How I Figured Out How to Stay Out of Credit Card Trouble (Thanks Dad)

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The story of my first credit card is dead boring. Nonetheless, I’d appreciate it if you read on, because my dad deserves his kudos. And besides, when it comes to money, boring can get you very, very far.

One of the paradoxes of writing about money is that unless you’ve won the lottery or founded a million dollar startup, your best bet at interesting copy is a hard luck story: Fortunes squandered; sky-high student loans signed with trembling hands; mountain ranges of debt. These make for great tales, and it’s important and necessary to pull back the curtain on our financial lives. But it’s better not to have a story at all. The reason my first credit card didn’t end as cautionary tale is because of my dad’s advice.

Midway through college, likely during one of the patented forty-five second phone calls my dad and I often had, he said something along the lines of, “You should probably have a credit history by now. Get a credit card. Don’t use it much.”

I’ve written before about the lack of financial education in public schools. Without a formal framework, we pick up knowledge where we can. My dad’s haiku-like statements accounted for most of my early money knowledge. They offered precise instruction without any pesky nuance.

After our conversation I went to my bank, where I already had a debit card, and signed up for a low-limit credit card. I received no swag, bonus points, cash back or travel miles (contrast this with my wife, whose first credit card came with a bag of M&M’s and a T-Shirt, surely the lamest goodies ever accepted for a credit card). The process could not have been more mundane.

But it could have been different for me. The term sheet was very complex (new regulations have made them easier to read) and I signed it without understanding a single word. I couldn’t tell you what the APR was on my first credit card, because at the time I couldn’t have told you what APR was.

On top of this, I graduated into the insane credit bubble of the mid-2000’s. In those heady days, my credit limit multiplied like a Gremlin underneath a sprinkler head. One morning I awoke to find my limit raised by $5,000 without any clear reason. Over a year, my credit limit rose from a few thousand dollars to a jaw dropping $25,000. On top of that, I received two-to-three new credit card offers per week in the mail.

This steady drumbeat of credit made the insane seem normal. Why shouldn’t I sop up this money? Smarter people than myself decided that I could handle it. Every time I logged into my online account the number $25,000 looked at me all dewy-eyed, asking, “Don’t you deserve something nice?” I was 21—there were women to woo and real adult furniture to acquire. I saw former classmates just out of school buying new cars and televisions and thought I should too. The financial world had meticulously set up its mousetraps and requested very politely that I take two steps forward.

But I didn’t. I don’t think I charged more than $300 in any month, and I never carried a balance. And it’s not because I’m self-disciplined. I don’t forsake material goods, and I’m not above status symbols.

I didn’t abuse credit because my dad’s terse rules forbade it. Not knowing any other rules, I followed his, and they just happened to be correct. I am not the hero of this story, he is. I would have just as willingly followed bad advice.

If there’s a moral here, it’s that most high school and college-age adolescents need guidance. My father kept a tight watch over my financial life until after finished college. The Post Office where he worked shared space with my bank, and he often walked over to check on my account, using the ATM withdrawals as a kind of primitive GPS (“What brought you to Boston last weekend?” was a common question). In all other realms I had full adult freedom. But with money, my Dad was a proud helicopter parent.

Of course, as a 21-year-old, I hated this. But it was the right move, and I hope to emulate it with my daughter. He believed, correctly, that I was not yet a responsible adult, and that the consequences of money mistakes could reverberate well into my thirties (recent studies support what he felt intrinsically). I want my daughter to have freedom, and I want her to fail and learn from failure. But when it comes to money, the stakes are too high and the counterparties too sophisticated. Her financial training wheels will stay on into her twenties, and I’ll feel no guilt about it.

I recently received a replacement card in the mail from my bank. It turns out I’ve had my first credit card for exactly ten years. I’m proud of this, though the story isn’t likely to win me free drinks at my local bar. If I’m fortunate, my daughter’s money stories will be even more mundane than my own. I want her friends to fall asleep at the mere suggestion of them. I’ll have done my job, and her grandpa will be proud.


E.A. Mann is an engineer and freelance writer living in Warren, R.I. He has a twitter account, but feels like an old person when he tries to use it.

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13 Comments / Post A Comment

honey cowl (#1,510)

E.A. Mann, you need to tweet more.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

@honey cowl I have a complicated relationship with twitter because it’s the first web 2.0 technology to make me feel confused and therefore feel old.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@EA_Mann But you are so smart and funny!

KMAber (#5,519)

My parents forbade me to get a credit card claiming I didn’t need one. So instead I got one without telling them and decked out my college apartment with some sweet crap from Pottery Barn and Pier 1. It took me forever to pay off those cards, but I did have a margarita glassware set, so there’s that.

@KMAber I had a $500 limit from Capital One at age 18 and it took me forever to make my first purchase. But once I did…

Unfortunately, I got upwards of $10-15k in credit extended to me before the bubble burst. A college student who made $25k a year working part-time at Anthropologie. Kids today will have it so much better!

EA_Mann (#5,000)

@Katie Dickson@facebook I know! People will definitely look back and say ‘my god, that was crazy’. Unfortunately when you’re that age you just enter the world and say “oh ok, this must be how the world is”.

andnowlights (#2,902)

I love this. Good on your dad for making sure you knew how to handle money in a responsible way. My parents got me a card when I was 13 as an additional card on my Mom’s account and made sure I knew exactly what was going on, that you had to pay the balance off, and if I used it irresponsibly, there would be major consequences. As a result, I didn’t have a card of my own until I was 24 because I was so scared! Ha.

gl (#5,458)

This sounds basically like my story and my parents. Except their advice (“advice” it was really just a directive that I blindly followed, thank god) when I was all of 18 and getting my first credit card was: “Siri, credit cards need to be paid off in full every month and to make it easy we will just set up automatic withdrawal from your bank account each month for the entire balance. So that’s why you only use credit cards for things you need and why you can only charge less than the amount in the bank, because all the money is leaving your account at the end of the month.”

Ten years later, same credit card, (mostly) the same automatic withdrawal to pay off the cc each month. (“Mostly” because it’s a different bank and I also had to change what day of the month it gets taken out on because my day was too early they decided?!) It was only a few years ago that I really started to get that other people don’t use credit cards the way that I do. I thought that credit card debt was rare and only people who had found themselves in dire financial straits (losing jobs, medical issues, etc) or people who were knowingly being irresponsible and consciously spending beyond their means had it. I thought everyone paid off their credit card each month by default and that only paying the minimum was the outlier. I … was wrong.

I still don’t balance my check book though. My dad will forever despair over that.

squashblossom (#6,560)

@gl Nice! I’ve got the same approach, assuming very few people actually do Bad Things with credit cards. Now I’m seeing so many people carry around this tiny, dark knapsack of CC debt that no one ever talks about. Don’t mean to gloat, but I’ve been pretty diligent (coming from a reformed financial dummy) about it, and it’s one of my proudest life achievements. Moving in with a partner who did have an ill-advised period of financial dummy-ness (MAJORLY), I worry about being on the same page with credit… :/

Sloane (#675)

My timidity with credit cards was my saving grace. I didn’t have one until I was just out of college. I think I was given some vague advice about paying the credit card bill every month, but I really didn’t understand how they worked. It never occurred to me not to pay off the card every month because I didn’t know about paying only the minimum. I would hear people talk about the balance on their credit cards and wonder what the heck they were talking about. And I always wondered how the banks made money because I didn’t know about the interest charged on the balance. Naivete can be a good thing, I guess.

sherlock (#3,599)

I resisted getting a credit card for a long time, because I didn’t understand that you don’t get charged interest if you pay if off at the end of each statement period. I always assumed that interest starting accruing daily as soon as you made the purchase until you paid the bill. In my mind, this just meant that everything would practically become X% more expensive, which seemed like a stupid thing to sign up for.

I think I finally figured it out in college, and quickly got one senior year when I realized that I needed a credit score to apply for apartments.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

@sherlock This is the most amazing thing to me: even many people who do credit cards right largely do not understand them. They either followed direct parental orders (me) or had some kind of misunderstanding that actually helped them in the long run (you).

I like applying this logic to other areas to show how crazy it is. If our situation was like cigarettes, I would have avoided them because my parents told me to, even though they never mentioned health concerns. You would have avoided them because you falsely heard that they explode and kill you.
when you start applying this to other

BornSecular (#2,245)

This was very nice.

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