Sunday, August 2, 2009
I’m at Starbucks eating a Greek Yogurt & Honey Parfait, which has me thinking of Greece, of course. One more “must” for the ever-growing life list, which also includes scarfing steaks in Argentina, rijsttafel in Indonesia, and olive oil in Italy.
Happily, my husband, Rick, and I have finally queued up Italy for a visit next fall. Unhappily, our Italy-loving friends Jim and Jackie will likely not be joining us, despite our plying them with cheap vino and fresh mozzarella/tomato canapés last night; the economy continues to stink and Jim’s in real estate development. Or not, mostly.
And now it seems my sister Karin and her husband Ted are unlikely to dive alongside us in Bonaire over New Year’s. Ted’s masterful at finding and managing building contracts, but nobody’s doing any building these days. And McDiver and Gigi? Our steadfast dive partners for the last few years? Also a “probably not” for Bonaire; McDiver is busy setting up as an independent consultant, thanks to downsizing that squeezed him out of his 10-year job a few months ago.
So why aren’t Rick and I hunkered down, too? Why do we suddenly have three trips on the planner in the next twelve months, when we’d resisted temptation all year? I’m not sure. It could be the flirty piles of Sport Diver and Outdoor Photographer striking provocative poses all over the house, or my Pavlovian response to Rick’s jubilant “What’s the drink of the night?!” shout when he comes home from work on summertime Fridays. (Drink...! Fun...! LET’S GO DIVING!)
We always fall off the budget wagon eventually. Here’s how I justify it:
Reason number one: Points programs are my passion. The more the merrier. I am particularly fond of the United and American credit card incentives; American recently awarded me 25,000 miles for taking their Mastercard (and charging $750 in the first three months – piece of cake). With a Caribbean flight going for 35,000 miles, that reward is a big help. And just linking my Safeway purchases to United’s Mileage Plus program adds a couple hundred points a month to my stash. It takes a little time to keep track of everything, and of course the credit card offers require some fine-print scrutiny. I just keep everything together in a Notes file in my Microsoft Outlook and update it during a slow tv night. (Oddly, I love doing it.)
This year we fly free to Barbados, Florida, and Bonaire (via Curacao), saving close to $3,500. When you can cut out airfare costs, an awful lot becomes possible.
On our Florida road trip in June, we stayed for free in Aiken, S.C. (Fairfield Inn; Marriott Rewards), St. Augustine, FL (Hampton Inn; Hilton HHonors), Savannah, GA (Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa – Starwood Preferred Guest), and Wilmington, NC (Holiday Inn -Priority Club). I accumulated a lot of those points over years of business trips, waiting for the day we could put together a wandering itinerary dictated by free hotel nights.
When I came up short for a couple of those hotel stays, I just transferred some points from my American Express Membership Rewards program. No fee, no fuss, no muss. You can also use Amex points for stuff, like flat screen tvs and golf clubs and bikes, but why would you, when you can use them to buy a bed for a night?
And if you haven’t checked out OpenTable.com yet, don’t wait. You get points just for using their website to make restaurant reservations (instead of making a phone call!), then use the points to get free meals!
So, points programs. Yes, please.
Reason number two: We are cockeyed optimists about money showing up when you need it (though it’s taken years to pound that optimism into Rick, I admit, and he still backslides occasionally with a mystified “and how are we supposed to pay for that??”). I’m not advocating this as a strategy for everyone, believe you me. Most of the "free money" I’ve picked up over the years had some sort of price tag attached – like the crushed fender I lived with in exchange for the $1,000 insurance settlement that took me to London way back when. But if you’ve got Hermes in your corner, go for it. Who knows? Maybe it’s the cosmos, or maybe it’s a willingness to make concessions in your life you didn’t know were possible until you stepped onto foreign shores. Either way, you win, right?
And number three: I buy our sheets at Wal-Mart. Our living room walls have probably not been painted since the house was born nearly 30 years ago. And we use the same comforter that belonged to Rick and his ex-wife. We don’t exactly live in a hovel, but I have noticed that while some folks spend their money switching out their dish sets every so often, or mulching twice a year, or wallpapering a bathroom, we let the house fall a little deeper into disrepair and instead leave town. With frequency and gusto. Last year I was out of town nearly 35 weekends, and Rick almost as many.
So in this fragile economy, should we be more restrained? Rick’s got a solid govvie job and a guaranteed retirement income, but I’m a consultant whose earnings could be reduced to $0 with the flick of some CFO’s pencil. Sitting here with this $3.45 Greek yogurt when there’s 69 cent Yoplait just across the parking lot is probably tempting the gods-of-responsible-living to come smack me around a bit. But then again, I did just find a $10 bill on the ground last week, so if you think about it, we’re actually ahead.
Bonaire, here we come!