Back in the days when I was still a classroom teacher, my fellow educators used to give me a lot of good-natured ribbing over my choice to eat school lunch a couple days a week. My laughing rebuke reminded all present I was a college coach’s daughter and sometimes hot dogs were the entrée du jour. Therefore, cafeteria food did not scare me. I was actually a great school lunch kid, because I simply ate what they gave me. No choice was involved. Most who meet me would be shocked to know I am sometimes paralyzed by choice.

Although this isn’t why we settled in a rural southwestern Minnesota town, the fact that often my choices are limited by what is available in my small town is somewhat comforting to me. In the last few years, this has been a huge money saver as well. Oh don’t misunderstand me, I can shop away with the best of them online and once upon a time had my bank card number memorized. But a small town rewards card changed my shopping patterns to benefit not only myself but also local schools. As a teacher, I see the benefits as a true win-win for everyone!

Several local schools started fundraising campaigns using a Preferred Loyalty shopper card whereby cardholders use the card at local business to accumulate reward dollars. With every purchase a small percentage returns to the card and another small percentage is placed in a fundraising account at the school. Eventually, cardholders are able to redeem the earned rewards and gift balances (some businesses sweeten the pot by activating bonus rewards on the cards) just as if it were cash in hand at the store.

Wait a minute, a girl who doesn’t like choice is given a card in which she can limit her consumer selections to businesses where she already shops AND she receives rewards to do so? Send in the choirs of angels! That is indeed how it works. While this program is limited to merchants in Minnesota, there are similar programs nationwide. The loyalty card program is not new concept, but the way I choose to use the card is something that has greatly benefited my family.

My secret is really a novel “savings” plan. I go about my normal life accumulating reward points eleven months out of the year, and then when spending becomes tight because of the extra holiday expectations, I redeem my rewards in the month of December. The small purchases made here and there throughout the year result in unexpected savings at the end of the year.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to utilize the card to redeem points. As the mom of a busy family going in many different directions during the holidays, we usually get three entirely free meals for our family from our reward points. The groceries needed for our Christmas meals and baking are also completely covered. And my favorite are those letterman’s jackets that all my athletes have at one time or another wanted, which NEVER go on sale and cost over $300. I have yet to pay full price for one. In actuality, I have only paid a little over $100 for each, by accumulating my sporting goods purchase points over a two-year time period. Yes, on that one, I had to play my card right (pun intended) to reap the benefit of huge savings.

Like I said earlier, the rewards card program isn’t a new concept. For me, choosing to frequent businesses that invest in our community and school isn’t entirely novel either because hardworking small business owners are the backbones of small communities. I appreciate everything these men and women do to keep our town revitalized and thriving without much effort on my part–other than that my purchases “count” toward a savings plan with year-end dividends, which is something that my family appreciates each year about this time.