The 4 Stupidest Ways Credit Cards 'Reward' You for Spending
Each year of my childhood, a group of middle-aged men would come to my school and give every kid the chance to sell magazine subscriptions in exchange for prizes from a catalog. What at first seemed like an opportunity at entrepreneurship turned out to be pretty blatant child labor. In order to get a boom box or a bicycle or anything good, we would have to sell roughly 1,100 subscriptions. The prizes for selling a more reasonable but still ambitious number of subscriptions, like 15, were so sad, even arcades were too embarrassed to carry them.
"Guess who rolled a perfect game of skeeball, bitches!"
The point is, those middle-aged men took advantage of my fundamental misunderstanding of value, and while I swore that I'd never get suckered by that kind of duplicity again, I realized recently that I was falling for nearly an identical scam as an adult, this time orchestrated by the middle-aged men in the credit card rewards racket.
At some point, banks figured out that as much as people like low interest rates, no annual fees and an online payment system, what we really go berserk for are prizes. We love the idea of getting new stuff, especially when we don't have to do anything to earn that stuff except buy other stuff. We will dive head first into bankruptcy if it means getting a "free" leaf blower, regardless of whether we have any leaves to blow, simply because it feels like a bonus. And even though some banks offer useful prizes like airline miles or cash back to try to coax us into spending more than we can afford, they've also figured out that it doesn't really matter what they offer as long as they call it a "Reward." That's why your bank will present to you, without any hint of sarcasm, the offer to cash in your points on polished hunks of garbage like ...
This Fucking Candle Holder
Card: PNC Bank
Either this candle burns exclusively on pretension or PNC Bank was so self-conscious about earnestly charging 42,000 points for a hunk of glass that they deliberately wrote a misleading product description. Nowhere does it mention, for instance, that this fancy, "hand painted," "contemporary and classic" slice of the American dream is just a cup with some lines on it. The product name is equally as vague: "Orrefors Mine & Yours Hurricane." Considering that you'd need to spend around $15,000 on your credit card just to accrue enough points for it, I would be sorely disappointed if I ordered this and didn't get an actual hurricane in the mail.
Judging by the picture, it looks like maybe it's a beige sleeping bag with a tea light candle painted at the bottom, or else it's a translucent mattress hovering over a giant candle, both of which are far cooler than the actual product. And if you think I'm being too harsh by suggesting that PNC would intentionally try to confuse people into believing that this is anything other than trash, take a look at the same product as it's advertised on other sites.
Seeing the base makes it much clearer that you're just looking at a lump of stupid, and so does the word "Lite" right in the product name, which PNC conveniently dropped. Still, the candle holder is almost $100, according to Amazon -- surely this thing is worth those 42,000 points, right? Well, no. Considering that most banks will offer $100 cash in exchange for every 12,000 to 17,000 points, this piece of schlock actually costs more than double what you would pay for it anywhere else. So enjoy your reward, PNC customers, you more than earned it.
This Fucking Decorative Bead
Card: American Express
As a man who doesn't wear any jewelry save that hemp necklace I regrettably auditioned in the early 2000s, I've never understood trinket culture. It's possible that this wingless bee with a massive hole in its abdomen is highly desirable among charm collectors, but on the other hand, anyone who accumulates bullshit like this shouldn't be allowed to have a credit card in the first place. For starters, it's anatomically incorrect, with only four legs and no thorax, so already American Express is trying to sell you lies. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it's objectively stupid. This is not just a lazy representation of a bee, it's a lazy representation of anything. Without the lines around its lower half, it could just as easily be a tiny golden alien, but, you know, a regal one.
Finally, it's not a full bracelet or a ring, it's one bead that would require over $60,000 in purchases just to get. It's easier to imagine someone buying this with the intention of melting it down and creating something worth owning than someone who exchanges reward points because they genuinely like this bee.
"It only took me six of those little Martians to make this."
The product description says, "designed to reflect each wearer's personal style," which actually makes perfect sense, considering that it's a pointless waste of space disguised as something fancy.
This Fucking FarmVille Horse
While unquestionably cheaper than everything else on this list, any amount of points spent on a pretend horse for a Flash game is an unforgivable waste of money. Judging by the description, the horse doesn't actually do anything in the game, either. It's not like buying a pretend shovel or pretend plow that would make pretend farming easier; the only thing this Clydesdale does in the game is sit in a stable until it potentially produces another stupid Clydesdale to do the same thing.
Now, Citibank offers 1.2 points for every dollar spent, so technically this horse could be yours as soon as you spend just under a thousand dollars in your everyday life, but -- and I can't stress this enough -- it's a pretend horse that does nothing. You can't even show off the new purchase to anyone else without alienating yourself from every friend you have by being that person who sends FarmVille notifications. The only thing you can possibly gain from buying this clip art animal is experience points within FarmVille. Just to be clear, Citibank is offering you the opportunity to cheat at a game in which you are the only participant and in which there is no definitive end. Surely someone should be paying you instead to shoulder a humiliation that special.
This Fucking Collage of Dirt
Card: Wells Fargo
There's a very good reason why professional baseball players toss foul balls into the stands instead of handfuls of dirt. Dirt is not a keepsake, it's just dirt. Yet Wells Fargo is insistent that used dirt from 14 different American League baseball stadiums is something that people might not only actually collect, but also display proudly in a framed wall mount, potentially between the chewed gum they gathered from movie theater seats in every state and that malnourished child they keep chained to the radiator. Yes, a dirt collage would really tie together a sociopath's living room.
It really looks best with natural light.
In addition to all that sweet used dirt you're getting with this reward, there's also an authentication hologram letting you know that it's been kicked around and spit on by real baseball players. In fact, if you pried open the glass, you could probably smell the mixture of dust, chaw and saliva in every capsule. All the best parts of baseball, distilled into tiny compartments. Surely only 24,300 points is worth potentially owning the crusted sheddings of professional athletes.
With any luck, even his mouth cancer will someday be memorabilia.
Though as absurd as used dirt may sound as a credit card reward, sadly, it demonstrates that Wells Fargo has a firm grasp on the weaknesses of their customers. They know that the people who will rack up over $20,000 on a credit card are probably the same people who would be out impulse-buying a dirt collage anyway. By offering it as a reward instead, those people feel like they're getting something for free when in fact it's sending them further into debt. Unless of course they're rich, but let's be honest, rich people don't get rich by paying for clumps of dirt. It's nice to finally see a credit card company listening to the wants and needs of the everyman.
Special thanks to Justin Viar, Adam Lind and Chris Radomile for their help with research for this column.
For more from Soren, check out The 7 Most Useless Skymall Products (Reviewed Accordingly) and My Ill-Fated Attempt to Save a 'Suicide Girl'.