Spend. Return. Discard. Repeat.

Understanding comes in slivers, glimpses of the big picture that you get, maybe, while standing in line with an overpriced T-shirt at Pacific Sunwear in Meadowood Mall on the weekend before Christmas. The line to spend, spend, spend wraps around the check-out counter, past an aisle of designer boxer shorts ($14.99) and sale-priced sweatshirts (only $30!). But clerks are friendly, and while you’re in this line, your kids can roam the store looking for more stuff. Like a crocheted hackey sack ($6.50), a belt ($14.50) or scarves ($18 or so).

You’ll feel lucky getting out of there with only another $90 or so on the old MasterCard.

Then, days later, in the return line at a major retailer, you’ll wait with so many others to be awarded a gift card for the sale price of merchandise for which you’ve lost the receipt. The $20 T-shirt is worth, it turns out, about $4.50. The $30 sweater—exactly $12.74.

You imagine better moms keep receipts packaged in tidy bundles, sorted by stores or types of purchases. You don’t know these women. You aren’t sure they exist. But somewhere, surely, a mom is dressed in festive red and green. She’s clipping coupons, hand-crafting holiday gifts and generally feeling let down by the resulting lack of appreciation from her own family members who take her for granted.

This is purely hypothetical.

This is not your life.

Your life includes plenty of last-minute shopping for overpriced gifts and realizing, a few days before the Superbowl of Holidays, that your house is the only one in the cul de sac with no strands of outdoor lights.

In a desperate move geared to see your kid with a bright smile on Christmas morning, you buy a game system—like one of those sale-priced Nintendo GameCubes or whatever—and a couple of games. But there are so many console systems and so many games. Your shopping frenzy has resulted in a hefty dopamine rush. And so you are, indeed, as your kid will later note, “tripping” when you mistakenly purchase X-Box games for the GameCube. And, whoops, you also forget to pick up one of the specially marked boxes that contains a free version of Zelda. You don’t even know enough to buy a $20 memory card that’s required to play the games that your kid doesn’t have anyway.

You are an obvious failure, but your kids don’t seem to mind. They laugh at you, and there’s some debate over the meaning of the phrase, “It’s the thought that counts.”

They’ve bought wonderful and thoughtful gifts for you, by the way. Like the whole first season of The Simpsons on DVD, A Clockwork Orange and a lovely candle and a gift certificate at a nifty restaurant. It’s a good feeling.

The good feelings buoy you during the sick, disturbing moments to come. After the unwrappings and the returnings and purchasings of memory cards, there’s that whole clean-out-the-closet-and-garage-to-make-room-for-the-new-stuff episode. Discarded clothes and toys and sporting goods fill the trunk of your car and spill into the back seat.

That’s bad enough even if it weren’t followed by the take-stuff-to-the-thrift-shop-where-employees- reject-it-as-too-junky moment.

“I’d never sell that,” says a thrift trader on inspecting an aging set of bunk beds, a car-top carrier used on only one cross-country camping trip and a TV set with a broken switch, plastered in random stickers.

This leads to the inevitable—a trip to Lockwood. You take a teen who ends up with some real live anxiety over the state of the landfill—and a renewed commitment to reducing consumption and recycling.

You resolve to live simply in the coming year.

Spend less. Waste less.

It’s all good.