It was in college, in the morning – which, in college, could have been any time before, say, 3 PM. A telemarketer called from Capital One and offered me a deal. A credit card, with low, low rates that would be all mine to do with as I wished. The credit limit wouldn’t be huge, but as long as I paid it off, it was my ticket to freedom. I was sleepy and not thinking terribly straight, so I said *Okay,* and set in motion a series of events that would have a profound impact on my life.
Another time, AT&T did something which I still believe was profoundly stupid on their part. I’d had an AT&T calling card for a while – just a simple card that I could use for long-distance, in case I had to call home or anything. One day, while I was living in Rhode Island, I got a letter from these idiots that told me they were replacing all their calling cards with credit cards. And mine had a limit of $3,000 on it.
I mean, come on. Who just gives a guy like me a $3,000 credit card? Seriously?
Suffice it to say, I was not the kind of person you wanted to be handing these things over to. I never really learned about money when I was younger, though my parents did take a shot at teaching me. Mostly it was with pleas to save money that I got from my paper route or from relatives, with the promise that I would b grateful for it later. But when has that ever worked on a kid? I mean ever? I don’t know if this is a New England thing, but we never talked about money in serious terms in my house. I don’t remember my mother sitting down with us and telling us what a food budget was and how she went about making it. I don’t remember my dad showing me his paycheck and explaining how he had to budget for utilities and insurance and the mortgage. Money was just a thing in my household, from my point of view. It just happened. My parents’ credit cards were sorcery, as far as I knew, and so when the time came to get one (or two) of my own, I really had no concept of what it meant to be responsible for it.Needless to say, I hit my limit pretty quickly. I was working retail at the time, so the best I could pay each month was usually the minimum required amount (also known as the “You will never, ever pay off your card” amount, though they don’t tell you that), and the debt I owed never really went anywhere. Eventually I had two cards that I couldn’t use, but still had to pay for. And couldn’t.
Then I went to Japan. I figured the job I had here would be better than the one at home, and I could send money back or something like that. But it was too late – the collections letters started coming, and people started calling my mother’s house, not very convinced when she told them that I had moved to the other side of the planet. Eventually, through some long, protracted letter-writing, sending over all the money I had saved, and giving up the money left to my when my grandfather died, I paid them off.
It was over. I was out of debt.
I was fortunate not to have student loans, which meant that as soon as my credit cards were paid off, I was free and clear. Since then, I haven’t owed anyone a damn thing.
The whole thing has certainly taught me a lot about money and how it works, and I have become much, much better at being aware of where my money goes and why. I know what my bills are and when they need to be paid, and I make sure to take a chunk of money out of the bank on each payday – about 25% – and just put it away somewhere until it’s needed. This came in especially handy during the Great NOVA Collapse of ’07 – during the month we were all out of work, some people were trading English lessons for food, and I was having a nice, quiet vacation at home, with internet and perishables and everything.It’s a liberating experience, really, not having this hanging over my head all the time. I don’t have to worry about collectors or holding a little bit back every month, or trying to calculate what percentage of my debt I could possibly pay this time… It is true that, should I ever return to the States and want to buy, say, a car or a house, I’ll be in trouble. Either my old credit history will still be floating around, or they’ll notice that I haven’t had any kind of credit history for nearly a decade and decide that I cannot be trusted.
I wouldn’t change a thing, though. Not being in debt? TOTALLY worth it.