With a wife and three young boys to feed, Rowan Clarke stared down an uncertain future.
Six months ago he quit a comfortable corporate IT job in Wellington to start a lawn mowing/property maintenance business 100km away in his home town Levin. Only trouble was at the start he had no customers.
"It was a bold move to do that, especially lawn mowing in the middle of winter," he admits now. "I had zero customers but the travel (to and from Wellington) had got too much."
Although his business has grown quickly - he can now count at least 50 regular customers - a suggestion from his wife Heather 18 months ago made the step into the world of the self-employed a tad easier.
She suggested he try using the AA Smartfuel card to save on petrol. "I didn't ever think it would work for me. I've been an AA member for 20 years and just ignored the programme when it first started, but when Heather suggested the idea I decided to give it a go."
The results have been beyond all his expectations. In the 18 months he has been using the loyalty card he estimates he has saved close to $2000 in petrol costs, the equivalent of more than 20 free fills.
These savings couldn't have come at a better time. "We pretty much live day-to-day so the savings have made a real difference to the household budget especially as we've also started our new venture. I've also been able to put some of it into investing in equipment for the business," Clarke says.
The heartbreak of spending time away from Heather and his boys during the working week was behind Clarke's decision to quit the corporate world.
An IT specialist, for years Clarke would leave his home every Monday to go to work in Wellington. Rather than face the 200km round trip every day he chose to stay the week in the city, returning to Levin on a Friday evening.
"I would only see the boys (they're aged eight, 10 and 12) and Heather on weekends," he says. "It was tough, but now I'm home every night with them and I enjoy that, it's definitely been good for my personal head space."
Clarke says he and Heather have a dream of taking their sons to England to visit their cousins sometime in the next five years. "Heather's two brothers moved over there and each married English girls, but our boys have never been and $2000 would definitely cover an air ticket. Maybe that is something we could strive for."
Clarke uses both a Mitsubishi Triton ute and a Toyota Hiace van in running his business - Mownua Property Services Ltd - and reckons he powers through $200 worth of fuel every week. Heather, who works in a call centre for Contact Energy, drives a Mitsubishi Outlander.
Clarke says he closely monitors all AA Smartfuel partner retailers (PlaceMakers is one he uses regularly for business purchases) and "religiously chase the 10c and 12c petrol discount days." As a result he builds up a discount of up to $2.50 per litre every 20 to 30 days effectively giving him a free fill.
The programme began eight years ago and in that time the number of unique cardholders has grown to almost 2.4 million with an average of 15,000 new users being added every month. In the last 12 months alone the amount of fuel discounts issued has hit $129.5 million, well above the figure of $95 million for the previous 12 months.
In April this year the number of customers receiving a free fuel fill in a single month topped 5000 for the first time.
The company's managing director Scott Fitchett says these figures show that if you can get free fuel "there's not too many Kiwi drivers who don't want to be a part of that.
"What is great is what people do with the money they've saved," he says. "People contact us all the time with their stories - one I especially like is about the grandparents we spoke to who have been able to afford the petrol to drive from Auckland to Taupo to see their grandchildren."
AA Smartfuel users accumulate cents per litre off their petrol as they spend on regular purchases at any of the more than 1200 partner retail stores and swipe their AA Smartfuel or AA membership card.
Retailers like Countdown, PlaceMakers, House of Travel, Hammer Hardware and Contact Energy are among the programme's partners while the savings can be redeemed (for both petrol and diesel) at over 350 BP and Caltex stations throughout New Zealand.
The fuel discounts accumulated can be tracked by using the programme's app which has over 667,000 downloads. Cards are free and can be picked up from any participating retailer, service station or AA centre. AA members can use their membership cards.
To learn more about how to use the AA Smartfuel card go to AAsmartfuel.co.nz