For the majority of my 20s, there was one number I wouldn’t reveal to anyone — and it wasn’t my weight or how many sex partners I’d had. It was my debt, scattered across four or five cards. Over the past decade, while my peers have been steadily saving, I’ve been charging...a lot. And, now that I’m finally in a place where I don’t rely on credit quite so much, I can’t say it was all a mistake. In many aspects, my credit cards enhanced my life — and in truly meaningful ways.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
I know the knee-jerk reaction upon reading this is to assume I’m spoiled or that I have a set of parents waiting in the wings, prepared to rescue me after any particularly bad decisions. None of that is true. I’ve worked since the summer I was 15, when I juggled multiple jobs as a lifeguard, day-camp counselor, and babysitter. Although my parents did pay for college, I’ve been financially independent since then, and I’m not naïve when it comes to money. I’ve written countless personal-finance articles and know I’m wasting thousands of dollars in interest alone. And, I’m not immune to a flicker of self-doubt. Sometimes, when I’m at home on a Saturday night, I’ll turn to The Suze Orman Show, imagining what Suze would say to me. I imagine her rolling her eyes at her viewers in disbelief, saying, "Can you believe this girl who thinks she can afford a trip to Costa Rica when she can barely afford the minimums?"
But, ultimately, Suze Orman doesn’t have to deal with those minimums. I do. And, while I’m sure I’d have fewer financial freak-outs if I were more careful with my credit cards, would I trade them for the time I learned to surf in Costa Rica, the weekend I spent exploring Paris with a sexy stranger I met in a bar in Montmartre, or the awesome memories from my 30th-birthday party? I don’t think so.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Part of the reason why I’m not more concerned about my credit cards is that I know they’re powerful. When I was 10, I remember my brother, 20 years old at the time, getting phone calls to our house from debt collectors. He’d gotten a card in college, quickly spent to its limits, then skipped payments. I remember him standing out on the deck as he instructed me to tell the person on the other end of the line that he’d just stepped away. So, with those scary memories brightly emblazoned on my brain, I didn’t get my own credit card until I was 23, when I’d had a job for more than a year. But, I wasn’t making much, and I needed something to tide me over in the days before payday.
At first, I was cautious, paying off the balance every month, never using the card for something I couldn’t afford. I’m not sure when my mentality shifted — it may have been when I was responsible for my best friend's bachelorette party or the time I was invited to go in on a beach house with a group of people the summer when I was 23. Whatever it was, I quickly realized the life I wanted cost more than what I had, and even though I didn’t have the money then, I certainly hoped and expected to have it in the future. I knew that was optimistic — magical thinking made real with a swipe and a signature. And, yet, I figured — interest and anxiety notwithstanding — why not let my credit card bridge the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be?
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
In credit-card parlance, I’m known as a revolver, a dangerous-sounding term for the type of person who keeps a high balance but won’t default. Even in my early 20s, my income was unpredictable, with a stable full-time corporate job augmented by freelance income. It was always possible to receive a windfall by way of a book deal or a well-paid assignment, and sometimes, I deliberately charged as a way to kick my motivation into gear. To me, there was nothing like a high credit-card balance to convince me to buckle down and pitch articles or begin to work on a book outline. I always paid on time, and I always paid above the minimum. Plus, I always used points to pay for plane tickets to visit my family, which at least made me feel like I was getting something out of the situation.
That’s not to say I’m entirely regret-free. When I analyze the last five years of credit-card purchases, I can clearly see that the decisions can be divided into 20% stupidity, 30% naïveté, and 50% "best decisions, ever." Stupidity is self-explanatory: It’s the I’ll charge this round of drinks moment that ends up costing three figures, the discount designer dress that was always a size too small and still hangs in the back of my closet (just in case). And, when I packed my apartment to travel this year, I first gave things away: The Frye perforated cowboy boots that never fit properly ($400) went to Brittany, the Crate & Barrel bookcase and chairs ($800) to Emily, and the TV and Blu-ray (I don’t even know — I charged it without looking) to Sophie. Even after I managed to give away the things that had value to my friends, I still ended up filling an entire storage unit with purchases that not only felt like ones I could live without, but that I also wanted to live without.
Designed by Sydney Hass.
But, here’s the thing: Back in my early 20s, all of those things were important. That’s the naïveté coming into play. The shoes and dresses I bought on credit as a 20-something in the early stages of my career meant something to me — they made me feel like I belonged in the media world and gave me a jolt of confidence at a time when my self-esteem was shaky. It’s a little bit shallow, but it’s true.
It may sound like I’m justifying everything through the at-least-I-learned-a-lesson excuse. And, if that’s true, they’re lessons I’m paying a premium for (thank you, 14.9% interest). But, amid the Why did I buy this? or Why did I think that? second-guesses, there are also a handful of charges that were worth it. The traveling, the adventures, the pushing myself out of my comfort level and close to my credit limit all formed me into the person I am today. I could have waited to backpack through Spain until I could have properly afforded it. But, I didn’t. And, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
Now, at age 30, I no longer rely on credit cards the way I did when I was in my 20s — and I feel a sense of I told you so satisfaction when I think about my savings-obsessed friends, knowing that I've been able to pay down the debt without my credit score or overall financial health suffering. I know I would have more money now if I had saved more in the past. I know I could have socked that money away in investments. I know there may be a hard lesson coming up in the future. But, for now, I don't regret paying the price for putting the lesson on plastic.