washingtonpost.com
The Discourtesy Card
What's a little savings if you lose your mind?

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, August 20, 2006

"Do you have your courtesy card?" the clerk at the drugstore register asks me.

Um, no. At least I don't think so. She's looking at the innards of my wallet, where assorted frequent-buyer and courtesy and super-duper-saver advantage club cards issued from other stores peek from behind one another. These are supposed to get me free stuff, or discounts, or something. I've long forgotten just how they came to be in my possession, and I've all but sworn off using them on the grounds that purchasing power of this sort isn't worth the brain cells necessary to keep track of it.

"I don't have it with me," I say, fumbling through. "But that's okay. I'm kind of in a hurry here."

"Maybe it's on your key chain?" she says with a look of concern. She's short, with curly hair, an affable grandmotherly sort. "Did you get the key-chain kind? That's the one most people have."

"No," I say. "I don't have it. But that's okay."

Really, all I came in here for today was a box of Band-Aids. It's bad enough that it took me 20 minutes to actually locate the Band-Aids. The store is vast, and the aisles aren't set up in an easy grid pattern, so even as you try to make a southward beeline to the back of the store where the first-aid stuff is, you end up wandering westward, past all sorts of tempting merchandise, which is, I know, exactly the point.

I succumbed to temptation: a two-for-one sale on a bottle of Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Gelee. That's a $10 value. Stock up now and save, I figure. I love a fake tan.

So, a box of Band-Aids and two bottles of goo. Can't I just pay and leave?

"Phone number?" the woman asks. I give it to her, because I don't have time to argue the point about why everyone I buy anything from nowadays wants my phone number. (Why?)

"No, that's not right," she says. "There is no courtesy card registered to that number."

Oh, we're still looking for my courtesy card? "That's okay," I say. "It doesn't matter --"

"A lot of people have it under their cellphone account," she says. "Cellphone number?" This goes on. Soon we're trying my office number, my husband's cell and office numbers.

"I don't think you have a courtesy card," she says. "Could that be possible?"

"It really doesn't matter," I say.

"Ten percent off your purchase if you sign up today," she says.

"No, thank you," I say firmly, vowing to come up with a line I can use at times like this in the future. "I choose not to participate," I could say primly. Or, "I would prefer to avoid that particular effort to trample on my right to privacy." Or better yet: "I just want to buy a stinkin' box of Band-Aids!"

"Suit yourself," the woman says with a shrug. She thinks I'm an idiot. She thinks I'm wasteful. She thinks I should handle my finances more carefully, and so should my husband. She is reading my mind.

My husband went to one of those cheapie haircut places recently, and they offered him a club membership, which included a little punch card: After 16 haircuts he could get one free. He did the math. One haircut every two months would take him well into 2009 for the alleged free one. Would he remember? Whose life is not sufficiently complicated without having to keep track of this stuff? You stick these cards in your wallet or dangle them on your key chain, and just knowing they're there creates shame. You're not using them enough. You're forgetting to use them. You've lost one. You're not going to have the documentation required to cash in on your God-given right to a free haircut in 2009.

"Okay, the two-for-one on the self tanner is only for courtesy card holders," the clerk says.

Oh, for godsakes. Have I mentioned that's a $10 value? I open my wallet, spill out the contents, sift through in one last-ditch effort. Alas, it is not here.

"I can sign you up right now," she says. "I just need your phone number."

"I think you already have every phone number I have ever memorized," I say.

"I need the one you want the account under."

I give her one, an act of pure surrender. She prints out a temporary card, says I'll get the real one in the mail within a week. I make the point that this is an awful lot to go through to buy a box of Band-Aids. She says, "It's a good thing I don't have a line."

Between the two-for-one deal and the 10 percent off, I save $11.40 on my total purchase -- a reward that is nothing compared with the prospect that I will soon get to leave. The woman hands me my change, and I can almost taste the

freedom awaiting me outside. She bags my items, is about to hand them to me. But first: "Would you like to enter our monthly $2,500 drawing?" she asks. "You just have to fill out our customer survey."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company