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Posts Tagged ‘bad spending habits’

Years ago I wrote this story story about my relationship with credit cards. I went looking for an old story I had lost and found this one too. I’m going to put it up here. It never did get published. I wrote it in my very early days of writing. The file details says it was written in mid- 2002. This version was last looked at in 2003.

 

I have improved my credit card habits in recent times. Mostly out of necessity because I’m on a low income. However, I cannot say I’m cured.

Temptation of Plastic Fantastic

By Donna Maree Hanson

I was in a dilemma. I had tried on three suits and I couldn’t decide which one to buy. The pale yellow had a nice cut, the blue pants and top were too cheap to miss, and the other collection was the prettiest thing I had ever seen and made me look trendy. I rationalised that in my line of work I had to look professional, fresh, new and, more importantly, tailored. It was too much! I couldn’t choose so I said, ‘I’ll take them all.’

Smiling, I handed over my credit card and then listened to the machine whirr and clatter. My eyes flicked around the store, giving it the final once over. I noticed a blue blouse, with a lovely floral print that I hadn’t seen earlier. The shop assistant’s voice broke into my thoughts, as I had been tempted to try it on. ‘I’m sorry. It’s been declined.’ She looked at me, a slight accusation evident in the finely plucked eyebrow.

My mouth dropped open. ‘Oh? That’s strange,’ I said as I fumbled for my wallet. ‘Do you take this charge card?’ I asked hopefully. She replied that they did, so I handed it over.

The rejection of my transaction did make me mildly concerned, only mildly, of course. However, it had dented my pride to be so exposed and publicly disgraced, even though I was the only shopper in the store. It was like finding yourself naked in a public place. I repressed a shudder.

The charge card went through without a hitch. I leaned forward to see the telltale ‘approved’ flash on the little screen. Although it was my first time to be ‘declined’, I thought I handled it well; I had had another card up my sleeve.

My mind ran through the possibilities. Perhaps it was declined because I had recently moved from weekly to monthly pays, (that change in itself was enough to excite palpitations in the most robust person). I thought I had transferred enough salary to my credit card to cope with my purchasing habits. Obviously, I had thought wrong. It was easily fixed: I could just transfer more.

I grabbed my wares and my three-hundred-and-eighty-five-dollar receipt and headed for the ATM. Obviously something had to be done. How could I cope without the means to purchase life’s little necessities? My charge card was fine, except not very many stores accepted it. However, they always accepted my credit card.

A few minutes later on the way to the ATM, some canvas laundry baskets caught my eye, their fantastic colours tantalising me. I liked the yellow and the blue and bought them both. I had wanted something like them for the longest time and what did it matter if I bought them now or later. I used EFTPOS that time as the credit card had proved unreliable and the shop didn’t take my charge card.

Within the hour, I wandered past the bookstore still on my way to the ATM (It’s a big shopping mall). They were having a sale. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take a look. There was a great book on the Phoenicians and I had never seen a text on them before, and a little handbook of Scottish names that would be ever so handy for something. I picked them up and put them down. I walked out of the shop and back in again. All the while, my mind was turning over and over—Do you want them? Do you need them? At last, I hit upon an idea; the book on the Phoenicians was unusual and my brother-in-law liked that type of thing and they were thirty- five percent off. I raced back to the end of the row where the books were located. It was an act of desperation in case someone else had seen them too. I searched a bit, rummaged through the health and cookbooks with bright orange stickers with fifty percent off boldly written on them in black felt tip pen. Finally, my hand fell upon them and I made it to the counter before anyone else could get there. I laid down my charge card card, the plastic square snapping against the counter top. The bookstore accepted my brand of charge card, I already knew from experience, so there was no opportunity to expose my recalcitrant credit card.

I managed at last to get to the ATM, it was a struggle it had taken nearly two hours. It was January and there were sales everywhere. I inserted my card and discovered, to my horror, that my credit card was over the limit. I checked my savings account and found it empty as a drought-infested, dried-up creek bed. My mind raced, quickly considering all my other sources of funds, but I could not find any that would to heal the gaping wound in my accounts.

I was stunned at first, unable to take it in. I refused to believe it and double-checked the balances. The sound of traffic passing whooshed by, as I stood open mouthed, gaping at the ATM. It didn’t quite make sense. What did I buy to make the accounts so overdrawn? Nothing came to mind at first and then as if someone was dropping a ream of photocopy paper from high above, the recollections floated down through my mind. ‘Oh!…Oh, forgot that…Shit!’ I said and then cringed hoping no one had heard. I looked around and there was no one about so I relaxed, a little. My credit card was very sick. I couldn’t deny it now. It was suffering severely and I had no cure available.

My mouth turned down with worry. Sourly, I admitted that I would just have to live with it, so I reclaimed my card and went home. I did notice, though, that the sun was not shining as brightly as it had when I had left home that morning.

The days passed and the worry lingered. The only thing I could do was stay away from the shops, for a short time, at least. I would get paid again, eventually.

Another week passed and the worry crystallised. I felt constricted by my financial bind. I couldn’t use my credit card, EFTPOS was overdrawn and I had no idea how much I had charged to my charge card. That unknown started to loom large to the point where I dreaded seeing the credit card statements, but I kept on beating back the fear in the hope that there had been a mistake. I went over all my purchases in my mind confident that they hadn’t been that large or numerous. Then I remembered that I had used my charge card for petrol, a dozen red wines, a few nice meals in restaurants, a present here and there…oh, and the clothes and…oh the airfares. I did a quick mental count and sat down, cradling my head in my arms. It occurred to me then that I was possibly in serious shit.

The charge card company usually debited the money straight from my savings account. If I had no idea what I had spent, then I had no idea what would come out of my account: this had serious implications for my budget. My credit card was five hundred dollars over the limit already and that limit was five thousand dollars. I had hit rock bottom with a thud and groaned into the tabletop.

Later I tried to get over it; perhaps it was just the post-Christmas blues. The January sales were on and I was unarmed for combat, unable to hunt for the best bargain. The temptation of the bargains called to me on the wind, the Mall was only a five quick minutes away. It was hard to resist the urge, the temptation, but I did.

The days blurred into one long frustration that grew until it became a nagging headache that coloured my perception of life. I began to be listless and withdrawn, unable to participate in the normal routine of life. The cupboard was bare and I couldn’t tell anyone about my little problem: I couldn’t even buy a pizza!

It was too embarrassing. I had succumbed before and every one close to me knew about my previous transgressions. This wasn’t the first time I’d bought my credit card to its limit.

The timing is always right. I’d be at my limit and the bank teller would say ‘Is your credit limit sufficient?’ so ingenuously that I would be taken in, as if she were offering me another cup of tea. If she said instead, ‘Would you like to increase your debt with this bank?’ I might think differently if the bank put it that way.

Somehow, there is a strange perversion in me, when I see that available credit figure on my statement I convert it into how much money I have to spend. What has happened to my rational thinking? Am I caught up in a vortex of easy credit and consumerism?

Herein is the catch. The credit card statements say ‘available balance’ and everything is fine until it says you have ‘nil’ available balance. If you’re lucky perceptions shift and you say ‘Hey I owe the bloody bank five thousand dollars!’

I say lucky because it doesn’t always happen that way. Not for me. Sometimes I put a bit of cash on the card and I’m free to shop again. I feel a liberation so strong because once again I can participate in the bargains, meals and fun that everyone else is apparently having.

Inevitably, the statements came and then my world came crashing down around me. My charge card bill was three times what I had expected it to be and the credit card balance had grown even more, once they added in the interest charges. My pay would barely cover the charge card payment and the excess amount on the credit card. What really scared me though was that I would still have a whole month to live before I got paid again. And that meant with nothing to live on. This was really earth-shattering shit!

Anguish gripped my innards and I had to fight the tears of frustration that signalled out and out failure. The temptation of credit had me in its tight grip and I never knew how entwined I was. Something had to give.

I started going through the options, as if flicking through my recipe cards: flick, flick and flop. I could get a personal loan to pay the credits cards all off and never use them again. Unfortunately, I had tried that before and it had worked for six months or so, but then I’d get another card and everything would start climbing back up. No, the personal loan option was out.

My habits had to change. I had to take drastic steps. If I didn’t I would be bankrupt. That would mean ruination of my career and me.

Then again, I am not the only one. There are others, if you are in the know, who have heaps of cards, countless cards, who borrow from one card to pay the other, and who live beyond their means. I heard about a guy who ran up two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of credit card debt on a wallet full of cards. It’s clear to me the banks are just giving it away, ready to suck you in to the bottomless pit of easy credit. Hey! I am not that bad! I am not like him!

However, I am miserable, defeated, totally humiliated and hungry for a pizza.

I have to take a stand.

I have to suffer to expiate my credit card sin and for succumbing to the lure of the plastic fantastic.

I have to stop shopping!

I began. I let charge card company take the full amount from my account. Actually, I had no idea what they would say if I asked them not to, probably lose those shopping reward points that had been so hard to earn. Then I took almost all the rest of my pay and put it on the credit card, and wrote to my kid’s expensive school and told them I had no cash and could I make an arrangement. Phew! I’d done it.

Then came the hard part; I kept my cards in my purse and kept a tight rein on them. Cold turkey was too hard. I had left myself short, and I had to have an out for emergencies, like school uniforms, new shoes and books for school.

Another month over and I had made it through, panting with exhaustion. However, there was a hiccup—the hotel bill from the Bali trip appeared on this month’s charge card. My life was over!

Well, not exactly over. It only meant that the torture had to continue for another month. The school fees had to be paid so I couldn’t relieve the agony of my credit card. I gave it some pain relief though, a few hundred to keep it below the limit, but I couldn’t use it. It was enough to keep the regular debits from starvation, but did not assuage its hungry debt. I still didn’t have the nerve to go cold turkey. Although restraint was excruciating, it wasn’t fatal.

*

The pain is fading now. I can’t tell if I will succumb again, but I am much more in control. I am still broke, although the charge card will be below five hundred this month, which is such relief. I see a slow recovery, bit by bit; I intend to whittle the credit card debt down and then I will reduce the limit. I know it’s foolish to keep paying the interest, even if I took out a personal loan to pay it off, I know I would just get another card. Besides it’s therapeutic to suffer, to learn the nature of your weakness and endure the self-inflicted torture.

I still buy little things, a book here and there, a video or DVD, although I am prudent; no clothes, no restaurants, well maybe once a month and only a cheapie.

You might wonder why I don’t throw the plastic card away, why I don’t listen to that old adage that ‘once bitten twice shy’. I’m deaf of course!

You might ask why the swordsman keeps his trusty blade. He needs it to fight to keep alive, to face the dangers of life. If you were a warrior, would you throw away your sword or your shield just because you took a blow or two? I know I wouldn’t.

Well that’s how I feel about my credit cards. They are my protection from hunger, my access to the things that are necessary for my lifestyle. They are my defence against destitution, and homelessness. Those innocent plastic cards are my shields against the nasty things in life, a means to defend myself. If I need a new dress to go to a party, or if I need to get out of town in a hurry like in the movies, then I can. They are a powerful tool, neat and easy to carry.

I haven’t given up my addiction, I realise that. The lure of temptation is still there. I just temper and control it. It is always there. Credit Cards will always be there.

There are questions that bother me—Is it the cards themselves that are the temptation or is it something they unleash? Am I inherently susceptible to temptation or am I a logical person, who is finding it hard to make ends meet uses credit to get me by?

I think deeper on the nature of temptation and how it affects me. Dark memories twisted with pain loom large as I rummage around the clutter of my mind. The answer is well hidden and covered in sticky cobwebs. There were times when I was struggling single parent where we had no food for a day or two, when I had to give the kids boiled rice baked in the oven with a shrivelled up slice of tomato and a Kraft cheddar cheese slice on top. It was so disgusting. I couldn’t eat it myself. It was like being half out of the pit of poverty.

Around the same time, too, I went to the doctor and he told me to get a prescription filled. I had to say I would when it was payday. He looked at me through his rimless glasses, his balding head haloed with a few feathered tufts of hair, as if I was someone he had never met before. ‘You mean you don’t have five dollars?’ he had asked as if I had just landed from a refugee boat. I shook my head, staring resolutely into my lap. He gave me a sample bottle of medicine. I left grateful, of course, but shamed.

Even though those memories haunt me, I sense that there is yet another layer where memories still weep like unhealed scars. They go back to the past, to the time when I was married young and had no say, no money and no hope. Who wants a life like that? Who needs the memories? Obviously, those times still haunt me and the temptation of affluence lures me on. They drove me to study, to improve—they drove me to this!

What happened to the simple life—those halcyon days where you got paid, dispersed your funds and banked the rest? I have never experienced them personally, though I have heard rumours about them.

I don’t bank anything. I have negative savings. I read the newspaper so I know that a large percentage of the population is in the same boat. I am not alone after all. The temptation is with me now. Is it with you too?

The End

 

 

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