When I was 18, I moved away from home to go away for college. There was a local school I could have gone to, but I was young and rebellious and couldn’t wait to get out of the house. I ended up renting an apartment with my two best friends, ordering pizza way too often instead of cooking, blowing through my hard-won high school savings of $10,000 (give or take) in one year about 100x faster than I thought. One day as I was leaving a campus building a random woman walked up to me. “Want a free CD?” I couldn’t think of any reasons not to want a free CD, so I followed her back to her table set up on the lawn, signed a few papers, got a little upset to find out that I had only 5 crappy selections to choose from, walked away with a copy of “Much Dance 2000”, and forgot about the whole affair.
A few weeks later I got a credit card in the mail. I was honestly confused at first, before remembering what those papers had been for. I read the letter, saw that I had to call in to activate the card with my whopping $1000 credit limit, decided that seemed like too much work (there’s a *slim* chance I was high), and threw it out. I remember thinking something like “Ha- jokes on them. I already have my CD.”
And… that’s it. It’s a really boring story, but when I read how many financial horror stories start with not knowing how to responsibly use a credit card, I’m eternally grateful that I was not inclined to spend 10 minutes on the phone activating that card. I was just as ignorant of what to do with it as a lot of other people are, but just in a different way. My parents had taught me to save and budget, but they hadn’t taught me anything about credit cards. School didn’t fill in any gaps in my knowledge either. Thankfully, what little I did know about them was enough for me to see them as something dark and dangerous, rather than as free money. It’s really my only saving grace. I ended that year completely broke and having decided I didn’t want to finish that program after all. I felt like a complete failure. Rather than being an independent success, I was about to go crawling back to Mom and Dad and live with them for a couple years ($10,000 poorer and 1 cat richer) while I rebuilt my savings and tried to start over. Looking back, though, it could have been so much worst. I had a net worth of $0.00, but it could have been negative. If I’d been able to keep spending money like I had when I first moved out (those excesses were curbed by a lack of funds in my bank account halfway through the year) by putting everything on my card, I could have spend years getting my net worth back UP to the blessed state of $0, instead of $0 being my low point.
Why am I thinking about this? I just read a quick list of Buzzfeed reader submissions of their worst financial mistakes, and not being smart with a first credit card came up multiple times. I know close friends, coworkers, and family members with similar stories. Too many people, even the ones who by most standards are financially literate, see credit cards as a way to spend a lot of money now, and pay the minimum. I worked in customer service long enough to know that a scarily large percentage of the population thinks that money problems will go away if you ignore them, and that if a debt owner doesn’t give you a bill (whether because they didn’t send it out, or it went to the wrong address, or because you’re in hiding, or for any other reason), you’re getting off scot-free.
Is there a point to this? It’s more of a rant than anything else, I guess. Thoughts that were on my mind. There’s no easy solution: you can’t force feed financial education on people. Back then, I was certain I knew everything I needed to know. Right now, I can only be grateful that I was lazier than I was needy on that day.