Buy first, explain it later

My mother was surprised, to say the least, when she discovered my father had purchased an ultralight aircraft without taking that little step of mentioning it beforehand.

This was 15 or 20 years ago, when my Dad was going through what one might call a post-retirement phase of discovery. He assumed, correctly, that if he’d told my mom about the plane, she’d have nixed the idea – or, at the very least, hassled him a good deal about it. After all, there’s probably not a woman on earth who can’t think of something else to spend $20,000 on than a dangerous toy. New cabinets, perhaps, or flooring; drapes and valences, a cruise.

Nope, Dad figured, better to beg for forgiveness after the fact than risk being thwarted from the purchase.

But while the scale of this particular “non-consultative spousal acquisition” was much greater than anything that came before it, my Mom was certainly guilty over the years of buying things my Dad didn’t – and never would – know about. Mom knew that things Dad thought frivolous – ranging from a church donation to kitchen curtains or handouts to us kids – would elicit howls she didn’t want to hear. And so she created a kind of shadow economy – a miniature version of her normal operating budget that she set aside for the non-consultative acquisitions and offspring grants and loans.

This sort of arrangement was, I suspect, quite common in the previous generations, where Dad worked and Mom ran the house. In our case, it was a cash economy, and Mom received X-amount each week with which to buy groceries and other things. It was a lot easier that way to squirrel a 10 or a 20 away in the vast recesses of Mom’s handbag – no pesky debit-card-based checkbook with an online component that can be checked at any time.

It doesn’t take long after a wedding for men and women to discover that vast differences can exist between what the respective spouses value. I could hang, say, burlap over the windows and get used to it in a day or two. I also think cheap laundry detergent does the same job as the expensive Tide my wife buys. And even if it didn’t, I’d live with the slightly less-great smell and reduced cleaning power. After all, we live in a snowy place and all attend school or do office jobs; we are not oil riggers or diesel mechanics. How dirty can our clothes get?

And yes, I occasionally come across mysterious items that have been acquired without any input from me. “When did we get this?” I’ll ask, holding up a box with some random toy or exercise device.  Jen will usually tell me said items was purchased some years ago and cost a nickel – even it was acquired last week and cost a C-note. For this is the first rule of the non-consultative spousal acquisition: Exaggerate greatly how little it cost and put the purchase date so long in the past that there can be no question of returns.

Some point soon, it being nearly spring, we will go through our garage, many storage closets and rooms, crawl spaces and attics and get rid of much of this stuff through channels like consignment shops, thrift stores and younger siblings and relatives. It is part of the natural consumer order of things, and a process I don’t have much to do with. Because I’m the guy with the annoying question:

“Why did we ever get this in the first place?”


Managing Editor Alex Miller can be reached at or 748.2920.

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