It is a question frequently raised over a cup of instant coffee at our Cheapskates Anonymous meetings: What did you save money on this week?
The answers could easily make you think you have just walked onto the set of a game show, and that whoever comes up with the best response, can win a grand prize. Perhaps, a bulk supply of one-ply toilet paper?
But competing against a bunch of savvy bargain-hunters is no joke.
There is Todd*, who quietly sits in the corner with a copy of the community newspaper, immersed in what must surely be the first-ever 200-word article to win a Pulitzer.
Until you realise that he is in fact not reading a word, but comparing and memorising prices in the glossy advertisements tucked away inside the knock-and-drop to see which supermarkets offer the best deals this week. (This is of course, after accounting for the additional time and fuel expenses to drive to more than one chain store).
And Sarah*, the numbers wizard who can tell you exactly how much quicker you’d pay off your home loan if you moved the debit order six or seven days earlier (from the 1st to the 25th of each month) and what the best ways are to make your access bond and the 55 interest-free days on your credit card work to your advantage.
And then there is Jess*, who trademarked the “sort by most discount” button for online retailers, but who had to postpone her retirement plans after Amazon and Takealot failed to warm up to the idea.
But what separates many of the attendees from the average cheapskate like me is that after several years of “non-retail therapy” they truly understand that just because the oversized sign screams “sale”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are actually saving any money when buying discounted items. They believe that only when you buy something you really need (and would have bought in any case) at a reduced price, it is truly a bargain. In fact, they scoff at any inkling that someone unnecessarily spent money to “save” money.
This is the dogma according to Cheapskates Anonymous: Flee from financial FOMO.
Newcomers to the group quickly learn that bragging about a “hardly used” exercise bike bought on OLX for a third of its R4 500 retail price, will not only get you escorted from the premises, but you will also have to stomach a lecture about how you didn’t actually save any money, but spent R1 500 you shouldn’t have.
(If your CrossFit trainer badge is clearly visible and it is evident that you also attend seven boot camp sessions each week, you may be lucky and only see a few raised eyebrows. There may however be some tough questions as to why an extreme sportsman needs a stationary bike and whether you have sufficient life insurance.)
But recently the weekly conversations have not been about true savings opportunities, but about how retailers have stepped up their game big time.
Given that South Africa’s largest merchants earn roughly 3% of their annual profit from the cheapskate community, it is probably understandable, but the tactics used have caught even cynics in the group off-guard.
You see, since us cheapskates generally use the savings opportunities at our disposal, we tend to sign up for loyalty programmes that offer real value. But in a true NSA-style surveillance effort, retailers have started tracking the items we buy, and are clogging up our inboxes with discount vouchers based on our buying history.
I mean the Polyotter around my waist undeniably suggests that I did in fact recently buy a family bag of Doritos and ate it myself, but did I really plan on doing so again this week? Would I have bought it, in the absence of a personalised Doritos discount voucher just for me?
Are retailers not cleverly creating a need (or want rather) that might not otherwise have been there?
Separating a saving from a true bargain has become a lot more difficult than avoiding a stationary bike (buying one that is, not riding one).
And don’t think just because you are a cynic/cheapskate who avoided the loyalty programme system like the plague, this burden will escape you. These days I cannot even peak at share prices online, and my whole online window-shopping history starts popping up all over the show. The running shoes I looked at are suddenly 25% “cheaper”. And I did buy another bag of Doritos…
But perhaps the most difficult urge to overcome is the one where, just three days after I have paid my interest-free retail account in full, a R75 off voucher miraculously appears in my inbox. Yes, I first have to spend R350 to use it, but hey, the account balance is zero and I am still a long way off from chairing cheapskate meetings…
* Of course, not their real names.