My relationship with loyalty cards and point programs is complex. I've collected, hoarded and counted, dreaming up empires built on free things I've earned by spending too much. But while they say that you don't know what you've got until it's gone, the opposite applies to lost point cards. Because, in a surprise twist, that's when you finally know true freedom.
I grew up in awe of stamp cards and coupons and wallets full of crumpled tokens of brand appreciation. As a kid, I'd sit next to my mom as she clipped coupons and tried to plan meals around them and waited as she gave me the expired coupons she had left over from the week before. I'd carefully place them in my red, Velcroed wallet and use them to play "store" until they got worn out, all while counting down the days until I'd have a wallet or coupons of my own and feel like an actual adult. I was, without a doubt, the most fun and exciting child in the world.
Of course, adulthood is never as magical as you think it will be. Where my childhood was spent dreaming of how intentionally and responsibly I'd shop one day, my teen years were defined by evenings and weekends at the mall where I hoarded points cards, stamp cards, discount cards and coupons like a young woman obsessed. As a nearly grown teen woman, I expected to be rewarded for where and how I spent my money, and saw each purchase as further proof of how good I was at buying things. And maybe, if it was a particularly prosperous day, I'd also have enough Subway stamps to treat myself and my best friend to lunch.
It was a blissful period that quickly faded into the past. As we know, growing up necessitates responsibility, budgeting and not spending the last of your grocery money on novelty slippers, so while I still regularly camped at the mall (and still do), I began saving my points for something "big" – whatever that may be – as a reward for learning to shop more carefully. And so those points sat: Optimum Rewards, Sephora Points and Plum Rewards, lying in wait for me to look upon them with love.
Shortly before the PC Points and Optimum merger in February, I'd been handed my new card by a cashier and tossed it into my bag, telling myself I'd remember to put it in my wallet because I'm an adult woman who knows how to complete tasks. But I was wrong. And when I returned the next day to buy whatever it is I forgot, another cashier was forced to watch as I realized I'd thrown out the bag, thrown out the card and had lost all my hard-earned points forever.
"I can give you a new card …?" he said, politely acknowledging the expression I was making as I mentally itemized everything I imagined buying with those points one day. Nothing had ever seemed worthy enough, and now, finally, everything was: the nail polishes I'd use maybe one time before deciding I hated the colour, the eye-shadow kits I'd forget about in the bottom of my purse, the perfume I'd put on my shelf and use twice a month (maybe). In retrospect, what had I thought I was going to score with a billion Optimum points? What did I think had been special enough to save points for? What couldn't I have just saved for and bought normally?
"Ma'am?" he interrupted. I smiled and said I'd take the new card, at once feeling purposeful and free like a thief at the end of a heist film. Who cared about where the points went? Who cared about points at all? This time, I'd use them when I wanted, not when bogged down by the pressure to use them "when I finally had enough," but enlightened by the fact that they were a made-up thing invented to make me want to spend more. Who knows how many points I'd rack up over time, starting now? Who knows if I'd even remember to? I, in the immortal words of Cartman from South Park, do what I want. And that includes my participation – or lack thereof – in loyalty programs. Take that, brands.
Last week, I made my way to the Sephora checkout where I was informed that I had an obscene number of points and could trade them in for almost anything in the tiny glass case sitting in front of the cash register. I thought about my lost Optimum points. I thought about what I'd learned from cutting ties with the mindset I'd cultivated since being a teen, high on having spent the last of her babysitting money on a Leonardo DiCaprio fan book. I remembered that I shopped for myself, not for the materialistic light at the end of the tunnel or the promise of some great reward. I looked at the glass case. Everything in it was objectively bad.
"Keep saving?" the cashier asked.
I relented, but this time on my terms. I did not need a tiny mascara I knew I would lose in the pocket of my coat.
Which, for the record, is where I found my old Optimum card a few days ago.