Confessions Of A Serial Returner

Illustrated by Shawna Huang.
Most recently, it was a pair of turquoise jeans that didn’t feel like me. Before that, a sweater with a rough seam that escaped notice at the store. The black suede heels, while pretty, were never going to work. These items might languish in some closets for years, maybe decades, before being bagged and donated — unworn and unloved. But, not for me. A transaction doesn’t end the moment I walk out the door, receipt in hand. That may be the end of the shopping phase, but it’s the beginning of the probationary phase.
There hasn’t been a bout of shopping that wasn’t followed within days by another trip to unload, exchange, or otherwise undo what I had done. This isn’t new; I’ve watched myself do it again and again — no matter the season, the occasion, the item. I’m like a criminal drawn back to the scene of the crime. I can’t stay away.
Most stores have a generous return policy, as long as you keep the receipt, and of course I do. And, though I come in ready with my excuse, no one ever asks for it. The salesgirl could care less, tossing the jeans behind her into a pile without a glance at it or me. This easy-returns approach is a smart move — it lowers the hurdle to purchasing and enables me to shop with a “shop first, ask questions later” approach. The store gets more of my money upfront, even if I ultimately return something. And, I invariably do. Though, if I spend $50 on a shirt I don’t end up keeping, I can argue the other side too: I already spent the money, so why not make it an exchange instead?
Illustrated by Shawna Huang.
The probationary stage lasts a day or more, before I’ve fully committed to a purchase. It involves a re-try on at home, a second round of questions (Do I really love it? Do I need it? Will I wear it?). But, sometimes, I’m not sure. Items in question remain in the bag, by the door. The lovely cowl neck was a no brainer. But the royal blue draped cardigan? That’s the wild card. Sometimes they even get a wear around the house until it’s clear: No, no, I can’t keep this. And, I won’t rest until it’s back at the store where I bought it.
It’s not even about cost. The turquoise jeans were $39 at Uniqlo. I’ve spent more on a sushi dinner that was gone in under an hour. But, while the meal is history, the jeans are a mistake I can easily undo. And so, I have developed a completely warped internal balance sheet that says if I return one or two items, even if they total $65, it means I have reduced the overall expense of the original trip. It’s money back. Kind of. I sacrifice an item or two to the retail gods, the way ancient people used to make an offering of crops.
My sisters roll their eyes, especially at the online orders. “What a hassle! I couldn’t be bothered!” Oh, but I can be. In fact, online ordering is a serial returner’s dream. You never try it on until after it arrives, so I give myself a lot more slack.
Once, when I was pressed for time to find the right walking sandals for a trip to China, I ordered five different styles in multiple sizes and colors and turned my apartment into a shoe store for a night. When the return is built into the purchase, the buying is temptingly easy. But, then it becomes a game of “What Goes Back?” And, the more I send back, the better I feel. See? I don’t need all this.
Call it compulsive, indecision, doubt…maybe it’s all of those things. But, it’s the only way I’ve come to make peace with my purchases. I know this stems from the grip of Catholic guilt, which, though mainly skeletal remains at this point, retains its bony hold on my conscience.
Returning is a penance for gluttony, a single sin wiped clean from the record, restoring a fraction of control and a few bucks to my bank account. But, it’s also an escape clause, an excuse — a back-end response to the eternal carousel of the purchase cycle, which involves little more than me chasing my own acquisitive tale.
In fact, I’m headed back today to Bed, Bath & Beyond to return this scale. I was initially drawn to its sleek, glass design and the idea of a daily regimen that included accountability — and a potential barrier to other forms of gluttony. But, this impulse purchase is weighing on me in more ways than one. I look forward tohanding it back over the counter, absolving myself of it, and walking out, redeemed — until the next purchase anyway.

More from Work & Money


R29 Original Series