I’ve got one of those exciting weekends ahead, where I get to clean out my office: empty those boxes, shred those documents, trudge a half dozen times between the back door and the trash receptacles in the alley.
Getting my financial house in order is part of the bill, a process I began after tax season and will likely continue through the summer. But in cleaning things up and getting things right, there’s one thing I don’t want to throw out or neglect: all those rewards points, bonuses, benefits and vouchers piling up in my frequent flyer accounts, daily deal clubs and more.
Go ahead and call me an absent-minded moron. (You wouldn’t be the first, I assure you.) But the problem is more widespread than you might think — and was just brought to light by Brian Kelly, a.k.a. “The Points Guy.”
Kelly used to fly more than 150,000 miles a year for his Wall Street gig, until he left about two years ago to focus on ThePointsGuy.com, his popular travel news and advice website. Kelly commissioned The Princeton Group to conduct a national survey to find out how much people know about, and use, their frequent flyer miles. The results, released last month, were “very interesting,” Kelly says. Here are the highlights:
- Almost three in four Americans who have frequent flyer miles or credit card rewards points (73 percent) don’t know how many they have.
- Only 41 percent of Americans understand how frequent flyer programs work.
- 27 percent have let some or all of their frequent flyer miles expire at some point.
And now – and here’s the eye-opener, Money Under 30 readers – those in the 18-29 age bracket are actually the worst at keeping track of their miles. A full 80 percent admitted they don’t know how many they have. That inspired Kelly to heap a bit of scorn in his April 10 column: “Come on Gen Y – you’re supposed to be the tech savvy ones! With so many apps and tools for tracking miles and points, this just doesn’t make sense.”
I’m very good at tracking my frequent flyer miles, it turns out. And yes, there are great apps for helping you out, such as mileBlaster and AwardWallet. But what happens when you expand the scope beyond frequent flyer miles into the realm of other premiums and bonuses?
Let’s consider my Citibank ThankYou Points. I’ve got close to 25,000 of those, but I have no clue how I accumulated them, how to access them or how to redeem them. And that point stash, it turns out, is enough to get an Apple iPod Touch 16GB MP3 Player. As for when the points expire, don’t ask me that, either.
So is it worth taking stock of all the accounts where you may be scoring premiums without knowing it? Without question, yes. Start with your bank account, and then fan out to places where you make routine purchases every day or weekly. (I just learned that my supermarket, Jewel, gives me 5 cents off a gallon of Shell gasoline for every $50 I spend. For a $200 shopping run, that’s roughly $4 off a fill-up for my minivan.)
Then there’s the realm of Groupon and other daily deals sites. If you’re looking for bargains, you may be blowing it big time if you’re letting those vouchers expire before you can use them.
Just this weekend, I hoped to make it under the wire for a pair of Groupons expiring at a local pizza place in Chicago. While the Groupons technically expired on May 12, a Sunday, they were only good Tuesday through Thursday. That meant I had to use them by May 9. Rats.
What happens when your Groupons “expire”? You still get to use them, but not at the discount level you pay for – so while they’re not worthless, they’re not earning you any discount, either. In fact, you may wind up spending money for a restaurant, service or product that isn’t cheap at all, since in essence you’re paying full price.
Sobered by the pair of pizza coupons that expired, I went into my Groupon app and looked up all my expired, unused Groupons. Here’s what I found: About $300 in expired Groupons, still useable (but not with any purchase discount). The oldest dated to 2009, not too long after Groupon founder Andrew Mason and I had lunch, and he told me about this great new business idea he had. (I’m not making this up – because of Mason’s Chicago ties, I was one of Groupon’s earliest adopters.)
My Groupon iPhone app doesn’t give me alerts as to when Groupons will expire (though I do get these via email). That’s why, as part of my ongoing financial housecleaning, I plan to start an Excel spreadsheet to log my frequent flyer miles, Groupons, LivingSocial purchases, Belly points, ThankYou points … the list seems endless, and keeping up with all these perks can feel like a full-time job in and of itself.
Yet this post-recession funk has taught me that waste is intolerable, while thrift is preferable. I like to take advantage of all the freebies I can, and use every coupon or Groupon that has a high level of utility. Flying cross-country on the wings of my miles feels much lighter on my wallet than paying $800 for the round-trip airfare.
Who knows? Maybe when I book that next ticket, I’ll have a new, free iPod to enhance my traveling pleasure.
How do you keep track of awards points you’ve earned?