for luggage, and on this particular trip, I need to bring some large items with me, things that are better brought in person than shipped. Which means that I'll pay $30 for the two bags I'll need to check. My $39 free flight will now cost me $30. And that makes the value of my spent points a measly nine bucks! I've blown that much on bad airport coffee and a bagel.

On the other hand, if I reject the deal, I've got to find some other use for the points. I just can't let them fade into nothingness. I take a look at Air Tran's route map. Hey, they fly to Aruba. Maybe the thing to do is to take an impromptu island vacation. Then I start looking up hotels in Aruba. Yes, I can fly to Aruba for free, but it's not gonna be cheap to stay if we pick a nice place. And it does have to be "we," because I'm certainly not going solo. Now the bill is mounting: $368 for additional airfare, plus $312 a night for hotel times four nights, plus dining and cab fare, and airport taxes (not included when you use points for your flights), and we're looking at a bill for over $2,000, easy. All to avoid losing a free flight. Such a bargain, I realize I can't afford.

So it's back to Plan A, use the freebie for the flight to Boston that I'd have to pay for, one way or another. That nine dollar savings isn't looking so bad. However, it is a dollar less than I'm saving on another great offer that I feel I can't pass up, this one from Office Depot. If I spend fifty dollars there by May 15, I get ten dollars off. The trouble is, I earned that ten-dollars-off coupon by buying a ton of office supplies just last week -- enough to last me the rest of the year. I don't even have the storage room to hold any more office stuff. So...if you're with a nonprofit and you have at least fifty bucks worth of office supply shopping that you need to do within the next couple of weeks, drop me a line. I'd rather give away this deal than see it go to waste.

I guess it's my own fault that I keep getting these offers that do me so little good. I get them by signing up for award miles programs with every airline I fly and frequent buyer programs with every store I visit more than once. I should just say no. Here's how it happens that I don't: I'm at World Market in Chevy Chase Pavilion. I am buying some exotic food items, and I happen to see some wines on sale. I pick up a fair number of bottles. Next I see a tea kettle and realize that I've been meaning to replace my old one. Then I notice that World Market carries the hard-to-find brand of decaf tea that I like. By the time I've reached the checkout counter, I have more than a hundred dollars worth of stuff in my cart. But it is all good and useful. No regrets for the purchases. The next thing that happens, the checkout clerk says to me, "If you join our World Market Club, you will instantly get ten percent off this order." It's like being offered a ten dollar bill; why would you say no? So I sign on the dotted line and provide my email address. Now every week, week in and week out, I get an email from World Market with offers. And coupons. It's not the amount of email that bugs me. I have the emails set to go straight into a folder just for these offers. I can look at it at my leisure. It's just that when I do, I see they have me pegged. They know exactly what I want to buy, and they have just the right offers to lure me back to the store. Well, why wouldn't they know? When I signed up, I gave them permission to track my purchases. Now they know more about me than anyone except my mother. Wait, even she doesn't know what brand of decaf tea I prefer. So now, every week, I find that, for example, I can get that strange tea that I like at an incredible price -- if I will just buy enough of it at once to last me till 2012. What to do?

Yes, I know, the right answer is to trash these emails unread. A bargain isn't a bargain if you didn't really need the stuff in the first place. But somehow they've got me convinced that if I don't act, I'm throwing away big savings. It's a head game...and they're ahead. Now it's my move. It's off to Amazon, where I'm such a frequent buyer that I'd never dream of letting my membership in the Amazon Prime Club lapse. (Free shipping on every purchase!) I'm looking for a book to tell me how to spend less and simplify my life. I see I can get a book called Living with Less: The Upside of Downsizing Your Life, by Mark Tabb, for $10.39, rated four and a half stars out of five. But wait, if I buy that book together with two others, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, by Judith Levine, and Give It Up!: My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less, by Mary Carlomagno, I can get three books with a cumulative worth of $41.94 for a total of $27.50 -- a savings of $14.44! And I can have all three the day after tomorrow, no shipping charge, with one click.

My finger is hovering over the mouse click. Is this a bargain or isn't it? Should I click? Or empty my cart? Tune in next week to find out.


Correction to my 4/16 column on holidays: Emancipation Day is not, as a public school parent pointed out, a regular school day for kids in DC public schools, and the libraries and rec centers don't stay open, either. So that knocks it down a few pegs on my ranking of good-but-little-known holidays.

Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on April 23, 2010.

Got a local story? Overheard a funny conversation on the Metro? Traveled somewhere that made you wonder why we can't do things as well here as they do there? These and more may be fodder for future columns on All Life Is Local, so by all means, send them my way: (alllifeislocal @

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