It's no fun learning about credit the hard way. Better to read someone else's story and do what they didn't. This is that story.
In the movies reckless addictions lead to spectacular, climactic explosions: a brutal accident, a fistfight, a dramatic confrontation. So I was a little surprised when my addiction ended quietly; just me holding a steaming chilidog and a super Big Gulp while a line of people behind me shuffled restlessly.
"I'm sorry," whispered the teenager behind the counter, shaking her head, "this isn't going through." I squinted and feigned confusion. She raised her voice. "Your credit card isn't working." My faced flushed. I smiled weakly at the onlookers, surrendered my chilidog and slinked out the door.
Skulking across the parking lot, a scene flashed before my mind's eye like a fuzzy dream bubble in a soap opera. The scene was from a year before. The location was the bank near my college. After opening a checking account the lady asked me nonchalantly, "Would you like a Visa with that?" It was like she was offering me fries with my burger or ice cream with my cake. It was so casual. I didn't even think to decline.
It was my first day of college. I had just registered for the fall term classes, moved into a room on campus and waved goodbye to my parents. My world was changing so rapidly that I hardly noticed when the little plastic creature slipped into my wallet.
At first having the card was pure bliss: fully financed trips to the mall, late-night junk food runs. "Who wants pizza? I've got it covered," I'd boast. I'd whip the card out of my pocket like a gunslinger drawing his weapon. Initially the minimum monthly payment was negligible so I kept trucking. And once I reached my first limit I was rewarded with a new goal!
I had met with a new breed of pleasure. I was experiencing the joy of buying without the pain of spending. I had always hated passing bright, crisp bills into the hand of a stranger. I would imagine the faces on the bills frowning up at me as they slid across the cashier's counter. "Bye, bye, poorer master."
But this was just plastic! Of course I wasn't quite dumb enough to believe I wasn't being charged. Alas it turns out that the mind is no match for the senses, because I kept going.
After my public humiliation at the convenience store, I received the fateful statement; the one telling me I'd gone several hundred dollars beyond my limit. Suddenly they were demanding the minimum payment plus the overage. The introductory 9% A.P.R. disappeared like a toupee in a windstorm. In its place was by a blistering 21%. The honeymoon was over.
It was a tough lesson for a freshman, one that stretched out for three years as I struggled to pay down the balance. But I learned from it. Now a hard-bitten grad student I know better. The financial perils of student life led me to take extreme measures to avoid unnecessary debt. My two credit cards (with low balances and interest rates) are suspended in a massive block of ice and buried deep in the freezer. The addiction is not dead. I still feel their pull. Occasionally I peak in on them. They seem to call to me from their icy graves, like cryogenically frozen bodies yearning for a second life. "I'm sorry," I mouth tenderly through the frigid vapors. "It's not you. It's me." I show new credit applications absolutely zero compassion. They are automatically consigned to the shredder.
My credit card addiction got the better of me. But I'm not alone. More than ever young people are burdened with debt. In it's recent report, "Generation Broke: The Growth of Debt Among Young Americans," Demos, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization found that among 18-24 year olds:
- The average credit card debt load rose 104 percent from 1992 to 2001; compared to only 55 percent among other age groups.
- 71 percent make only the minimum payment, carrying their balances over every month.
- A quarter of every dollar earned is spent on debt payments.
Why are 20-somethings — especially college students — so prone to debt? Tight budgets make credit cards tempting; they also make paying them off difficult. Add to that skyrocketing tuition costs, increased cost of living and corporations who aggressively peddle credit cards on campuses and you've got lots of stories like mine.
Yet for many, runaway debt is about more than fiscal ineptitude; the problem often stems from an inability to curb excessive spending.
Of course popular culture only fuels the spending impulse. Flip through the channels, leaf through a magazine or glance at a billboard. The message is the same: Consuming products (often expensive and superfluous) will make you happy.
But like most messages the culture sends, this one turns out to be a lie. Any happiness from consumerism is fleeting at best. The result of rampant spending looks nothing like the blissful depictions offered by advertisers. The real story is considerably less cheery. It involves angry creditors, harassing phone calls, repossessions, eviction notices and long hours at work. That's the true picture of undisciplined spending — the ugly enslavement of debt.
Fortunately the Bible provides a very different model of money management. And thankfully I tuned into it before debt ran away with me. It says our money doesn't belong to us; it belongs to God. He merely entrusts us as stewards and expects us to conduct our financial affairs with that in mind. And (just a hunch) I don't think that involves spending money we don't have on things we don't need. I guess God cares about small things — even if they're only three inches long and a millimeter thick. He cares about how we use them because He loves us. He wants us to be free from consumerism and debt so we're free to live for Him.
I wouldn't recommend running up credit card debt to learn lessons (there are less painful ways to learn), but my experience did teach me a couple valuable things:
First, God forgives. VISA does not.
No matter what stupid things we do, God stands ready to forgive, to return our balance to zero — even when we've treated the things that are really His as though they are ours.
VISA has no such concept of mercy. I know they seem nice in the commercials, but they're not. They didn't care one iota about my deep contrition and sincere repentance. In fact their customer service reps found my confession and pleas for mercy "strange and inappropriate." (Sigh) I guess some people just don't understand grace.
Copyright © 2005 Drew Dyck. All rights reserved.