Remembering the Point

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Yesterday I tweeted out a simple enough conversation that my husband and I had.  It said:

Me: I’m going to run errands for a while.

Him: What are you buying?

Me. Points.

Mommy Points Twitter

This tweet got a few re-tweets and/or favorites as I think a lot of miles and points junkies can relate to this exchange as they head off to CVS, or a gas station, or an office supply store, or Walmart, or wherever they leverage their rewards earning credit cards to effectively buy points.  Some call this manufactured spending, buying “bird food”, gift cards, whatever.  I don’t do it a lot, but I had the itch to try out a few things yesterday, so I went for it.  As usual, it didn’t go very smoothly since I don’t have a solid system in place that I use on a consistent basis.  The stores are out of the gift cards/reloads I need, the online process fails when it should work, the Walmart Money Machine is broken, etc.  I don’t do this very much as it often isn’t always an easy process, and I don’t have a ton of free time, but I do it enough to make sure we have the points we need to go where we want to go.

However, the process of manufactured spending isn’t exactly what this post is about.  I’ll get back around to a few things I am (trying to) do these days in that arena once I actually get the process to fully work, but in the mean time a small event while out running these points errands struck me.

While I was out driving around from store to store to effectively buy nothing other than plastic cards to move money around and manufacture points, I stopped at a gas station in a part of town I don’t usually visit.  You can call it “the other side of the tracks”, the wrong side of town, an economically distressed area, or any other number of things ,all with a relatively negative connotation.  The gas station has bars all over every bit of glass, an almost amusing number of locks on the doors, and employees who are watching you like a hawk.  It didn’t give me the warm and fuzzies pulling up, but since I was already there, I went in to see if they had the reloads I was looking for.  They didn’t, and in fact I was told they don’t carry gift cards at all any more because they kept having fraud and theft problems with them.  They went on to tell me how I can get gift cards at the nearby bank if I was in need.  I said thanks and walked back to my car to head on my journey to effectively buy nothing when I glanced at the gas pump I was parked next to.

The gas pump read Sale: $000.50.  Gas: 000.15 gallons

I had uncharacteristically forgotten my phone at home so couldn’t take a picture, but I don’t need a camera to remember what the gas pump said.  I also don’t need anything to remember how that reality check felt.

While I am driving around paying $3.95 or $5.95 for activation fees here and there, and using gas on my quest to buy essentially nothing, others are scraping together two quarters together to get enough gas to basically just turn the car on.  I am well aware of the amount of privilege that is in my life, and in the lives of most of those who are able to devote time and money to this hobby, but sometimes it is the small, but stark reminders that get you where it counts.  I went home after that and didn’t use any more gas driving around town that day hunting down little plastic cards.  It just didn’t feel right.

However, in the end that encounter will serve as a reminder to do more good.  I try to help wherever I see the need, but I need to seek out the need a bit more.  If I have the time and resources to drive around looking for ways to buy points, I have the time and resources to do a little more good in the world.  Fair enough.

What that encounter will not do is convince me my quest for points is totally frivolous.  Yes, it is a hobby that isn’t going to change the world.  However, it does help change my family and make things possible that otherwise wouldn’t be.  I’m not earning miles and points just for the sake of doing it, or to win some sort of competition for having the most miles.  I chase after miles and points to help show my family more of the world, and I hope that in turn makes us a bit better as people.  I’m not naive enough to think that all of our trips are helping shape us as better people, but I like to think that the more of the world you experience, the more of the world you want to help take care of.  The more different types of people you encounter, the more you understand that different doesn’t mean bad.  The more you are exposed to different cultures and languages, the more you want to expand your horizons and learn.

I think there is a balance to keep between doing well enough with this hobby to achieve your travel goals, but not become so focused that you lose touch with how far removed this sort of things is from most peoples’ lives.  I can’t promise I always have that balance in check, but I can promise I will try.

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  1. Hi MP, I agree. Many go unseen and forgotten or ignored. A recent Pew Poll described 19% of all Americans to be struggling to by food, 25% of Mississippians was the highest state count. This is in the US. if travel overseas away from main hubs can also get a feel for real life. It is easy in this busy life of those that have more to forget or not know what life is like for others. Travel is one way of broadening that understanding so I encourage people to travel too, whether it be to Peru, Italy or Mississippi.

  2. Really great message and great post. Thanks for reminding us all that while our little hobby can open up the world, there still is a big/diverse world here at home. Keep up the great work.

  3. You must have been in Tamina, TX. I tried buying shell gift cards with my freedom card. Tried five stations all with the same luck- only take cash for gift cards. Oh well:)

  4. Very lucky to now live in south Florida, rather than Texas, where a car is not needed to run millions in MS. It is a different world we MS specialists live in. We can easily haul in more than most people take home working. As for myself, I regularly give back to those in need, youth groups and expats with families who can’t really do sufficient MS to offset long distance flights.

  5. I’ve always found it interesting that people in this hobby will talk endlessly about some of the less attractive/welcoming places they’ve been to around the world and will follow with “it/those people were not what I expected” yet those same people hardly ever visit “the other side of tracks” in their own backyard where guess what? it’s not all you’d expect. A persons preconceived notions have the ability to blur ones true insight into a culture if not careful, even their own. This is not something I blame on anyone for we cannot choose what we are told to believe or experience growing up but we can recognize that at any moment we have the potential to act outside of what is expected and thus create a paradigm shift not only in ourselves but also for all those looking on.

  6. I love your thought regarding the more of the world you see, the more you want to take care of. I devote quite a bit of time to the travel game, but one of the ways I rationalize it to myself is that I can follow my passion and see the world, but still have money left over to help the world. Just made a substantial donation to a humanitarian group, Stop Hunger Now which sends food to the schools in extremely poor parts of the world, feeding kids at school, with the hopes that they will not be taken out of school. I’ve seen a lot of extremely poor in Asia and South America. Of course, I could always give more, and perhaps should, but I can be the largest donor in a 1500 volunteer group, in part because I keep my travel expenses as low as I do with the help of blogs like yours. Have tried to pitch this idea to other volunteers, that I would give them the travel advice in exchange for a charitable donation, but alas no takers so far. Thanks for helping me free up some money to do something worthwhile.

  7. I think this just shows you are a compassionate human. I give a lot of money to charity and our church but I am still one of those people that give money to homeless people. No not the fraudsters at the highway exits with “will work for food” signs, old ratty clothes they dug out of the back of the closet and wearing $150 shoes. The real folks that are hurting on the street. Sure they may take the money and use it for beer or whatever, that’s not my business. My religion teaches me that to act like Jesus would act toward people, yes they are people, not pests. If it cost me a few less points then so be it. I suggest that you not feel guilty but as you jet around the world don’t forget to look in your own backyard.
    Oh and I do find that many charities do take credit cards which is also nice for required spend, just remember if you donate in that fashion to add 3 or 4% for the card fee they pay on their end. I also like AA’s USO charity where you can donate miles. I hope US keeps that in place.

  8. I was going to say that .50 charge could have been me trying to get my 20 Credit Union Transactions in so I can get the higher monthly interest rate on my saving acct/ I do .50 because its the minimum that counts as 1 of my 20 hits.

    • I’m not thinking it was a transaction just to hit a monthly minimum, but you never know. 😉 Either way, good reminder to keep things in perspective while still doing what is right for your own family.

  9. If you want to help you can make Kiva micro-loans with your credit cards and earn points at the same time. You have to float the money and you need to research a bit to make sure your making loans with a high chance of repayment.

  10. MP – Wonderful post and great reminder. While, there’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for your children and family (I believe) it’s very important for my children to recognize that they have been blessed with many advantages in life and therefore are expected to be generous with time/ talents/ money. Clearly, your parents did well raising you.

  11. What a nice PR post but nothing concrete. What’s your point/plan? For every 50 credit card sign up kickbacks, you’ll donate 1?

    • John, I have a personal plan (Kiva is part, but not all of it) and have had an official charity of this site each year. Thought about sharing more specifics but that likely would be viewed as self serving. Would rather just share the story. Happy to give more details by email tho if anyone is interested. Otherwise I just encourage folks to help wherever they can.

  12. Great post/reminder, MP! If we are in the position to be playing this miles game, our lives are probably pretty darn good. Even on my worst day, there are people who would do anything to be in my situation. Thanks!

  13. Well put, Mommy Points. Just the other day I told my older son that his whining about not having the exact dinner he wanted was a first world problem. Also, in doing our taxes I noticed that I only give about 2% of our income to charities. So increasing my charitable donations is an easy way for me to be more helpful to society.

  14. I’d like to think that since the goal of MS is to extract outsized value from the credit card industry, the more we can manufacture spend, the more we cost the likes of JP Morgan Chase. Any profits we can divert from the 1% helps to reduce income inequality, so we are all doing our bit for the social good 🙂

  15. How about this: next time you are out driving around buying points, and maybe everytime, take a bag or buy a bag of food to donate at the red barrell in our grocery stores in Houston. It will become part of your run. Something for them, something for you. I call it the “vig”. I look for someone to share any good fortune I have with. If I win at a casino I give my next waitress a $20 tip on a $30 check. When I get a new credit card with a bonus I try to make the first charge to a foodbank or meals on wheels etc. It makes me happy.

  16. Your point is well taken and reminds all of us of those less fortunate. But it could have been someone topping off a lawnmower or some other garden tool.

  17. Made me think of a situation I had just a few days ago. I went to Kroger to buy a large sum of gift cards to hit my minimum spending for the AA Executive card, and the cashier had to get her manager. It turned out that it took a really long time. I had my two kids and they were getting a bit restless. When I was walking back to my car, a gentlemen asked if I needed any money for my kids in order to buy food. At first I was pretty embarrassed, but it made me appreciate the good people always looking for ways to help. But in a way it was interesting (and sad) that here I was throwing money away to get more points, and he thought I needed money to feed my kids.

  18. I am a computer programming professor at a community college. In community colleges we get a lot of students that are non-traditional (older students and/or disadvantaged students) that are going to school to boost themselves out of poverty and make a better life for themselves. Some of my students have actually lived out of their cars and washed up in the restrooms at the school. Knowing this, I make sure that I spend the time necessary in answering their questions and doing whatever it takes to get them through school, as long as they put in the effort. It was humbling the other day listening to a student having to make the decision to decide if he was going to pay for electricity, or skip several meals for several days. On the up side I am so happy to hear when my students get gainfully employed. I just had a student that was in poverty last year, and this year he is employed with a 52K/year salary with full benefits.

    Since I have started this hobby, I find that since I am reaping a reward, I make sure that I give more to charitable organizations.

  19. Hi Summer,

    Great post. I’m working on what will hopefully turn into a high impact project to leverage miles/points for charity. Would love your advice/help. I’ll be at the FTU in Seattle so happy to share details in person.

  20. I really enjoyed this post! My wife and I have a similar obsession with points, and are equally obsessed with our work in the nonprofit sector and trying to remember what matters most, in our home community and in our travels, are the stories of people. So this post spoke volumes to me. Thanks for sharing!

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