The Responsible Thief

by Kate Abbott

My two-year-old Henry and I were playing in the front yard when the UPS truck pulled up to our house. Henry and I both know the sound it makes, so we knew it was coming before we saw it. Henry loves the UPS truck. It brings his favorite items: boxes.

The driver, who I had not actually seen before, despite his visits to our house every other day, brought me several more boxes, filled with clothes and books. He smiled at us, bearing gifts that I had bought myself and Henry, and while I took the electronic tablet, he said, “This is getting to be a regular stop on my route.”

I flushed and couldn’t look at him. I knew he’d been coming to my house a lot, much more than any other house on my street. As I signed for the delivery, I felt a pressing need to explain the situation to him: “Let me tell you about the deal I got: it’s free shipping both ways, and cheaper than in any stores. I’m probably not even keeping this. And I’m a student again, so I got free Amazon Prime for a year! Sorry about all the gas your truck uses — but we drive a Prius. I’m responsible. Really.” But I looked up to accept the latest batch of boxes, towering over my head as Henry danced around my legs, and all I could say was the obvious: “Yikes. That’s embarrassing.” Normal people didn’t seem to experience Christmas-like receiving several times a week. I gave him a friendly smile, and hoped he didn’t think I was crazy.

The driver, already jogging back to the truck, called out, “Ah, that’s the way we all shop now. Even my family.” He waved to us, and his truck rumbled down the street to its next stop. I hoped I wouldn’t be outside when he came again.

My husband Brad and I have no debt (other than our house and cars). We pay off our credit cards every month. I don’t buy armfuls of clothes from the mall and stash them in a secret closet, where they sit forever with the tags still on. By these standards — even just the no-debt standard — it might seem there is no problem at all. But I know there is, or I wouldn’t be so embarrassed by the UPS guy’s regular visits. I don’t want to see the UPS guy more regularly than my friends; I don’t want to have to deal with more cardboard boxes, more returns to brick-and-mortar stores, and most importantly, I don’t want to feel that sick guilt when I have received more stuff that I know I don’t need. But I still find myself typing out the familiar numbers of my credit card online whenever I see an item I can’t resist. And there are usually a lot of items that I can’t resist.

Brad, the economic analyst, and I went over our finances earlier in the week. He showed me how quickly our savings were draining.

“These numbers can’t be right,” I said, staring at an Excel sheet with big red deficit columns, showing that we — that I — had spent $2,000 more than we made last month, and $3,000 over our income the month before that. “The numbers lie. It’s said before we went over budget, and it always works out fine.” Previously, we’ve both been working. Right now, I’m not, but I seem to forget that when I see a good deal at my favorite online shops. When we did go over budget in the months before these, it was for a good reason: we’d finally replaced the nasty old kitchen carpet and linoleum with eco-friendly, but not economically friendly, new flooring. But what had I bought lately that could have added up to so much? I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember what was in the new boxes that had been delivered earlier in the day.

Brad sighed. I could feel him watching me try to make sense of the columns of digits. I felt like I did in high school, looking at a page of algebra equations: nauseous. I wanted to stop thinking about numbers. I wanted Brad to stop looking at me.

“Let’s cut up my credit card,” I suggested. Maybe I just needed a dramatic gesture, a ceremony, to separate myself from my shopping.

“Do you think that would really help?” he asked.

I had long ago memorized the numbers, and my main vice was shopping online, anyway. “Probably not.”

That night, I finished reading two finance books from the library. I already knew all the concepts. I knew what I was supposed to be doing. I watched Suze Orman until she made me anxious, denying callers on her show purchases that I would have approved. It seemed to me that the callers had plenty of money, and Suze told them all that they didn’t have enough. I wanted to tell Suze we were doing the right things: We didn’t carry debt. We rarely ate out. I read borrowed library books. We were money conscious. How could I have spent thousands more than we took in each month? I switched to HGTV.

I went online to research more books that would help. I knew that if I continued to spend like I was, eventually our savings account that we had worked so hard for would empty, for the first time we wouldn’t be able to pay off our credit card bills, and I would feel terrible for wasting our money — especially lately, since Brad was the only one making money. But then, I saw an e-mail from Zappos advertising a pair of shoes that was back in stock in my size. I made an aggressive case with myself for ordering them: They’re practical, so this wouldn’t be a frivolous purchase. I have them in black, but these are brown. They’ll last for years.

I clicked through the e-mail link, reading all the positive reviews and watching the model strut around in the shoes. I ordered them effortlessly with a couple of mouse clicks. My new shoes would arrive on my porch the next afternoon (free overnight shipping, since I was a “VIP” customer). Henry loved when I got shoes. He liked to watch me try them on, and then he would try them on and wear the shoeboxes, too. We would have such a fun time with these new shoes.

After I clicked the order button, I remembered how only that morning, I had crept out of the living room, leaving Henry watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for two hours so I could sneak onto the computer in pursuit of a one-day-only deal, in search of a perfect toy for him at half price. I had wasted hours that I should have been playing with him, looking for some toy that he could play with. I had only meant to look for half an hour. Guilt crept through me. I realized I would have to tell Brad about that purchase too, although I probably wouldn’t tell him I’d ignored Henry to make it, and now I felt dizzy and sick again.

I marched into the living room and told my husband I ordered some shoes. He looked stressed, but he didn’t even look disappointed. My momentary relief that he wasn’t angry — or at least wasn’t vocalizing it — was overwhelmed with his look: nodding his head slowly, watching me like he knew exactly that I would buy more after discussing how we don’t have enough to keep buying, and also wondering how he could have attached himself to this person forever. He had expected a nearly instant relapse from me. I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach. I hated that he wasn’t even surprised more than if he’d been angry.

I knew I didn’t need a new financial book. The next day, I made an appointment with a therapist.

The day before my therapy session, I went to the mall without Henry to return items stuffed with receipts into the biggest two shopping bags I could find. My mom came with me — she would never turn down a trip to the mall — and helped me carry my bags, which included six pairs of drapes to JC Penney, wall art and a rug to Urban Outfitters, and ill-fitting tops and pants to Nordstrom. I had been glad when the curtains didn’t look good in our house, when the clothes didn’t flatter me. It made the decision to return them easy. It felt like such a relief to get money back. My previous transgressions were wiped out with each card swipe.

Despite it being the day before Halloween, the mall was packed with families and couples staking out early advertised holiday sales. I was relieved to see that the interior wasn’t yet decked out for the upcoming season. The palm trees were still on display, not yet covered up by faux evergreen garlands and twinkling plastic icicles. But you could see it coming: an empty expanse of shiny tile had been cleared of potted plants and couches to make way for Santa and a long line. The mall looked naked. It was awkward, this gaping space ready for Santa’s arrival right after Halloween.

The individual shops, however, didn’t wait for the Halloween season to officially end before launching into Christmas. Every shop I went into, to make a return or look around, had windows full of tiny kid-sized mannequins bundled up in new sweaters, hats, and mittens, playing in snow that wasn’t there. (Or here: I’ve lived in Northern California my entire life, and I’ve seen it snow two times, for a couple of hours each time.) But it still made me think, “Henry doesn’t have mittens. He needs mittens! What if we want to play outside when it’s cold? Then we wouldn’t have to go this mall for recreation! It would probably save me money in the long run, keeping us out of the mall later, if I bought these mittens now…” I had to talk myself out of talking myself into spending

Nothing appealed to me enough to have to tell Brad that I’d made yet another purchase. But even with returns on items that might help to neutralize my wild spending for the month, buoyed by my mom’s excitement at getting to visit stores she didn’t have near her house, I felt like I had money to spend from those returns. I latched onto her shopping excitement, and after resisting so many stores’ items and feeling responsible, I made one attempt at a purchase: a sweater (soft, machine washable, discounted). The sales associate saw me eying it and suggested a shirt to go with it. I turned her down and felt frugal about just buying the sweater.

I took it to the register and it didn’t ring up at the price I expected. It was $59.99. It should have been $48. I wavered. I’m not great with numbers, but I am generally pretty good about figuring out discounts.”Isn’t this on sale?”

“No, this is a promotional price,” the sales associate said, as though that explained it. “Sale items are different. They’re against that wall.” She pointed to the far end of the store, where ill-lit clothes bearing red price stickers were clustered together. “This sweater is from that rack.” She pointed to the display I had gravitated to, where the clothes were hung neatly underneath a spotlight and a big “promotional offer” sign.

I was still confused. “The sign says this is discounted, though,” I said, gesturing to the artful sweater display.

“It’s actually a promotion. It’s not a sale,” she said.

I left the sweater and headed home, relieved that retail red tape had saved me. Shopping in real life was way too complicated.

I had been reluctant to visit the therapist originally. I postponed it, blaming finances, thinking, “I’ll just spend $15 on this self-help book instead!” Or even worse, “This new pair of shoes costs the same price as one session — and these will certainly improve my mood longer!” But once I started seeing her, I realized it was the best money I had ever spent.

I felt immediately comfortable with her. She looked like how I would want to look in about 20 years — longish gray hair, interesting hippie-esque necklaces, well-made sandals almost identical to my own. Her office was in one of the quirky old Victorian houses I loved in midtown. She had the same white noise machine we used at home to comfort Henry. She kept the lights low and had a fluffy chair I could plop into and feel myself relax. I thought of her as a doctor, or maybe a mechanic, who would fix me, and wasted no time in being honest about what was happening (I was mindful that I was paying a premium each minute). I filled her in on every agonizing detail of my shopping and money problem. I was expecting we’d talk about obsessive-compulsive disorder for shopping and ways to stop it. Instead she asked me if I’d been unusually stressed recently.

I said yes. I talked about not working and not earning money for over a year. I knew, in theory, I was contributing to our family in my own way by staying home with Henry full-time (although leaving him to watch TV while I shopped online was definitely not making a positive contribution). I talked about my upcoming grad school tuition. Then, thinking of grad school but completely off the money topic, I started talking about how excited I was to go back to school soon, to have projects of my own to work on, to use a different part of my brain than was required for a day with a two-year-old. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I got into that,” I said, glancing at the clock. I wanted to get back to talking about money and my shopping addiction.

Unknown to me, my face and fidgeting and nail-picking revealed all of my anxiety and uncertainty about having left my job, about not exactly enjoying spending all day with a toddler, about feeling guilty for not enjoying it all, and about deciding to go back to school, which would take some time away from Henry. But the therapist saw it. She leaned toward me and explained it seemed to be more than a coincidence that my shopping problems escalated dramatically around the same time I realized I was tired of being an at-home parent without another outlet. Around the same time I wanted to apply for grad school.

I agreed it seemed to be more than a coincidence, some recognition dawning on me for the first time. “But why would I spend more money when I know we have less?”

She sat back in her own puffy chair, relaxed. It comforted me. She seemed to think she understood me, and I felt I would too. “To answer that, I think the question is, What does shopping give you that you want?”

I was blank. “Ummm…” was all the insight I could come up with. “Stuff” was the obvious answer, and I did love stuff, but then again…I usually decided to return most of the stuff, when I didn’t like it so much after I actually had it in my home.

“Try this,” she offered. “How would you feel if you couldn’t shop?”

I imagined it: a week without being able to go online to my favorite stores, to sort through lovely items on sale, to have new things brought to me. To reward myself after or before or during a long day of invisible parenting work. To reward Henry for putting up with me as an imperfect mother. To give Henry fun things to play with because I didn’t always want to play with him myself. My heart constricted. I wasn’t sure I could even articulate the feeling, and I told her that, but I said, “It would make me feel…little. Like I’m a little kid. Like I’m not in charge.” I was still confused — I didn’t quite see the point of this.

The therapist repeated my words back to me. I re-heard myself saying them. And then the connections snapped together. I thought shopping helped me show myself I was an adult, that I could make my own decisions about things I liked, that Henry and I both deserved stuff as a reward for getting through trying days, and that my personality and interests weren’t entirely overcome by being an at-home mom. I didn’t want to feel powerless. I had money, so I could spend it. And I did.

I was astonished. I like to write stories, and shape characters, and make detailed character personality lists, including favorite hobbies and flaws, but I couldn’t see them in myself. I couldn’t see my own plotline, how the different pieces of the story were all woven together. The mystery seemed so obvious, when I looked back at the events, but I couldn’t figure it out on my own the first time through.

Even after being aware of why I wanted to browse and buy things, my money seemed to be trying to run away from me. Maybe it was a cosmic test. Maybe I was taking it too personally. But it seemed like even if I decided not to spend, my credit card still ached for action.

While studying our current credit card statement online, Brad spotted two charges from Downey, about 400 miles away from where we live: $25 at a bar and a little over $200 at Old Navy. We both stared at the two phantom charges, tucked between my own series of purchases and returns, and I felt a bit of private detective pride. “Gotcha!” I wanted to say to the anonymous Downey charges. So busted.

I made a call to my credit card company. The fraud people were pleasant, and I heard them clicking away on their keyboards as they filled out paperwork to cancel my old card and send a new one. During one of the silences, the man on the phone attempted to make conversation: “And are you enjoying using your Disney Visa credit card?” I imagined him having my entire buying history on his screen. Obviously, I was enjoying using it — at least, I had been.

I wasn’t sure how to answer him. “I guess so,” I said, and he told me to destroy my old card and have a magical day. I finally cut up my credit card.

That night, as I navigated through my dark bedroom past piles of laundry, tripping and thinking that I already owned way too many clothes, I wondered who had gotten the card number. I wondered how she or he had gotten it, but mostly I wondered who this person was. Tears welled up and stung me with surprise; I hadn’t expected to feel sorry for the person who had cost me part of an afternoon on the phone with my credit card’s fraud division, but I did. I thought about the hundreds of dollars in purchases I made online, and the bags of luxury goods I lugged into the mall (or the post office) to return later. This person had a stolen credit card number, and she or he decided to live it up by spending two hundred bucks at Old Navy, and going out for a drink?

Even after all my battles with my conscience and money, I wouldn’t have considered shopping at Old Navy an indulgence. I would have thought of it as shopping frugally. I climbed into bed, under my new, soft, unnecessarily frilly Anthropologie comforter, and cried for this person who lived such a different life, who thought of money and indulgence completely differently than I did. I realized with a sinking feeling that the credit card thief was more conservative with money than I was.

I awoke happy I would be getting a credit card with a new number I would not commit to memory. When my card arrived a few days later — with sparkly stars and a castle on the front (this was a Disney Visa, after all) — I turned it back and forth to watch the stars shimmer. I thought of the card thief, and I thought of my credit card company, probably delighted I would be spending again and hoping that for the first time, I might not make the full payment this month. I thought of Henry and all the toys and books and clothes I had bought him, and still could buy for him. I found myself hoping that the thief bought warm jackets and practical clothes for her family and herself — the thief had turned into a woman, a mother, in my mind — and hoped that she would find a way to get the things she needed in an honest, responsible, healthy way. I tucked my new credit card into my wallet, and hoped the same for me.

Kate Abbott has still not memorized her new credit card’s numbers. She is working on a YA novel, Disneylanders, and is attending the MFA program in creative writing at UCRiverside–Palm Desert.Photo: Flickr/cdharrison

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