Seems to me, the bigger companies are, the more they manipulate customers. Financial institutions are arguably the most deft at this. We had been using the same couple of credit cards for several years when I recently spied an ad for a new one, from American Express, that I was eligible for through my credit union. It actually offered a clean 1.5% cash-back on all charges, credited at the end of each monthly bill. So I stopped using Discover Card and started using the AmEx for everything except food and groceries (discount stores excluded). For those I use a Visa card that pays 5% on gasoline and 3% on groceries. To leverage this even more, I’ve found I can use the AmEx card to pay my cable, satellite and insurance bills.
The kinds of cards have exploded, with all kinds of specialty uses. Those most unappealing to me are the air-travel ones for which you get “miles”. They must be lucrative (for the airlines) because I don’t think a month goes by that Mollie and I don’t each get a big packet in the mail urging us to apply. The USPS should be grateful. One would think the airline would have figured out after 15 years that I’m retired and no longer a business traveler, but they clearly haven’t. We only take a couple of flights a year, if that. And I’m really not sure what a “mile” is, anyway. How do you define that? Small print, obviously, with restrictions that run several pages. I’ve been accumulating American Airline “miles” for at least 15 years now and I still don’t have enough of them to pay for a ticket anywhere. Every year or two they try to get me to “spend” some of them ordering magazine subscriptions.
Speaking of fine print, you know that Visa card I mentioned above? This year, instead of crediting the pay-back to the statement, they started paying in “points”. What’s a point? One might think a point is one percent, but one would be wrong. Turns out, when I now go to redeem points I either have to use them to buy from a list of sponsored products at non-
discounted (or even elevated) prices, or to buy a debit card, and it takes 11,800 points to get a $100 debit card. That’s a 15% hit (100/118 = 0.85)! A hundred “points” is therefore 85 cents, not a dollar. And isn’t it a little transparent for them to move the decimal point two places to the right? Well, maybe not. P. T. Barnum and all that, you know.
I wondered if Discover Card might get upset at me for dumping them, somehow, but there’s no indication of it. They still send me a friendly-sounding email once in a while and I’ll likely go back to using them again when the rules change, which they are bound to do. Discover has a nice web site that makes it easy to manage billing and even do budgeting. Their irritating gimmick, however, consists of switching their percentage discounts to different categories every three months. One quarter it will be restaurants and the next, for example, home improvement. Clearly, they think I’ll forget what the current category is and use the card for everything. (They would be often right.) It’s all a game, and one I probably wouldn’t be so assiduously playing if I weren’t retired. Not as much fun as crosswords, but still kind of interesting and, hey, the money I get back is free of tax because its just return of some of what I spent.
What about you, fellow consumer? Anyone else out there who plays credit-card games?