Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Online Me

Like everyone else, I like to save money when I can. So when we made plans to go out to dinner with some friends to a new place, I quickly went to my computer and trolled for a discount. There is no shortage of sites to check, from CouponSherpa to BeFrugal to Wow-Coupons. In each, you might find a chit for a free appetizer or dessert, or a blanket percentage good for the total bill.  

If you're willing to pay up front, there are also deal sites like Living Social and Gilt City. With them you pay a nominal price for a voucher, giving you a discount against the total. So twenty bucks might get you a $40 coupon, netting you $20 in savings. There are restrictions, of course. Your bill has to be over a certain amount. The total doesn't usually include drinks. It often only applies on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. And you can't have the veal piccata. (Actually, the veal is included, but it's not that good; stick with the chicken.)

Most roads like this will lead you to Groupon, the 800 pound gorilla of the genre. That's where I found an offer that worked for us, one which netted us $15 in savings once the damages were totaled. All good, and it was seamless in its execution. The only wrinkle it caused was when the check came. As usual, we split it on our two credit cards. Simple enough, until we tackled the differential calculus of how to offset the cost of the discount against the tip ("Let's see: we bought the coupon for $15, so should you add that to your tip? And I take it off mine? But you picked us up and drove. Hmmm.").

As part of the transaction, I registered with the site, so they now had my physical address and email. Seemed a small enough price to pay for, well, a smaller price to pay. But now the Great Groupon also now had three key facts about me: a) my zip code, b) the kind of restaurant I liked, and c) my email address. And knowing just that little bit was as good as stapling a target to my email back that said "Kick Me!"

Next time I checked my inbox, there was an offer for a new Indian restaurant near us. I clicked on it, and while it looked worth trying, I passed. But by clicking, and thereby indicating my interest, I added another brushstroke to my self-portrait. Next popped up a Brazilian place. After that, a tapas bar, then a spot for sushi. And they kept coming. I thought my picture was skeletal at best: I live in a certain area. I like to eat out. I like international cuisine. Doesn't seem like a whole lot to go on. But for Big Data, that's all it takes. And so based on all I clicked, and all it knew about me and my ilk, well, INCOMING!

An offer for acupuncture. Maybe some bowling. An indoor water park. Tickets to a show. A sampler of red and white wines. A new phone. An ice cream cake. Several times a day a carrot was dangled in front of me. And truth be told, while the emails contained numerous offers, the one above the fold that was featured was tempting. If not dead center in my sweet spot, it was attractive enough to make me at least think twice before deleting it.

But sooner or later the algorithm got a little flabby. Up popped a deal not for restaurants or shows, but for guns. Specifically, for a Utah Concealed Pistol Permit class. Like that clunk that awakens you from a dream with where you are lolling on the beach, it jolted me out of my reverie of food and shows. Nothing against learning not to shoot yourself in the foot, but it wasn't for me. Perhaps a bad analogy, but the target on my email back had gotten a little too wide.

So click went the "unsubscribe" button. Now, no more emailed coupons for nail salons. No more offers for laser tag birthday parties. No more come-ons for a gluten-free subscription service. I'll still go back and troll for a discount code for a given restaurant, but I'm taking my name off the mailing list as soon as I get on it. After all, I want to save money on a 2010 Cabernet, not a 2013 carbine.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes saving money. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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