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Credit Card Debt – My Bane

[NOTE: Be sure to jump to the bottom of this post and read "What spurred this post?" as it has some great links!]

We are a cash family and have been for at half a decade now. I don’t remember the year but it was probably 5-7 years ago I took a glass and cut all my plastic cards up into little shreds, filled the glass and set it on my desk as a reminder to myself. Like the cards, the glass was full.

The Seed of Debt
My debt story is probably not unlike many others. I was in college and walking to class. Someone had a tent and a table setup. I was thristy and they were giving away six packs of coke to anyone that applied for a credit card. I thought, “I have no income. No one will give me a credit card but I am thirsty.” That application resulted in a VISA card with a $500 credit limit.

The Spending Catalyst
I have had 2 car accidents in my life. When I was 19, I drove a Triumph Spitfire under a junker whose wheel had fallen off in the middle of Poplar Avenue, Memphis during lunch hour traffic. The car in front of me zigged and I had no where to go but under the disabled vehicle. That’s a different story and one that would trouble me for 10 years. The 2nd accident, a year or two later, was a hydroplaning incident on I-40 outside of Nashville in a pickup truck and a torrental downpour. That one wasn’t so bad.
The truck accident was during the return to the University of TN, Knoxville campus after visiting the family for Thanksgiving. Christmas break was quickly approaching and I had to get the truck fixed to get home. Turns out the parts I needed (a new fender and new front bumper) came to just under $500. Wanting independence and not wanting to ask Dad for $500 I used my new found power of charge!

The Escalation
After Christmas I returned to campus with a check from Dad for my tuition. That’s when I learned about "deferred payments". I applied for deferred payments which meant I could pay my tuition in 3 parts. 1/3 up front; and 2 other payments during the semester. I used part of the check to completely payoff my $500 credit card because I understood it wasn’t good to carry a balance on these things. A lot of the other money was squandered on beer, some toys, eatting, oh, and of course beer. Did I meantion beer?

The credit card company was thrilled with my spending behavior and upped my credit limit to $750! Ironically, that was just about how much I needed to pay my 2nd payment to the university. I think I bought a $70 Australian Outback hat which to this day people say nice "cowboy hat". It is still one of my favorite hats.

I wasn’t earning as much money as I thought I would to pay the deferments. I think my job only covered my beer and liquor expenses. So I was sweating the third payment when one morning my dorm phone rings. I’m groggy, possibly hungover and some voice offers me a credit card. I replied "sure", gave some information and went back to sleep instead of going to class.
The MasterCard arrived in the mail with something absurd like a $1500 credit limit. The party began and would not end until I was roughly $35,000 in debt.

The List of Cards
My apologies to any evil creditor whom I may have forgotten in this list:

Thirst begat NBC Visa;
Who begat MBNA Mastercard;
Who begat Capital One;
AT&T long distance begat the AT&T Visa;
Middle management begat an American Express card;
The TVA Employee Credit Union begat the TVA Visa;
Car repairs and tire rotations begat Credit First National Bank (Firestone card).
A suit begat a JCPenney store card;
JCPenney regular begat JCPenney Major store card;
A man’s need for tools begat the Sears Premier card;
A washer, dry and ladder begat the Sears Plus card;
Business ownership begat the Fleet gas card;
Marriage begat a handful of pre-existing store and credit cards (which I paid off quickly and before all other cards..those cards of course left when the wife did);
The first wife begat Dillards store card;
Dillards begat Proffits store card;
Proffits begat The Limited store card;
The Limited begat Structure store card;
Vacation begat the Disney Credit Card;

There were debts outside the $35k range:

Marriage begat GM Motors autoloan;
A cracked engine head begat a TVA Credit union loan (Jeep loan);
A desire to not pad the pocket of a property owner begat a Mortgage.
Proprietorship begat several personal loans.
Proprietorship begat a laptop computer lease.
Re-marriage begat two student loans.

This also excludes regular recurring expenses:

  • Homeowners Insurance
  • Auto insurance on two cars
  • Fire insurance
  • Cable television
  • Regular phone line
  • Fax phone line
  • Cell phone
  • Two business phone lines
  • Water bill
  • Electricity bill
  • Garbage service
  • 3 post office boxes
  • Internet access
  • Gym membership
  • $92 per month for a "Get out of debt" course – see the lesson?
  • newspaper delivery
  • medical expenses
  • and food

[Note: much of this has changed dramatically over the years. Luxuries such as "gym memberships" are a thing of the past.]

The Breakdown, The Penalties, The Interest
It’s no secret that as my first marriage failed and my business simultaneously collapsed that I had a little nervous breakdown.

I was having this discussion
In a taxi heading downtown
Rearranging my position
On this friend of mine who had
A little bit of a breakdown
I said breakdowns come
And breakdowns go
So what are you going to do about it
That’s what I’d like to know
-From: Paul Simon, Graceland "Gumboots" (lyrics)

What I did about it was basically ignored my mail for a year. In that time of igoring bills (I was flat broke anyway) I nearly lost my house, had utilities cut off, skipped meals to save money and watched my debt skyrocket. My interest rates of 9 percent shot to 27%. The cards had late fees put on them which caused some of them to go over their limits creating over the limit fees. Mind you, the card company created the charge that caused it to go over the limit in the first place. I had one card with a $700 balance that over the course of 2 years in fees, penalities and interest would grow to be $2100! A $7000 card rose to $14000 without a single purchase!

Payoff Strategies
I meantioned paying $92 per month for a Debt-Free program. This was not credit counselling. I knew how to get out of debt. This was a multilevel marketing program that taught techniques on debt reduction. The monthly newsletter and tape were worth the $92 for awhile. It served as a reminder to stay on track. Basically it taught the same thing that Dave Ramsey (see also Dave Says) teaches on his radio program. Adjust your lifestyle to maximize paying off debts. Do you really need a capuccino every morning? Pay the minimums. This number is the constant dollar number that will be applied toward paying your debt until it is completely gone. If that number is $1200 per month fix it in your head. Now any extra money that can be gathered will be paid toward the card with the lowest balance. Say that lowest balance is $200 and requires a minimum monthly payment of $10. The next lowest card is $550 and requires a minimum monthly payment of $15. Once the $200 card is paid off you don’t look at the $10 you were paying toward it as "extra cash" but instead pay that on the next lowest card. So now the $550 balanced card still has a minimum of $15 but you are paying at least $25 per month because your debt reduction constant of $1200 must be maintained. If the third lowest card had a monthly minimum of $30 per month when the 2nd lowest is paid off that $30 per month will become $55 per month. You can see how that quickly escalates into eliminating debt;however, it assumes steady, predictable, regular income which is not what a consultant has.

What did it cost me?
Debt has cost me an enourmous amount of anxiety, opportunity, health and stress. To list everything it has cost me would require a post in length equivalent to this one but to name a few: I applied and was accepted to the college of Danube in Budapest for a summer program but could not come up with the money to pay for the trip (maxed out cards); I was inspired to hike Europe street performing and juggling but did not know how to pay the cards while doing so and it never happened; I passed up an opportunity to hike the Appalachian Trail with some friends because I did not know how to pay a monthly bill from the woods; and my family has lacked security, educational opportunities and those nice, unnecessary material things you’d like your kids to have as well as necessary things like a van. I also feel tired and old because I’ve carried this burden for so long.
The real kicker is that I am still paying on debts occurred for things that for the most part were either intangible or I no longer own. Even the ladder from Sears is trash now.

What spurred this post?
Today MSN Money ran "Take charge of your credit cards" with these fantastic links:

Another resource: Cardweb – US Credit Card trends

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