This post originally appeared on The Billfold.
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 moneyback. My previous transgressions were wiped out with each card swipe.
To find out how Kate beat her addiction once and for all (and why shopping in person just wasn’t the same), keep reading at The Billfold.