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Prudence and Bliss

This essay originally aired on public radio.


My relationship with money has always been strained. It swings between frugality and careless abandon — often within the same shopping trip. I spend.

Then repent.

This has led to a variety of consumer predicaments. Once, after a particularly effective come-on at the cosmetic counter (the mall equivalent of a red-light district) I bought a stupidly expensive exfoliater. I made up for it by agreeing to a “free” carpet-cleaning offer from a telemarketer. The freebie, of course, turned out to be a relentless demonstration for a $1600 dollar device, ending in an extortion attempt for phone numbers of friends and family. (For the good of the many, I gave up my brother, Noah.)

Not long after I bought an overpriced purse. This led to attending a promotional event for a new golf community. Located near a factory outlet the pay-off was supposed to be two hundred Outlet Bucks. I cajoled my family into coming, promising to split the money between the kids.

The spiel was relatively painless. I sat in the audience organizing my new purse. Afterwards we were herded into another room to collect payment.

Literally. An industrial fan hooked up to a little booth was whipping phony money around in a paper tornado. I looked pleadingly at my spouse. He shook his head.

My kids were ruthless so I climbed in and valiantly tried to snag the projectile slips of currency. Then I just tried to protect my face. Through a veil of Outlet Bucks I peered at my husband. He was laughing so hard he was kneeling.

I got 33 dollars for my efforts.

One might think that little escapade would’ve cured me. It didn’t. After yet another misguided purchase, I was in search of repentance. When I got a call saying I’d won a family ski trip in exchange for a quick tour of a nearby vacation spot, I accepted.

We parked at the Welcome Center and were assigned to John — a cross between Willy Loman and Chris Mathews. On speed. His desperation was contagious. We followed him to his little compact and I watched with a sinking feeling as my 6’3 husband folded himself into the backseat.

The hype started before the car did. “Let me get one thing straight.” John barked. “This is NOT a time-SHARE operation. Everyone here’s an actual OWNER!”

My spouse dug his knee into the back of my seat. Hard.

We toured a collection of dingy trailers parked near a suspicious looking lake. Downtrodden residents staggered around like extras from Night of the Living Dead. I kept expecting to be palmed a rescue note through the car window.

Finally John drove us to the lodge for a soda and our ski trip voucher. Other people were seated with guides doing the hard sell. Every time somebody caved, his salesperson would jump up and ring a huge bell. “There goes another one!” John would warn. (Which actually got my consumer juices flowing. I started worrying about scarcity.)

But I got a hold of myself and explained that we really just wanted the vacation.

John glared, gathered himself up and walked away. He ditched us. No soda, no free ski-pass, no ride back to the parking lot.

And no more company on acts of consumer contrition. In fact, my husband is urging financial counseling.

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