Debt and Battlefield of the Brain at Christmas Time

DD1 = Dear First Daughter
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter

Battlefield of the Brain

            The young saleswoman was stylish and competent. “That will be $299.45,” she said. It must be a policy here that the employees have to dress in clothes sold by the store, I thought casually with one part of my brain. Another part of my brain was in an uproar. $299! How did that happen? I can’t buy all of this! Somewhat stunned by the warring factions within my head, I mechanically went through the motions of taking out my debit card and swiping it. This was a familiar feeling, but I hadn’t experienced it for a long time.
            Before we started our journey out of debt, it was common for me to enter a store with a vague notion of what I would buy and how much I would spend – and then buy and spend a whole lot more. Any qualms would soon be allayed by a stream of rationalizations: That’s just how much these things cost. The quality is great. She’ll (I’ll/He’ll/They’ll) really like it! We won’t have to pay until the end of next month when the Visa bill comes due. No problem. For a minute or two, there might be that stunned state of misgiving battling it out with desire, but temptation always won, and I’d open myself to the full pleasure of that brain-rush high of buying.

Changing Landscape of the Brain

            At this point, though, we’re eighteen months into our debt-reduction efforts, and the landscape of my brain has changed. First of all, I didn’t walk into that store with an uncertain notion of what I would buy and how much I would spend; I had a Christmas list and a Christmas budget. I knew what items of clothing I was going to buy for DD1 and for DD2, and I knew what my maximum was for each. I got a little lost as I looked through all that was available. A subtle seduction was working its power on me as I imagined DD1’s delight and DD2’s surprise as each opened her gifts Christmas morning. The colours, the fabrics, the variety of styles . . . They wobbled my mental math, making me round down, making me subtract rather than add tax – or so it must have been, because I was way off and genuinely shocked by that $299 total.
            As I walked out of the store, I felt the presence of my old friend, the brain-rush high of buying. Welcome, old friend! Long time no see! And it washed over my doubts. I soon noticed, however, that I was wandering about with no direction, and I realized that the battle in my mind was still unresolved. Here was the second piece of evidence that the landscape of my brain had changed: temptation had not swiftly vanquished my qualms. That brain-rush may have washed over my doubts, but it hadn’t washed them away.
            I sat down on a bench in the mall and cleared my head. I took the receipt out from my purse – third evidence of change! I knew exactly where it was. I figured out how much I had spent on each daughter in question, and it became in-your-face clear that I had blown the budget on DD1. My desire to lavish gifts on her at this time of year is easy to figure out. She lives so far away, and I miss her. The splurge was understandable . . . but that didn’t make it wise. Blowing the budget is not a healthy response to emotion. It is not proof of love. Armed with this insight, my course of action became clear: I would return an item I had bought for DD1 to bring things back in line with the budget.
            Slightly awkward, but so what? (Fourth evidence of change!) Maybe the stylish and competent young saleswoman would roll her eyes back. Maybe she’d sigh in annoyance. Go ahead! Make my day! I walked into the store. There was no line-up at the cash register, and there was no hesitation on my part. “I blew the budget,” I explained, holding out the item I was returning. No eye-rolling. No irritated sigh. The saleswoman punched in some numbers, got me to swipe my debit card, and then wrote on the gift receipt. “Uh,” she seemed concerned. “If your daughter uses this receipt to make an exchange, she’s going to see the refund.” I saw what she meant, but told her not to worry about it. “She knows her mother is on a budget,” I said. The saleswoman, stylish and competent, concluded our transaction graciously. “We all are,” smiled.

Clarity and Contentment

            I left the mall yesterday evening with a feeling different from the brain-rush high of buying. It was a more sober contentment, characterized by a surprising clarity of mind – one that took in the abundance of my situation, despite the returned gift. Despite our debt. Temptations abound at this time of year. Disguised as joy and love, they’re enough to derail just about anyone. But if you open up to thinking outside the debt-matrix – if you catch every longing to buy and just sit with it for a while to figure out what it really is – if you face the possibility of judgement or awkwardness head-on, you just might overcome those temptations. And you just might tap into a happiness that money can’t buy.  

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  1. A similar win for us this evening – walking out of Costco without buying anything we hadn’t intended to.

    1. Well done! These “small” victories are very significant. Someone recently told me that most people who shop at Costco do so without a list, and they end up buying so much random, appealing stuff that they don’t need. You were the exception to that rule. More power to you!

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