Learning how to respect and fear credit

They are in everyone’s wallet, but with every transaction credit cards grow more powerful and deadly.

Quynh Nguyen

When you receive a credit card offer, look at the offer like you would look at a scary man in a van offering you puppies and candy, if only you’d go inside. Credit cards are useful, but in the end, guess who gets owned?

Credit cards are so innocuous; they are in everyone’s wallet. But with every transaction they grow more powerful and deadly.

Who has not heard a credit card horror story of some poor kid who gets in a heap of debt by overusing a credit card? Who has not been warned against carrying a balance over to the next month, or paying a bill late? In spite of how common credit card horror stories are, they are no match for when desperation meets convenience.

When I started using credit cards, I thought they were easy access to a better credit rating. I would use the card and then pay it off by the end of the month, never carrying a balance over. I started to think that credit cards were not nearly as dangerous and scary as everyone made them out to be.

Eventually I found myself in a rough spot where I was desperately seeking employment and had exhausted my savings. For the first time, I racked up debts that I could not clear by the month’s end. Being unemployed was absolutely miserable, and was even worse when I was hungry. The credit card at least covered my needs to eat.

My fears and misgivings about credit cards eroded as the ground under my feet gave way. The poorer I got, the scarier life got, but at least the card was my shiny parachute when things got worse.

The number of cards in my wallet grew from 1 to 5. One of the cards I had doubled in annual percentage rating, so the balance I carried was now being charged 21.20 percent every time it rolled over to another month. It took a vicious bite out of every paycheck I got, and the large interest made it much more difficult to pay down the actual debt.

I felt cornered before when I was unemployed, but now I felt surrounded by wolves, wolves with names like Mastercard, Discover, Visa and American Express. In very little time, my story had become like the many credit card horror stories I had heard in my youth.

This Friday, I went to free financial counseling at the Boynton Clinic. Going to Boynton about a non-medical illness was unusual, but made sense. Being in tremendous debt was having an impact on my optimism and ability to maintain confidence in the future. It was very clearly making me depressed.

I was afraid that the financial expert would chew me out for abusing my credit cards, but she did not. My financial counselor Karen just punched in my monthly bills and paychecks to a program on her laptop and came up with a number that would put me on balance with everything. So long as I did not add to my credit card balances, paid my bills on time and stuck to my budget, I would be OK.

I walked out of that counseling with a lighter weight on my shoulders. The plastic wolves in my wallet would not get me and drive me to bankruptcy, after all.

If you are in bad shape with credit cards, do not let the wound fester any longer. Get your butt into counseling. All University students are eligible for a free visit with a financial counselor. You can find out more at: www.bhs.umn.edu/services/financialcounseling.htm.

I cannot guarantee a happy ending for everyone who chooses financial counseling, but at least you will find an ending to the downward debt spiral.

Quynh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]