Saving Karyn

How you handle credit cards can help make or break your sense of personal responsibility. Take it from someone who learned the hard way.

So have you checked out yet?

If not, let me give you a brief synopsis of this two-month-old website: It seems a Brooklyn girl in her late 20s ran up $20,000 worth of credit card debt, and now runs a website where you — yes, you — can donate your own hard-earned dollars to help her pay it all off.

Maybe it was the Prada pumps she bought for $100 on E-bay (“a steal!” she says) or that little latté-in-the-morning habit she developed some time back. Karyn is not really clear on how she got this deep into the hole, but promises to report all the income you care to give her to the IRS. Karyn’s newfound methods of cost containment run from the good (cutting up the offending plastic, switching from high-end department store skincare to Oil of Olay and trading her designer duds for Old Navy) to the highly questionable (making long-distance calls from a friend’s office phone; that’s called employee theft where I come from).

I’ll give her an A+ for charm and creative chutzpah. But in the personal-responsibility department, Karyn gets a big, fat zero from me. I’m sure a girl with her fashion sense can appreciate the way it matches the four zeroes in the amount she owes her creditors.

As of mid-August, a few thousand well-intentioned schlubs had donated a cumulative $10,000 to help rescue Karyn from the messes of her own making. Like the people who give cash to panhandlers who’d rather stand on a street corner holding signs saying they’ll work for food than stand in line at the local employment office, they’re probably doing her more harm in the long run than good.

Unfortunately, now that classes are starting up again, I fear there may be a new generation of Karyns in the making. You’ve probably seen them already — a Mephistophelian slew of neatly dressed, attractive young credit-card representatives ensconced behind tables in high-traffic areas on your campus — promising you a low introductory rate as you establish your own line of credit. Just initial here, sign there, and the card will arrive in the mail within weeks. What happens after that will be your problem, not theirs.

Before you dismiss me as a hard-hearted harpy who just has it in for folks like Karyn, or an old fuddy-duddy who believes credit cards are forged in the fires of Hell, let me tell you about some of my own messes — and how I solved them.

Three years ago, I owed credit banks nearly as much as Karyn, having juggled several long enough to dig a hole $18,000 deep. It started in college, when I was a journalism major making $25 a story for the sports page of a large daily newspaper. The experience was great, but the money wasn’t enough to keep body and soul together — and my little 20 percent-interest Discover card was often the only means I had to pay for Top Ramen at the local Safeway.

After college, the freedom of being a single woman on my own in the wide, wide world went to my head. Who could stay home when Loehmann’s was having a sale? Not me! That eye makeup at the Dior counter? Needed it! And life would be a whole lot uglier without a spa visit every month or so, let me tell you.

I paid no attention to interest rates or debt totals — just the minimum amount requested on the bottom of my monthly statements. Two years later, I came to my senses and added it all up — and to my horror, discovered I was $3,000 in debt.

This couldn’t be happening! I considered it biblically immoral not to be living within my means. I wanted to be so financially secure that I could not only stand on my own two feet, but bless other people more needy than myself. I had to find a way out.

Unfortunately, at the time I was only bringing home $800 every other week, and most of that went to pay for rent and electricity in the apartment I shared with a friend. A little gas in my beater of a Mazda and some groceries, and I was counting the days till the next paycheck.

So when an ex-boyfriend offered me an interest-free loan of $3,000 (“Just pay me back whenever,” he said), I jumped at it. But it didn’t take me long to figure out it was the wrong thing to do — and it didn’t solve my financial troubles at all. In fact, my debt just continued to mushroom. I had yet to learn the lessons of personal responsibility.

A few months later, the guy who would eventually become my husband stumbled into my life. Early on, he mentioned that it wasn’t right for someone making the kind of money I was to be seeing a personal trainer three times a week — and after six months, I should bloody well be able to count my own reps! I realized he was right. A brand-new Christian, he had just signed on with Consumer Credit Counseling Service to right the wrongs of 32 years of life spent, as we laughingly say, as a smarmy reprobate. And if he could do it, I knew I could, too. The trainer was history.

Meanwhile, my mother offered the money I needed to make the break from my ex-boyfriend for good. Not owing him anything, emotionally or financially, was freeing, even though the number on my balance sheet didn’t change. It would take me nearly two years to pay my mother back, but I made a point of making her the first on my list.

I was 24 years old and on a quest. All the excess expenses were gone. I made a budget of what I could afford to pay and began tracking what I owed each creditor. But life expenses just kept coming, relentless as the tide. Several major car repairs were followed by all the expenses of a wedding and honeymoon. And with four credit cards all charging 18 to 20 percent interest, it took two years to get over the hump and on the downward slide.

But it happened. I became a master at transferring balances from the highest-interest cards to the slightly lower ones. After I paid off the first card, I had an epiphany: These people wanted my business! And they were willing to offer me much lower rates than what they had charged originally to keep it. I learned to play hardball with them — telling them the rate I wanted in order to keep the card (never more than 10 percent, guaranteed). And if I didn’t get it, I cancelled the account. I discovered that when your credit history is good, card companies get to be like buses — if you miss one, another will come along fairly soon.

Having two incomes in the household after getting married definitely helped. Gary’s check took care of most of the living expenses, freeing mine up for debt repayment. But 18 months after the wedding, he took a significant pay cut to switch from secular journalism to a Christian ministry. Twelve weeks later, my dot-com became a dot-casualty, and my income was sliced literally in half.

Nonetheless, between January 2000 and December of 2001, we completely erased our outstanding debt load. The joint commitment to living a life free of debt was as helpful as the iron-clad budget — but the real key to our success was tithing.

It doesn’t add up, when you think about it. Giving money away when we were so deep in debt instead of grubbing for every penny? But somehow, making out a check for 10 percent of the gross every payday just made life easier. Our priorities were in order, and we were doing what we knew would honor God with the resources He’d given us.

I won’t lie to you — those three years had plenty of painful, frustrating moments. Sometimes we had to argue each other out of frivolous purchases. (And sometimes we still do!) But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I grew up because of it, because I saw God come through on my behalf in ways that truly made no mathematical sense.

Karyn says she believes in karma — that what goes around comes back in the end.

She’s right, in a sense. And what comes around with credit cards are bills that have to be paid, one way or another.

Do you really want to help save Karyn? Give her a gift that will serve her the rest of her life — the knowledge of what it means to be a responsible adult who, with God’s help, stands on her own two feet.

For guidance on handling your money, check out the website of Crown Financial Ministries.

Copyright 2002 Karla Dial. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Karla Dial

Karla Dial has a long unofficial history with CitizenLink, and a short official one: She was a contributing editor to Citizen magazine for 10 years before joining the staff of Focus on the Family full-time in January 2012. During her decade spent as a freelance journalist, she served five years as the managing editor of School Reform News, a monthly newspaper published by The Heartland Institute. After earning her journalism degree from New Mexico State University, she cut her teeth learning how to multitask as a sports and features reporter at The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper in Palm Springs, Calif., run by the Gannett Corp. In her free time, she can usually be found at the gym or watching movies with her husband. She still contributes freelance pieces to women’s fitness and personal-finance magazines as often as time permits.