I’m now recovering from two grueling hours at the mall, where I surrendered my credit card repeatedly to inject some holiday cheer into our limp economy. You don’t have to thank me; I consider it my patriotic duty.
Yet despite all the power-walking (including 20 minutes to find my car, which really was on Purple Iris 2, and not on Orange Poppy 4), bicep curls involving a 5-quart slow cooker, and a half-hour of Extreme Jostling at a boutique where everything was 50 percent off, it isn’t my body that’s aching — it’s my brain.
Despite decades of experience as a skilled shopper, I don’t other recall any year where calculating the best holiday deals required an accounting degree, if not membership in a professional actuarial society. Retailers are offering some of the most tantalizing discounts on record, but they sure are making us work hard for them.
Here’s a perfect example. I was in line at Macy’s waiting to pay for a skirt and two sweaters marked 20 percent off. In my haste to get to the mall, I had forgotten my coupons at home, and was mentally preparing a little speech about my robust shopping history with the store. I was sure this speech would be so compelling, if not an outright tear-jerker, that the cashier would find no moral alternative other than to ring up my purchases as if the coupons were live and in-person.
But I couldn’t concentrate because of the drama unfolding at the sales register, where a customer with an armload of clothes and a fistful of coupons was struggling to understand why the discounts the cashier was ringing up did not seem to match those promised by the coupons.
The cashier offered several explanations, including: 1) some discounts only applied to an obscure “family and friends” program that neither of us had ever heard of; 2) some discounts only kicked in the next day for a 12-hour period; and 3) if the customer would kindly check the very fine print on the back of her coupons, easily legible with a microscope, she would see the list of 47 popular brands of clothing, shoes, jewelry, handbags, watches, bedding, and cookware throughout the United States, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico whose merchandise was allergic to the coupons. I tell you, there were more loopholes in the Macy’s coupon scheme than in the entire United States tax code.
“Saving money during the holidays shouldn’t be this complicated,” grumbled the customer.
“You’re right,” the cashier concurred, sotto voce.
I approached the cashier and undaunted, launched into my coupon sob story, but she cut me off.
“Forget the coupons,” she said. “I’ll ring this up as a pre-sale for the sale that starts tomorrow. These items will all be 40 percent off, and the coupons won’t work tomorrow anyway.” I didn’t mind returning to the mall to save 40 percent, especially if I could remember what color and flower combination would lead me to my car. Besides, I had also forgotten to return a Shiatsu neck massager my husband had bought me, and which worked delightfully for fifteen minutes before expiring permanently. I guess that massager was no match for my unyielding neck muscles.
Figuring out the labyrinthine gimmicks of holiday bargains would fry anyone’s brain. The spending and saving quandaries are endless: Should I buy one blanket to get a second one half-price, if I don’t need the second blanket? Should I bother entering coupon codes to save an extra 10 percent from a company if shipping is only free one way, or buy a similar item from another company where shipping is free both ways, but there is no coupon code for extra savings? Should I spend fifty bucks at L.L.Bean just so I can get a $10.00 credit on a future purchase, if I make the purchase within 10 days? It’s enough to make me want to take a nap.
Admittedly, I’ve always had a troubled relationship with math. By third grade, I went into full panic mode at the simplest subtraction problems, and my math phobia cost my parents a lot of money in tutors and me a bundle in self-esteem. Remarkably, though, all my cerebral synapses start firing in sync when faced with quantitative analyses that involve buying new, fun stuff.
I am sure it was men who wrote all those ridiculous math word problems that plagued my childhood, such as “What is the probability that 12 rolls of a die will show exactly three fours?” What did I look like, some online gaming addict?
I am willing to bet my entire inventory of unused Groupon coupons for pedicures, sushi dinners and custom framing (I had better check the expiration dates on those, come to think of it) that if only I had been asked relevant questions, such as “Which is the smarter purchase: a rose-colored cashmere sweater for $149.00 on layaway with a first payment not due until February, or two non-cashmere sweaters now for $99.00 on the store credit card, with no interest for a full 12 months?” I might have even become an accountant.
Saving money takes both brain power and time, which is something I had plenty of time to ponder last night while waiting in a long line at Petco with our dog, Ken, for discounted vaccines. But I paid for the savings big time.
First, I spent a seemingly endless hour in line, during which I constantly struggled to keep Ken from tearing open several packages of Puppernoni treats, and simultaneously restraining him from taking a bite out of an irritable bulldog named Bubba, who was beagle-intolerant. Was it worth it? I dare not consider the answer.
I am glad my holiday shopping is almost over, because while the mathematical calisthenics are good for my brain, I don’t want to accidentally pull an important brain muscle that I use in column writing. A strained brain might make me forget some of my favorite words, such as “gobsmack” and “serendipity.” That would be too high a price to pay, even for a rose-colored cashmere sweater on layaway.
Judy Gruen is the author of the just-published MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools (with Linda Abraham) as well as several award-winning humor books. Read more of her work on www.judygruen.com.