Real Life 101, Lesson 8: Avoiding the Credit Trap

This is the eighth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It has been a while since I wrote an entry in this series. Yesterday’s huge jump in oil prices, combined with a .4% increase in the unemployment rate in one month, along with a stock market which dropped precipitously (the DJIA dropped nearly 400 points) made me think about one of the major reasons the economy is tanking. It can be summed up in one word: debt.

In Lesson 2 of this series, I did discuss debt in general. Today I would like to focus on one kind of debt in particular: credit card debt. The Federal Reserve keeps a handy report on consumer debt, all neatly categorized. As of June 2008, total credit card debt is just shy of one trillion dollars: 956.9 billion dollars, or roughly $3200 for every man, woman and child in the country. In 2003, unsecured “revolving” (i.e. credit card) debt was 770.5 billion dollars. Perhaps more ominous is the rate of increase in unsecured credit card debt: 2.9 percent in 2003 and 7.4 percent in 2007. Americans are living way beyond their means and they are funding their lifestyle in the worst possible way: by charging it.

Why is “charging it” worse than other forms of debt? It is because credit card debt is unsecured, which means that you do not have to pledge collateral like your car or house to buy things today. This makes credit card debt riskier for lenders. They compensate by charging interest on your credit card debt that is often two or three times as much for an equivalent amount of money in a conventional loan. This also makes credit card debt potentially more profitable than other forms of debt. Hence, you are likely solicited with many credit card offers a week, many seducing you with frequent flier miles or low introductory interest rates.

Young people in particular are easy prey for this kind of debt. Just starting out, you do not tend to have much if anything in the way of assets. A credit card allows you to buy stuff today and pay it off later when you have more income. All you have to do is meet that “minimum monthly payment”. The problem of course is that young people tend to see money as abstract rather than real. What matters becomes not your credit card balance, but whether you can meet your monthly payment.

Charge card companies love providing you credit because of the interest and fees they get to charge you on the balance. Those teaser rates look great but credit card agreements are fungible and can be changed with minimal notice. Typically, interest rates go up after six months or so, along with all sorts of bogus fees. Often the time between when you receive your credit card statement and when you must pay your bill is squeezed, making it more likely that you will pay other fees for “late” payments. Providing you can keep making those monthly payments, credit card companies are likely to keep increasing your charge card limits, thus encouraging you to exacerbate your indebtedness to them. In short, as you probably have read, unsecured credit for many can eventually become something of an albatross. Like a Ponzi scheme, at some point the burden of your debt will crush you and your future. Instead of paying for life’s necessities like food, you are primarily paying the interest on your outstanding balance. This means life’s other necessities get short shrift. You may think a bankruptcy can bail you out. However, some years back Congress tightened the bankruptcy laws. No bankruptcy is good and bankruptcies, if you can secure one, cost money too. It stains your credit, making it harder to borrow money in the future for life’s major purchases, like houses. It is also bad for creditors, who lose money.

Like you, I probably get three or four credit card solicitations a week. How many credit cards do I have? I have exactly two. In reality, I have one. Recently I got a Sears credit card, specifically because I saved $100 off the cost of a dishwasher by enrolling. I do not intend to use it again. I did not pay a dime in interest when my bill arrived because I had set money aside to pay for it in full.

In reality, I have only one credit card: a humble Visa card issued by my credit union. My credit union offers no rewards program. I get no frequent flier miles for charging expenses on it. It does have one major advantage. Because I am a member of my credit union, as opposed to a customer, I am unlikely to get screwed by my credit union. My interest rates are likely to be better than most credit cards. The terms of service will not change very often. Moreover, my grace period will stay relatively static. In short, I get predictability and credit card value.

What balance do I carry on my credit card? Every month I get a statement that says I have a balance of a few hundred dollars. What is my real balance? Zero. How much have I paid in fees and interest rate charges in the years I have had my credit card? Zero. How is this magic possible? It is possible because while I have credit I pay off my balance every month. As soon as I make an expenditure on my credit card, I debit it from the checkbook I will use to pay off the charge. This way there is never any ambiguity about whether I can afford to buy something. I simply look at my checking account. Is there enough money in there to pay all my other expenses? If not, this is my signal that I cannot afford this purchase. Is it fun to deny myself stuff today? Not particularly. Does my strategy have any advantages? Of course. Rather than paying hundreds or thousands of dollars in interest and fees a year, I get to pocket the money and use it for something that actually gives me something tangible in return. Nor do I wake up in sweats in the middle of the night worrying about my debt load.

I make a credit card work for me, instead of against me. A credit card can work for you when it can give you advantages that check cards and cash cannot. When I use a credit card, I get a certain amount of financial protection. Should the seller be bogus, I can get a refund, or I am out no more than $50. I always use a charge card for purchases like airline tickets. Who knows whether an airline will be around in 90 days? If you have the fortitude to pay off your balance every month, you also essentially get free access to money for a period.

Have I paid interest on my charge cards? Yes, but only tiny amounts over the years when I messed something up or when I was just establishing credit. I started with a humble Montgomery Ward charge card and I paid less than my balance for a few months. This encouraged Wards to up my credit limit and established my credit worthiness. Then I stopped this tactic. As a result, when I do need to borrow money, I tend to get the lowest rates. Lenders know based on my track record that I will not miss a payment.

I encourage you to not be owned by your credit card, but to have it work for you too. I suggest you try my strategies. If you are one of these types who will be compelled to spend if you have a credit card, it is better to avoid them altogether and use check cards instead. Granted, it is not always fun to live within your means. Nevertheless, you should feel in control of your financial life, and that is a wonderful feeling. If you must make larger purchases, do not use a credit card. Take out a personal loan, preferably with a financial institution where you already have a history. If you have equity in your house consider taking out a home equity loan. Be cautious taking out any loan. You might want to review Lesson 2 of this series if you are trying to distinguish whether a particular loan helps or hurts you.

America is drowning in debt. It is not just young adults, but millions of Americans are living beyond their means. It is also our government, which is exacerbating the problem by using foreign credit to get us to spend more money now to spend our way out of a recession. This is like a drunk drinking their way to sobriety. It makes little sense until we all start to use debt responsibly. Much of the increase in the price of oil is due to our falling dollar, which falls because our government is spending too much and likely taxing too little. The more in debt we incur, and in particular the more we go into debt for things that add no value, like our War in Iraq, the worse the recession and our pain will be.

Do not be a financial loser, like most Americans. Vow to be a financial winner. To start, you must know where your money goes, how much you can really afford and you must use debt responsibly.

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