I didn't have enough money to pay for my spontaneous grocery shop on Sunday. My daughter and I had been out at a sporting event all day and on the way home we took a detour to the supermarket. Without my wallet, I had just $55 cash to my name. I knew it would be tight and by the time everything was scanned, our shopping totalled $68. My daughter handed over the $4 she had in her pocket but we were still short. Something would have to go.

The latest New Idea magazine was the first casualty. (I'd only bought it to read Jesse Mulligan's column which I thought was about naming his new daughter. I would have to remain uninformed about that.) But the total was still over $60.

I peered into the packed bags to see what would be jettisoned next. It was a really difficult decision; I'd just chosen everything because we either needed or wanted it. My daughter had a $6 magazine which ostensibly should have been the first to go. But picking on the one item she'd chosen just seemed mean-spirited - especially since I wasn't foregoing the hot-off-the-press issue of Metro magazine or the Herald on Sunday.

So I returned a small banana-flavoured milk-drink to the operator. She scanned it and the total came down but not enough. I went through the bags once more. If I sent back the hummus then I had no need for the pita bread. If I sent back the pasta sauce then there was no point in buying the pesto-and-ricotta-filled ravioli.

I spied a bunch of five bananas. "Could I give you a couple of those back?" I asked the operator. She weighed them, removed two and returned the rest to me. "There you go," she said, indicating a new, reduced total of $59.43. "But I've only got $59," I said. After checking with a colleague, the operator kindly let me off the 43 cents.


I'd never had to edit my supermarket shop to fit available funds before but I know that it's a problem many people face. And I know not everyone has current affairs magazines and ready-stuffed pasta in their trolley when it happens.

Nonetheless I was interested in the dynamics of the situation. I tried to keep my attitude upbeat in order to divert attention from any awkwardness I was feeling. The checkout operator (who I've shopped with for many years) had the same easy approach. "Gosh, your Mummy's not very good at budgeting this week," she said to my daughter.

There was a customer behind me (waiting to be served and witnessing my cash-flow issue) and I felt self-conscious about that. It was my disorganisation, rather than my apparent poverty, that I was worried about displaying. I've been behind dithering shoppers at the checkouts and it does my head in. I also feared that, if I didn't keep the ha-ha-silly-me-nothing-to-worry-about vibe going, he'd step in and offer to pay the difference which would have just mortified me.

Once I'd been on the verge of offering to fund someone ahead of me at the checkout but the situation resolved itself before I could. Now I've been on the other side of the equation I realise that trying to help could have made someone feel very uncomfortable.

So what else did I discover from this little episode? There's a fresh thankfulness that this is not something I have to grapple with regularly or for reasons of genuine financial hardship. It must be beyond difficult to have to make tough on-the-spot decisions about basics such as bread and milk. And perhaps in future I'll be more understanding about people who needlessly delay progress at the supermarket checkout.

Have you ever been short of funds at the checkout? How did you handle the situation? Did anyone come to your aid? Have you ever helped anyone at the checkout buy their groceries?