Years ago, my son participated in a preschool gym program called Sportball. Just before blowing the whistle, the coach would yell: "First one across the gym wins 100 Sportball points!" and the kids would thunder wildly off in the general direction of the far wall.
The prospect of earning Sportball points was a huge incentive, at no cost to anyone. None of the kids seemed to notice that Sportball points disappeared every week at the end of class – they didn't accumulate and had no redemption value yet worked like magic as a motivational tool.
My kids and I still joke about Sportball points. I glibly offer extravagant rewards – many millions of points – for chores such as folding laundry. We burst out laughing if a salesperson offers a "free bonus." In fact, any sort of pitch entreating us to "save" money by spending more inevitably reminds us of Sportball and the psychological and behavioural manipulation inherent in "free" points.
While programs such as Aeroplan, Air Miles and Shoppers Optimum obviously deliver better value than Sportball points, the underlying objective is the same: manipulating our behaviour while simultaneously boosting our self-esteem by making us feel like smart shoppers. (Stratospheric credit card bill be damned – I'm halfway to "earning" a free trip!) The challenge is to resist the temptation to score points by spending more than we need to. I once had fond feelings toward Optimum after racking up enough points to "reward" myself with a free Sony Handycam. But then I discovered how much lower the prices are at Wal-mart, probably enough over all those years I was collecting Optimum points to cover the cost of a Handycam.
Recently, CIBC sold my Aerogold Visa account to TD Bank. No one consulted me, despite the significant inconvenience of changing card numbers, resetting my PIN, losing online access to my old statements and so on. June 16 was the big day, marked by a flurry of e-mails from Amazon that payment for my outstanding orders had failed and could I please return to its site and choose an alternative payment method. Esso's Speedpass website wouldn't accept my new card information, so I had to endure an endless loop of "your call is important to us" while waiting for the next available operator.
For the privilege of carrying this card, I pay $120 a year. For years, this felt like good value. I used Aeroplan points to help pay for a massive flat-screen TV, fly my kids to Disney World more than once, and travel executive class often enough that when my son talks about airplane food, he means meals served with warm rolls and real silverware.
Now that my loyalty relationship has been sold to a new "partner," I've taken note of when the annual fee comes due and I'm questioning my commitment. If I cancel my card, I'll lose that weird feeling of consolation I get when I pay for big-ticket items. (Yes, I spent thousands of dollars on major car repairs or whatever, but look at all the points I "earned.") On the other hand, if I cancel, I'll save $120 and exit a relationship that, for me, has lost its magic.
To compensate me for the inconvenience, TD is "rewarding" me with double points in my first month as a customer. I received a glossy brochure encouraging me to spend as much money as possible that month, behaviour referred to as "effortless earning." The brochure's helpful suggestions for ramping up my shopping range from the sensible (a tank of gas, fresh fruit) to the superfluous (a "surprise cactus," a "classy colander"). Clearly, to "earn" points every single day, you need to cultivate an obsession for shopping. But then, that's the whole point of points, isn't it?
My credit card company's infidelity somehow reminded me of how few financial things are really priceless (despite ad campaigns to the contrary). To me, Sportball points are true loyalty points, awarded for devotion to the ideal of good sportsmanship rather than achievement. No matter how many credit card points I rack up and how many fancy trips and gift cards I "earn," my so-called loyalty points are all about money, not loyalty.
Sportball points made my kid feel like a winner when he was going through a rough patch in his life, but still young enough to believe that simply giving his best effort had great value. No matter how rich you are in money or in points, you can't buy that anywhere.
Stephanie Griffiths lives in Toronto.