Some lessons in life are hard to learn. So hard that you have to learn them twice. Credit card management is definitely one of them.
The first credit card I got was handed over to me with little ceremony when I was a student. It was my second year and I’d moved out of the halls of residence and into my very first flat on Cook st.
My campus had a branch of the National bank down by the (man-made) lake (full of huge eels that would eat the baby ducks) and students were eligible for an interest free $1000 overdraft and a credit card with a $500 limit. For a broke student it was just free money, I figured it would be easy to pay back once I graduated and started earning my kick ass amazingly high wage. (Yeah right, turns out science graduates aren’t nearly as in demand as I thought).
Some of the $1000 went on text books, I bought a woolen electric underblankets (it was a cold town!) and heaps of beer, takeways and …….. well I can’t really remember where the rest of it went. It just went! I probably bought CD’s and cool posters for my room.
It wasn’t long before everything was maxed out. Each week my student allowance came in plus a little side income from working in a lab downtown. I paid my rent and everything else went into the overdraft but before the next pay day the overdraft was maxed out again. It wasn’t till a I finished university and finally got a full time job that I was able to pay it all back. Each fortnight I had to call the bank and ask them to reduce the overdraft by a measly $50. I learned the overdraft lesson and never used one ever again. The weeks dragging by and the embarrassing calls to my banking manger left a lasting impression.
The credit card however had no such lesson, the payments to visa were to this vague external entity. I never met anyone from visa and I never had to call. In fact I think they even increased my limit once I started working full time.
Fast forward to 7 years later and I was still always carrying a credit card balance. I thought it was normal. By now I had a limit of $3000 and things were getting dangerously close to that limit. The first hint that I wasn’t exactly managing things was when I made my first call to visa. I wanted a limit increase for a trip to vegas “just in case”. Just in case what I’ll never know because they turned me down. I had made a large cash withdrawal the week before. I mistakenly paid too much off the card that fortnight and hadn’t calculated enough reserves to make rent! The bank wasn’t too impressed with my money management skills.
After the trip added even more debt to my card I decided I had to tackle the debt. Each pay day I paid the bills that had to be in cash (e.g rent) then every single left over dollar went on the credit card. No cash left in checking, everything was now on the credit card. It was a huge payment and each payday bought the promise of progress. But I still had groceries and petrol to buy so I would use the credit card. It was a 3 steps forward 2 steps back kind of deal but I got there in the end.
The second time I maxed out my credit card was way worse. It involved spending money on family, spending more than I earned on day to day expenses and having nothing to show for $12,000 worth of debt. Yep twelve grand. It happened over several years. I didn’t buy myself clothes or gadgets or things like that. But I bought movie tickets, takeaway pizza’s, groceries, dinners out and a trip to the Gold coast for my partner and their children. So in the end I had massive debt and no assets to show for it. Deeply ashamed I hid my debt from everyone. I carried on as if everything was normal with this huge debt anxiety in the background.
This time I transferred the debt to a credit card with 0% interest for the first 6 months. After 6 months I transferred to a card with the same bank with a low interest rate (about 1/2 the standard rate). It took me about 3 years to get it under control. During those years I paid my mortgage and invested in kiwisaver. I bought shares but I didn’t mange any cash savings. Once I got the balance down to $1000 I started to save cash. Actual cash reserves. Looking back I was lucky to have a good paying job and to manage the rest of my money so I never got behind in repayments. It never became an “issue” or stopped me from being able to afford rent, power, food etc. It could have been a lot worse.
Now I pay the balance in full on my card every time I get paid. Transfer over enough money to zero that balance and sometimes it hurts the checking account a little because I’ve spent more than I thought. Even now spending on the plastic doesn’t trigger the feeling of spending my own money. Its a future me problem not a today me problem.
So thats my consumer debt story, going through the painful repayment process taught me a lot about money and how I interact with with it. So for that I am grateful. (Obviously I would rather not have spent the money and have it investments but we’ve always got to look for the silver lining).