Surprise! I got a bill in the mail a few days ago.

Surprise! I got a bill in the mail a few days ago.

I don't get many bills - at least not in my name - because I almost never charge things, so it was, in fact, a surprise, though I've had better.

I suppose I'd be accustomed to bills if my husband and I had the arrangement that I've gathered most people have. In most marriages, if a random, informal, entirely anecdotal survey can be introduced as evidence, the woman pays the bills and buys the groceries while the man pays for his haircuts and the children's college educations.

Our arrangement is different. Too long ago for me to recall the "why" of it, my husband started paying the bills while I paid for groceries, the children's clothes - when our daughters still were children - school workbooks, field trip fees, yearbook checks and so on - when our daughters still were public school students - and other minor expenses such as book bags, haircuts, clothing, shoes and college application fees. I also wrote most of the notes that went to school with our daughters over the years, the notes that explained illnesses, dentist appointments, a daughter's failure to leave spaces between words when writing the week's spelling list (an offense that merited a day's detention), both daughters' tardiness (we were shoveling out the driveway), a daughter's inadvertent use of a chair's rungs as a footrest (another detention) and so on. Of course, notes to school have nothing to do with division of a family's financial responsibilities. They do, however, explain why I always felt vaguely guilty when walking the halls of learning, while my husband visited school with cheerful insouciance.

But to return to the topic of bills. I rarely receive them, as I say, and the sight of my name peering from a windowed envelope surprised me.

I wondered, at first, if I'd bought something in my sleep. Or while online, which sometimes amounts to almost the same thing.

I never charge things, although I do have several stores' charge cards, because well, you know why. Because you can get an extra 10 percent off if you open a charge account today, that's why. I usually brush off such offers the way I brush crumbs off the toaster, but every so often, thrilled with the deep, deep discount I'm already getting, I go all the way. The store practically owes me money by the time my application has been approved, and if I never use the card again, well, no matter. It adds to my wallet's gravitas just the same.

But here's the thing. Stores know what I'm up to. Of course they know. Thousands of shoppers every day are enticed to open charge accounts in order to claim some small prize - a percentage off, this lovely necklace, the chance to win a dream vacation.

Then these shoppers proceed to sit on their plastic like so many laying hens instead of using it to buy stuff. Even I, a person with no intention of swiping store charge cards all over the place, can see how annoying this behavior might be.

"After we gave them all that money off!" the stores probably fume. "And those lovely necklaces too!"

So here's what they did: They came up with a sale, a great sale, an irresistible sale offering the chance to buy extremely desirable items for practically nothing. Look, they're offering an actual gift card that we can use to purchase these desirable items! Let's buy some right away!

And only after you're at the cash register, halfway through the check-out process, do you discover what the teeny-tiny print on the gift card says.

It says to get the irresistible price on the desirable items, you have to use your store charge card.

Two points for the store.

Some of us, however, don't give up without a last-ditch effort to cling to our values. After a moment of ambivalence - should I not buy the items after all? Resign myself to paying later? - I paid off my charge account balance immediately and left the store beholden to no one. Well, to no department store, anyway. Two points for me.

And now this: a bill. "Pay online," a message on the envelope suggested cheerfully.

Lips pursed, I opened the envelope. It's probably just a flier, I thought. But no. It was a bill, with three slick-paper advertising inserts and a return envelope.

"Purchases: $66.02," the bill said. "Payments: $66.02. Fees: $0.00. Interest charges: $0.00. New balance: $0.00."

It went on to delineate my account activity, the annual percentage rate (21.90; heavens) and to-date totals of various kinds, all equaling zero. To summarize, the store went to quite a lot of trouble to bill me for nothing. Two points for me.

Unless what do I see on this insert? Twenty-five percent off already reduced

The game continues.

Margo Bartlett is a ThisWeek staff writer. E-mail her at