Confessions of a Debt Wimp: My First Credit Card

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Hugh CollinsOne of the sweetest moments of my year was when I got a plastic card saying that, after filling out a lot of forms and listing "Belfast, U.K." as my place of birth, I was now a fully accepted resident of the U.S. with all the rights and responsibilities that go with it.

This piece of plastic was, of course, my first credit card.

I got a lot of strange looks when I told people I was 28 years old and still a credit card virgin. I tried to shrug it off: I had been living in Mexico, where the banks have taken screwing the customer to a fine art and the guy selling orange juice from a shopping cart rarely accepts plastic.

In truth, I was just too paranoid to take on debt. The thought of owing a few dollars to the dry cleaner was enough to keep me awake at night. How could I possibly handle an open, revolving line of credit held by a faceless bank?

I am, as a friend once politely informed me, a debt wimp.

Credit Cards Are as American as Apple Pie

America is no place for debt wimps. I first realized this when trying to set up a cable-TV account in my name. For the company's help desk, my lack of a U.S. credit history meant I simply didn't exist, passport and Social Security number notwithstanding.

Then there was the whole thinking-about-the-future thing. I was newly married, newly employed and the prospect of making solid, reliable purchases like cars and houses suddenly seemed a lot more immediate. No credit score meant no family car or attractive suburban residence.

So I jumped in and applied. The process was filled with ignorance and mystifying thought processes. The friendly guy at the bank who helped me fill out my application assured me he had absolutely no idea what type of credit card I would receive. He spoke of structured cards, a banking relationship that involved me lending to myself -- perfect for anyone dumb enough to have reached adulthood without brandishing a single piece of plastic.

The Magic Combination


Then there were the phone calls. When no credit card appeared in the mail, I took to the phones to sell myself as a creditworthy yet big-spending customer. The phone jockey warned me it was a bad sign that I had no U.S. bank accounts. When I pointed out that I had three accounts with the very bank that signed his paychecks, he told me they didn't count.

Eventually, after a few hours talking to various cheerfully ignorant employees, I found the magic combination to unlock the imposing vaults of their credit card application process: my U.K. banking history and an electricity bill in my wife's name. It seems so obvious now.

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When the card arrived, it had a voluptuous, unstructured balance of $7,500 and introductory APR of 0%. I was so pleased I threw myself into the process again with another card issuer. No delays this time: The whole thing was done online in under five minutes.

Imagine my disappointment when the new card had a puny balance of $2,500, even though my income had doubled (yes, doubled) since the first application. Clearly, all those meandering phone conversations had convinced the first issuer that I was a man to be trusted. The anonymous Internet application, by contrast, rendered my charm and responsible character meaningless.

One Gnawing Fact

Today, I wield the plastic fearlessly, for everything from a pint of milk to the phone bill. After years of paying cash for everything cheaper than a plane ticket, I now barely touch the green stuff. The only snag is when merchants tell me that American Express isn't welcome, which always makes me feel strangely ashamed.

Amazingly, the plastic lifestyle has made me somewhat less paranoid. Of course, the money really belongs to a great and good financial institution. But, like a friendly neighbor with an expensive lawnmower, it doesn't mind me borrowing the dough for a while, if it's useful. So why not get that pair of jeans or the expensive salami? I've drowned my debt fears in liquidity.

Well, not quite. One fact consistently gnaws at me and makes me wonder if maybe being a debt wimp was a smart strategy after all: the minimum payment.

My first meaty purchase was at the Apple store, where I gave my new card a vigorous workout on a new laptop and assorted paraphernalia. When the end of the month rolled around, I steeled myself and logged on to my account to check how much I owed.

The minimum payment for a $3,000-plus purchase was $40. For a brand new, top-of-the-line computer, all I had to put up was the price of dinner and a movie for one. It felt like I had run six marathons in a row and come away with nothing worse than a mild cramp. Didn't the bank know I was committed?

Who's Working for Whom?

Then I realized they know a lot better than I do. And they're betting that I stick to the friendly minimum payment and let the big bad balance mount. My credit score had bought existence, but it has come at a steep price. Because once I fall behind, I start working for the credit card, and not the other way around.

Welcome to America. Credit cards accepted. Brains required. And no wimps need apply.
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