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Essay

The Ticking Timebook

A conscientious Californian tries to save public schools one discount coupon at a time

January 15, 2006|Dawn Bonker | Dawn Bonker is a freelance writer based in Irvine.

I don't need the onion bagel. My husband doesn't want the croissant. And he hates the coffee, a brew so thick it looks like something ladled out of the La Brea Tar Pits.

But here we are, and sip and eat we do, and fun we must have. Quickly, too. For I am on a mission. I am a woman with a coupon. And not just any coupon, but a golden buy-one-get-one-free ticket plucked from one of those cumbersome discount books chock-full of come-hither deals and hawked by children whose schools are desperate for a few extra bucks. We are doing our part for California schools. Really.

Yes, I actually paid for this personal hell. Bought the book last fall. Hardly had a choice. A new book comes home each year with the kid, to be returned only if we decide not to purchase. I grumbled and wrote the check. Again. But this year I decided I was going to make the coupon book pay for itself. And all before the expiration dates printed in teeny-tiny print in the corner of each coupon.

Maybe I was delusional, but this year I was in the autumn of my coupon book life. In the waning days of my youngest son's elementary school career, I knew that these books and the gift wrap catalogs that arrive like leaf litter on the Santa Ana winds would soon depart. Next would be the middle school magazine sale. The high school my oldest attends doesn't bother to play this game. Got money? Good. Send it in. Later they'll "invite" us to bid on spa baskets at the music department's silent auction, festoon our houses in holiday greens sold by the baseball team and sink $125 into a casino night to boost the basketball program, the most honest deal of all--at least there we know we're gambling.

So I had just one more year with the book. I rifled through the fat boy's crisp pages and marveled at the possibilities. This year, to land the half-off deal, we would dine out before 5 p.m. at the restaurant with the faux Corinthian columns in a city 20 miles away. Yes, we would slog through midweek traffic to Dodger Stadium to sit in discounted outer reserve seats previously purchased, oh-so-conveniently, from the Advance Ticket office in parking lot 2. We would drive to Fontana for a NASCAR race and pay only one admission. Scratch that. The coupon's not valid for NASCAR races. There are others? Whatever. This would be a blast.

First up is the initiation of the little gold "membership card" that comes with each book. We flash this card like hoi polloi at the finer restaurants listed at the front of each book, the ones that have "bistro" or "ristorante" in their names or photos of their chefs crawling out of the ocean with lobsters in tow.

We trot off to our favorite Mexican restaurant--on a Saturday night, in town. Score! I drag the card from my purse and sneak it across the table to my husband. As much as I love snagging a deal, the process feels cheesy. My husband thinks so, too, but he humors me. Sort of.

"I really hate this," he mutters, giving me what will become the family hallmark of the year: The Book Look, a grumpy, eye-rolling, please-don't-haul-that-thing-out-again grimace.

A few months later we're in Target and my sons ask for Icees.

"Next time," I tell them. "There's a coupon in the book."

They, too, have mastered the grimace. But I carry on. Indeed, I pick up speed. I stow the book in the car. It seems that all the best coupons are for stuff about 20 miles from home. And you never know when you're going to be somewhere and suddenly need six bagels for the price of three. Or a game of bowling. Bowling is big in the book. So are doughnuts. I'm pretty sure you could bowl and eat doughnuts every day of the year, all for half price.

The far-from-home tactic works at Lake Tahoe when I spot the coupon book logo at the ticket window for lake cruises. I slip my husband the card and get the look, but cha-ching! Half price! Good thing, too, because the cruise is so dreary we would have jumped overboard had we paid full fare.

By late summer, the book's fall expiration date looms on the fund-raising horizon. It's time to get serious, so we plan a day around an especially alluring discount. We head to the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach because it's lovely there, the book has an admission discount, and adolescent boys are always delighted to stroll through art shows with their parents while listening to dulcimer music.

After that happy outing, the book is somehow kicked under the passenger seat of my minivan. I all but forget it when a friend calls one windy fall day. There's an autumn urgency in her voice.

"We've got to go to dinner. We've got to use this book. Soon!" she says.

Poor thing. She has one, too. My son had sold it to her, so I feel responsible. But my strength is flagging. I can't go the distance. I have spent more money to buy and use the book than I have saved with the book. It's too tricky.

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