Back when I was a kid, credit card points didn’t exist.
Well, maybe they did, but they were for the tech-savvy parents, those fancy parents with car phones the size of canoes. Credit card points were not for people like my parents, who still had roll-down windows on their cars and were years away from getting their first computer.
Consequently, we kids were too innocent to fantasize about magical points being pulled out of a hat come midwinter vacation, and without those points, we knew better than to dream of grand vacation plans for our family.
Instead, midwinter vacation meant simple day trips: a few hours at the ice-skating rink, a train trip to Manhattan for the not-so-expensive fun of window shopping, or wholly unglamorous outings to the doctor’s office (apparently, my mother thought midwinter vacation was the perfect time to schedule well visits).
I try telling this to my kids as midwinter vacation looms, and I begin to see those big ideas taking root in their minds. (Indoor water park at a hotel? Beachfront hotel in Miami? Ski trip in Colorado?).
I try explaining to my adorably hopeful children that back in the alter heim (Brooklyn, circa the 1990s), midwinter vacation was hardly the stuff that memories were made of. Instead, it was just a nice time for everyone to catch their breaths and recharge before school started all over again.
But telling my kids about the midwinters of my youth is like describing midwinters in the Middle Ages.
They sigh collectively and moan, “Ma! Those were the 1900s! Before cell-phones! Before sushi! How can you compare?”
Really, what they mean to say is, “Ma! That was before credit card points. That was before people could vacation without paying for it!”
Okay, so they don’t really mean to say that, because my kids know nothing about credit card points. In fact, some of my kids still think that using a credit card means we are getting stuff for free.
(I like to think that way too – I just pass the credit card bill to my husband.)
But whether they know about credit card points or not, my kids know that the game has changed. Nowadays, at least in my kids’ social circles, midwinter vacation means going somewhere and doing something big– and it’s turning me into a crochety old lady who waxes poetic about the midwinter vacations of yesteryear.
In general, my husband and I try to be fiscally conservative and risk averse (read: boring and safe), and we’ve always been a few steps behind the cool kids.
For years, we tried to live without a credit card (I know. Blasphemy, right?). When we finally got a credit card that had a reward system, we took the cash back option over the points package. This way, every few months, we got a few dollars off our credit card bill, and we felt like we were hitting the jackpot.
But one momentous year, we finally joined the points parade. It happened after midwinter vacation dawned, when we looked around our neighborhood and discovered we were the only family still in our zip code.
We sent out a few worried texts and quickly realized there hadn’t been an evacuation order we’d somehow missed. Instead, everyone had simply traveled to greener – or snowier – pastures to enjoy the midwinter break, leaving us luddites behind.
Of course, our friends assured us, no one had actually paid for these seemingly extravagant vacations.
We took the family to Orlando – on points!
We’re skiing out in Aspen – on points!
We’re flying off to Greece with the entire family and staying on a private island – all on points!
I could feel my cheeks burning when these jetsetters asked casually in response, “You’re still home? What are your midwinter plans?”
Uh, Chuck E. Cheese’s?
Like immigrants trying to learn a foreign language, Yossi and I began reading up on different credit card offers – and hoping we weren’t destroying our credit score – signed up for some cards that offered the tantalizing promise of points.
And, when midwinter vacation came around the next year, we were ready. When, yet again, our neighborhood turned into a ghost town, we weren’t the ones left behind. This time, we too took a vacation – all on points!
Okay, so we were still a few steps behind the cool kids, so we didn’t fly anywhere exotic. Instead, we drove a few hours from home to a city with minyanim and kosher food, and it was intoxicating to know that this adventure would not break the bank.
Yes, we stayed in a four-star hotel – on points. Yes, for free!
We even splurged on two adjoining rooms instead of cramming into a junior suite – because, well, points!
My kids walked through that marble lobby like they were the Trump family themselves: breathing in the rarefied air with regal class (well, if you didn’t notice the trail of potato chip crumbs they left in their wake).
But as the trip unfolded, Yossi and I had a mildly rude awakening:
Points, we suddenly realized, don’t pay for restaurant dinners (though we could console ourselves that we were earning more points). But how do you not eat out when you’re staying at luxury hotel?
And points don’t pay for missed productivity at work.
And points don’t pay for massages desperately needed after lugging around children, children’s strollers, and the pounds of brochures children insist on picking up from every booth they pass.
So, yes, even points vacations came at a price – one that stretched us uncomfortably past our intended midwinter budget.
And this year, as we stand at the brink of midwinter vacation yet again, my kids’ eyes are already dancing. Now that they know their parents have sunk into the points pit, they think can expect an even bigger vacation, with an even more sparkly lobby. The trip from last year was nice, they concede, but this year, they’d really like to up the ante. It is free after all, right?
It’s giving me a pit in my stomach.
I’ve realized that points peer pressure is like every kind of peer pressure. It causes us to buy into things that we really don’t need and can’t really afford and often don’t make us any happier.
The same people who moan about their grocery bill are now staying at the St. Regis (for free, of course!), but it’s like an alluring mirage: the grocery bill is still there when we get back. Meanwhile, the whisper of luxury continues to tease, continues to tempt, continues to change us in our core.
I don’t mean to be a points party pooper.
But if the point of points is to make the dream bigger – to make the unattainable attainable – I think we’re nearing a dangerous point of no return.
Big dreams – and even bigger getaways – come at a cost, even if they’re paid for in points.
If I want anything for my children, it is that they be happy with less instead of more, with the simple instead of the grand. I daven that they find contentment far from majestic lobbies, far from exotic vacations, but instead, much closer to home.
But maybe I’m just old school. After all, like my kids love to remind me, I was born in the 1900s, when life was simpler and staider – but dare I say, just as sweet?