Credit Cards

Confessions of a Former Credit Card-a-holic

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When my 20-year-old daughter, Ashley, asked me to watch Confessions of a Shopaholic with her, I told her to pick the time and I’d be there. I hadn’t read the book, but the movie sounded like an amusing way for us to spend some time together.

If you haven’t seen it, the movie’s heroine, Becky Bloomwood, is a shopaholic in serious credit card debt. She’s hounded by threatening phone calls from debt collectors, one smarmy guy in particular. Becky’s afraid to open her mail because of all the credit card bills. Oh, she’s also a finance journalist, of all things. The idea that she was supposed to know about finances made it even more entertaining.

During the movie, I’m laughing at Becky’s debt dilemma, thinking it’s all wildly funny. But about 20 minutes into the movie, I stop laughing. My brain is suddenly flooded with bad memories and it hits me like a lightning bolt. A few decades ago, I was Becky Bloomwood. I hadn’t thought about it in forever. It’s like I’d completely blocked out an entire decade of spending the likes Atlanta probably hasn’t seen since.

It All Started Innocently Enough…

After I graduated from college, I got a good-paying job as an accountant for a petroleum company. I worked my way through college and felt proud to have landed this job.

Every night I’d go home and check my mailbox. And there, waiting for me, were letters telling me how special I was and how I’d been “pre-selected” for all these credit cards. And they all promised me high spending limits (and instant happiness, too).

At the time, I only had a Rich’s Department Store credit card because that was my favorite store (it later merged with Macy’s) and it had been easy to get while I was in college. But I started thinking about how convenient it would be to have a card I could use everywhere. So I applied for a Citi card because that bank had sent me an especially flattering letter—You deserve this card! was plastered all over the envelope—and I got approved in no time.

When it came in the mail, it was such a rush to hold this shiny card with my name embossed on it. I decided to apply for another. And another. I got approved for every card I applied for. At this point, I had seven cards. When I reached my limits, the issuers kindly raised them.

Honestly, I never even read the fine print on any of these cards. Okay, I confess that I had no idea there even was fine print because I didn’t look for it. All I focused on was the offer letters and how much the issuers wanted me as a cardholder.

One Spending Binge Leads to Another

My job paid pretty well, but not well enough to pay for all the things I needed. My credit cards paid for my power suits, which I thought I needed to be taken seriously. But that meant I also needed power handbags, power shoes, power jewelry, power makeup, power lunches, power cocktails. You get the idea.

It didn’t take long before my minimum payments exceeded my income. One month, I bounced 12 checks. Yep, I said 12. With the NSF fees for each check, I was deep in the hole that month. I stopped making credit card payments for a few months, convincing myself that my cash flow would have a chance to catch up to my monthly expenses.

You know what happens when you stop paying your credit card bills? You start getting mean phone calls from the credit card company. This was before Caller ID, so my only option was to let the calls go to my answering machine. I got very adept at listening to a message just long enough to figure out if it was about my credit card debt before deleting it. Hey, at the time I was young and single, so I was making sure I didn’t miss calls from anyone I deemed important.

The credit card bills had become overwhelming. I took the only course of action that made sense to me. I stopped going to my mailbox.

Ambushed by the Mailman

I lived in an apartment at the time so it was easy to avoid that area of the building. But then one day I’d gone home during lunch and ran into my mailman in the parking lot. He said he’d thought I’d moved because he could no longer stuff any more mail into my box.

I shamelessly told him that I’d lost my mailbox key. (It’s a little known fact that being in debt can turn you into an extraordinary liar.) I even started to embellish my story with how I’d also been out of the country for an extended period of time, but he interrupted me to hand me my mail. Then he suggested I walk with him to the mailbox so he could unlock it for me and give me all the mail currently stuffed in my box. Unable to make myself invisible, I had to take possession of my mail.

That night, I got a glass of Chardonnay for courage and spread the envelopes out on my dining room table. I paid the utilities and other necessities. When I started looking at the credit card statements, I looked only at the minimum payments and started writing checks for half the amount. Amazingly, I still didn’t stop using my credit cards.

Instead, I decided I had to make more money. So I studied for and passed the CPA exam with the plan of getting a higher paying job. Only now do I see the “Becky Bloomwood” irony in all this. I had a head for numbers but was clueless when it came to my own financial affairs. My solution was to make more money to maintain my spending habits instead of focusing on paying off the debt.

The Day I Hit Rock Bottom

I went to work for BellSouth Mobility and got a higher salary. I got this job just in the nick of time because to my horror, I could no longer get approved for a credit card. I could no longer get credit limits raised. The banks no longer loved me.

Then one day I tried to make a purchase and my Rich’s Department Store card was declined. Rich’s had canceled my credit card account. Refusing to give up my card without a fight, I called the Rich’s credit office and asked to have my card reinstated. A service rep was quite rude to me and told me my last check had bounced. And even when I did pay with a check that didn’t bounce, it was always late.

Do you know how big a mess your credit life has to be to lose a retail credit card? A really, really big mess. This was the turning point for me. My credit ride had come to a merciful end.

My Wacky Approach to Debt Reduction

I didn’t know exactly how much debt I had and I didn’t want to know. I wasn’t in denial, this was my strategy. And not one I’d recommend. It’s like trying to work your way out of the eye of a hurricane when you don’t know where the edge of the storm is.

Today, I’d face the total amount head on and make a plan of attack. But back then, I was young and inexperienced, and honestly, I think I was worried I’d pass out from shock if I saw the actual number. So for each card, I looked at the minimum payment due and avoided the rest of the statement. I told myself that in one year, I’d see how much debt was left.

How I Found “Extra” Money in My Budget

I started reading personal finance books and I learned how to budget and track my spending. Then I designed a strict budget for myself.

I had no car payment and that helped a lot. I lived close to my office so I went home for lunch. (I was no longer afraid to run into the mailman and that was surprisingly liberating.) I learned how to love PB & J sandwiches. I only went out at night with friends when I could get 2-for-1 drinks and a free appetizer buffet.

I also canceled my fancy health club membership and signed up with a cheap alternative. I considered giving the club up altogether, but decided the workouts helped me cope with the stress of the debt. When you’re in debt, there’s a constant feeling of anxiety whether you consciously acknowledge it or not.

I allowed myself only $10 a week for mad money. Looking back, it’s hard to believe I stuck with that. But here’s what happens. When you start getting out of debt—even just a little bit—you experience a psychological lift that feels great. There’s a positive emotional momentum that takes place as you’re inching toward financial freedom. Kind of like a runner’s high so you want to keep going. After a while, I was able to double my minimum payments. Then I tripled them.

My Year of Living Frugally

When I tallied my debt a year later, I still owed $11,000. To this day, I don’t know the exact total of my debt. I kept track of the payments I made that year so I know it was around $20,000 when I started working on it. Even though I had a big chunk left, I felt empowered and proud of myself.

As I was getting out of debt, my whole life changed. During this time, I left the corporate world to become a finance writer. I ended up specializing in credit cards because I wanted to help others avoid the huge mistakes I’d made.

A Happy Ending

After Confessions of a Shopaholic was over, I told my daughter everything about my credit card past. I wanted to make sure she understood the perils of credit.

If any of you have kids, make sure you teach them how to use it responsibly. Listen, I know there’s controversy about this. But think about my story. One day your kid will graduate from college. Do you want your kid to get those enticing offers in the mail when you’re not there to explain how to use credit responsibly? And believe me, they’ll get those letters.

Credit isn’t a bad thing. It’s the lack of knowledge about how it works that’s dangerous. Empower yourself—and your kids—with knowledge and you’ll be able to use credit cards to your advantage.

You don’t have to go all the way and become a credit card diva like me. But I want you to know that you can hit the depths of credit card hell and come back from it strong and financially fit.

Image: Annie Mole, via Flickr.com

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  • Julie

    BTDT. We carried our debt for 10 years and I finally got sick enough to work my way out of it through a combination of sacrifice and working for every penny I could get my hands on. Today, debt is one the things that can still give me nightmares.

  • Beverly Blair Harzog

    Julie–Thanks for sharing your experience. And congratulations on digging yourself out of the debt hole. I agree that debt can give you nightmares! It’s something you never forget.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Thanks for sharing this Beverly! I am sure there are many of us who can see some of ourselves in your story. ;-)

    • Beverly Blair Harzog

      Thanks, Gerri. I certainly could’ve used a debt expert like yourself back in those days!

  • http://TheBudgeteer.Com TheBudgeteer

    It’s great that you can be open about your experience. Thanks for sharing!

    Debt is a subject that people sometimes feel uncomfortable dealing with.

    • Beverly Blair Harzog

      Thanks! I’ll be honest. This was a hard decision. But in the end, I hoped it would help others in this situation to know it’s possible to survive it!

  • http://www.LetitiaLifeCoaching.com Letitia Sweitzer

    Congrats on sending out this message, made powerful by being personal.

    • Beverly Blair Harzog

      Letitia–Thank you! I appreciate that.

  • tk

    sounds just like my late teens/early 20’s.

    like you, i got my head out of the sand and worked hard to get everything paid off. i can’t say it was pleasant at the start, but I sure was glad at the end!

    I’m saving your story for my son, when he’s old enough to learn that lesson.

    • Beverly Blair Harzog

      tk–Thanks for sharing! And I’m honored to be an example for your son. I’ve made sure both of my kids have read this!

  • Erika

    Beverly,

    Thank you for writing your story. Something similar happened to me last year. I was 3 cards deep in debt and I’m a student in grad school. I was snapped back into check when my loans were denied and I had to use my dad as a reference. It was humiliating. I closed my accounts and finally paid 2 of them off completely last month. I’m still working on my biggest card, but you’re right. The weight lifted after having paid those 2 cards was amazing. My parents had always told me to control your spending and spend within your limits, but I wish they had given me this kind of example. The real nitty gritty of what happens if you lose control.

    Thank you.

    • Beverly Harzog

      Erika–I’m so glad this was helpful to you. And thanks for sharing your story. You’ve already paid off a lot of debt and you should be proud of yourself. Keep going! You can look forward to a giant feeling of relief as you get closer to having it paid off completely.

  • Diana MP

    Beverly,

    Wonderful article! You gave me hope as I find myself in my mid-twenties starting the overwhelming debt-reduction process. Now I see that IT IS POSSIBLE to reduce (hopefully, eliminate) credit card debt if you work hard to do it!

    • Beverly Harzog

      Diana-I’m so glad my story gave you hope. It is totally possible to get out of credit card debt with persistence and discipline. Once you get started and your debt starts decreasing you’ll feel so much lighter. Good luck and I’m rooting for you!

  • Chelsealeigh

    I’m currently 26 and in the same situation! I landed an amazing job but have soooo much cc and school loan debt that is following me around right now it makes me go nuts! My boyfriend is a financial auditor for a larch bank and always tries to tell me how I can save money and pay things off but it’s hard for me to listen because he’s TELLING ME. I’ve recently sat down, read the Dave Ramsey book, made a budget and am slowly but surely making payments to hopefully become debt free by the time I’m 30!

    My mom sent me this link and said, “see, there are people out there like you, you will be fine one day”

    Thanks for this:)

    • Beverly Blair Harzog

      Hi Chelsealeigh–Thanks so much for your comment! I’m thrilled that my story gave you hope. You’ve already taken the hardest step and that was making the decision to get out of debt. And it sounds like you have supportive people around you and that helps a lot.

      Once you start making progress, you’ll feel great and that will keep you going. So hang in there and stick to your budget. I’m rooting for you! :)

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  • Kim

    Hello Beverely,

    I’m so thankful that you not only shared your personal financial story, but that you’ve used your personal experience to become a consumer advocate for credit cards. Your blog does make a difference! :)

    I have to admit that I have a few collection accounts…. they are over 4 years old and past the statute of limitations, so they cannot come after me per se. But the 7-year drop-off date of that negative info hasn’t arrived yet and, to be honest, I feel the mountain of embarrassing guilt on my shoulders (like a dark cloud that follows me everywhere).

    Until a year ago, I just stuck my head in the sand and completely ignored the debt because it seemed too overwhelming to tackle. But now I’m trying to face my fears and eventually reclaim my “good/excellent” credit score standing. My plan-of-attack was to obtain a couple secured credit cards (which I did) and just focus on building new, good credit while avoiding the old, bad collections because they’re past the SOL. (I had heard that paying them now would just backfire and cause more harm than good.)

    The first secured cardI applied for was at my local credit union and, to my mortification, I was denied! They said that even though I never had a bankruptcy and the collections were over 4 years old, they needed to be paid off before I could be approved (even for a secured card). Not every bank/credit union is that strict with their application process, because I WAS able to obtain 2 secured cards. But it got me wondering….IS better to pay off the collections, no matter how old they are?

    There’s a lot of conflicting info on the internet about paying off debts, which makes it very confusing for consumers! I don’t know if you’re allowed to answer my specific question or not, but perhaps you can at least recommend a book or website or something where I can obtain CORRECT info on whether or not I should pay my debts after a certain point, or if it’ll just do more harm than good.

    Thanks again for all that you do! Keep up the good work :)

    Confused,
    Kim

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  • Al Schwartz

    Motivating story. I was pinned down under 77k 5 years ago. I see the daylight now, 4k away from being free!

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