Like all cultures, Frequent Flyer Mile Collectors have their tales of legend, told in hushed tones around the evening campfire. And one of the most famous tales is of David Phillips, better known to all as “The Pudding Guy.” It’s a truly amazing story that I’ll only briefly summarize here.
Once upon a time, while doing his routine grocery shopping, David noticed a promotion that Healthy Choice foods was running. For every ten UPC codes he mailed in, he’d receive 1,000 frequent flyer miles in the program of his choice. When he realized that an individual pudding cup actually had its own UPC code, and only cost 25 cents, he raced into action. He cleaned out his grocery store, then upped the ante by jumping in a van and emptying out every single Grocery Outlet in California’s Central Valley. If you lived in Sacramento or Modesto, and had a hankerin’ for some pudding on that May weekend, you were out of luck – David owned it all. He had cornered the pudding market, turned himself into a modern-day Pudding Rockefeller. With a little help, he cut off all the UPC codes from 12,150 individual pudding cups, and when the custard settled, David had earned a total of 1,253,000 miles, for about $3,150 in cost, not including his tax write-off for donating the pudding to charity. And thus, he was elevated into the Pantheon of Miles Godhood. The story made national news. It actually partially inspired an Adam Sandler movie (no, not Happy Gilmore. There’s no evidence that David ever punched out Bob Barker).
But was it worth it?
On the surface, that seems like a ridiculous question. But I ask it to introduce a very important, and obvious, variable that many miles collectors fail to consider in their mileage schemes – their time.
When you’re buying pudding, or hunting for Vanilla Reload cards, or mileage running to Kazakhstan, you’re not spending time with your family. You’re not playing poker with your buddies or sipping apple-tinis with the girls. You’re not obsessively filming your daughter’s soccer game so you can present the coach with evidence of insufficient playing time. Mileage collection schemes take time away from other things you could be enjoying, and you should be including that in your “is it worth it?” calculation.
Let’s look at the Pudding Guy again. A conservative estimate of the value of one American AAdvantage mile is 1.8 cents. That means that David earned $22,554 worth of AA miles for $2,335, after taxes. But let’s say that he spent the whole weekend buying pudding (we’ll assume he still got seven hours of sleep a night). That’s 34 hours of personal time spent. How much is that time worth? That’s a very unscientific question, and one that every individual will have to answer for themselves. Is your free time worth at least as much as your professional time? If you make $75K a year, then 34 hours of your time is worth $1,275. David still comes out ahead by a country mile. But what if he’d spent a week collecting pudding? What if he’d taken vacation time to do it?
But that’s still not everything you have to consider. While you were napping through that dull Economics class years ago, you may have missed an important concept called opportunity cost. Basically, what opportunity cost boils down to is: what did I give up so that I could buy (or do) this? If I buy a new laptop for $1,000, then I not only shelled out a chunk of salary – I also won’t be able to use that $1,000 to buy something else, like a nice vacation in Mexico, or Arena Football season tickets, or that bladder operation for little Sally’s Calico kitty. You can’t spend money – or time – twice. Time spent on mileage activity cannot be spent on anything else (and the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon … little boy blue and the man in the moon … sniff, sob, sniff).
What did David skip out on, when he decided to embark on his Epic Pudding Quest? Did he bail on his sister’s wedding, igniting a firestorm of family angst and heartache? Maybe he blew off a meeting with his old college roommate, and missed an opportunity to invest in the ground floor of a red-hot Silicon Valley dot-com. Did he put off fixing that leaky spot in the roof, which got worse a week later and caused $15K in damages? Yes, these are all extreme examples to illustrate a point. In all likelihood, the opportunity cost he surrendered was very low. Maybe his original plans for that weekend were to veg on the sofa in his old Guns ‘n’ Roses concert T-shirt and destroy a jumbo bag of Cheetos while playing Madden Football on his PlayStation (mmmm … Cheetos).
The point is that there’s more than just money and miles to consider in the equation. Your time has value, as does the rest of your life, your family, and your social activity. But just so I’m not accused of being a Debby Downer here, remember, intangibles work their way into both sides of the equation. Spending a couple of days on a pudding hunt may be a small price to pay for spending a week on a sunny beach in the Greek islands!