Thoughts on life after the PhD
I cut my one and only credit card into small pieces last week over dinner, sitting with the scissors at the coffee table while Keith Olbermann railed against Republicans and other evils. It wasn’t as hard as I had thought it would be, though the actual cutting took a bit of strength. I put the pieces in separate garbage bags (a little paranoia about credit card theft never hurt anyone) and promised myself that I would resist the urge to continue using the credit card for online purchases (it’s interesting how credit cards these days retain a sort of phantom presence–you can cut them up, burn them, and shred all the documentation, but an extensive network of websites and online records means that they still have purchasing power).
I’d wanted to cancel the card altogether, but a money-savvy friend (i.e., a friend who owns property and doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck) and several finance websites convinced me that this would be a bad idea. Like it or not, I still need a credit history to get an apartment and buy a car, and since credit history is in part measured by how long you’ve had your credit card, I was advised to at least keep it active.
My actions might seem strange given that I’ve never had a significant amount of credit card debt and my interest rates haven’t shot through the roof. I obtained my Bank of America credit card–the only one I’ve ever owned–back in college. From the minute it arrived in the mail I was afraid of it. I left it at home when I went out and didn’t use it at all for at least a year, somehow terrified that, like that first toke on a joint that the DARE program had warned me about, a single purchase on a credit card would lead me into a spiral of debt, loan sharks, and eventual homelessness.
That didn’t happen. I used the credit card sparingly for ten years and paid off the balance in full every month. But then after I moved to L.A. three years ago and my income dropped sharply I got into the unfortunate habit of purchasing things (mostly plane tickets and expensive necessities like a laptop and a bed) that I couldn’t afford. I realize that this is how most people use credit cards–to buy things that they can’t pay for immediately–but I’d never done it before, and it immediately made me uneasy. I began paying off $1000 balances in increments of fifty dollars, sometimes waiting months before I was back in the black. Those unpaid balances weighed heavy on my mind. I watched movies like In Debt We Trust and Capitalism: A Love Story and heard stories of people who’d been late on a single payment only to have their interest rates skyrocket and be faced with astronomical monthly payments that they could barely make. Credit card companies in general began to seem like so many vultures of the economic recession, aggressively marketing to inexperienced college students and those already in debt, counting on their inability to pay off their balances. An institution that profits on other people’s misfortunes wasn’t one that I wanted to actively endorse.
So I took a preemptive strike. It’s troubling to me that the credit card companies have so much power that cancelling a card isn’t financially wise for most people, but at least I can stop using mine. It may make certain purchases more complicated, but I’m already relieved to not have any unpaid balances weighing on my mind, and to not be paying any interest on those purchases.
I read repeatedly these days that one of the few positive effects of our economic castrophe is that people have stopped spending money that they don’t have, and that they’ve broken free of the lie that the American dream must include expensive homes and cars, even if said purchases push you into a bottomless pit of debt. I doubt that my own credit card use would have sent me down a path of complete financial destruction, but I’m still glad I got out of the game.
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