Ten Years After Maxing Out My First Credit Card, I’m Still Figuring It Out
I got my first credit card in college, setting it aside for emergencies only. The first “emergency” was a pair of jeans from the Gap on Newbury Street, purchased on a quiet, wintry Tuesday. The second “emergency” was a plane ticket to San Diego. The other subsequent “emergencies” are less memorable, but most likely consisted of cheap handbags from H&M and Camel Lights.
I maxed this card out in a relatively short period of time, and then spent a year pushing piles of unopened bills into a garbage can and hoping this problem would go away. As a graduation gift, my stepfather begrudgingly paid the bill off for me, ranting about interest rates and APRs. I swore off credit cards from that moment on, and spent the rest of my twenties living with just the money I made.
I am on my third credit card. I am paying off my second in tiny, manageable increments, so small that I don’t even notice when the money zips out of my account. After years of tenuous financial responsibility, this summer I plucked a credit card offer out of the mail, and sent away for my new-found financial power. When it showed up, I signed the back and slipped it into my wallet, ready to seize the day. Every purchase at the bodega, the grocery store, the bookstore, found my hand hovering over it before selecting my debit card and paying responsibly. Just having it in my wallet felt simultaneously responsible and dangerous. A spontaneous weekend trip to Philly, with a $200 deposit required for the room? No problem. Groceries, at the end of the month, when I’m paying for coffee in change? Done.
My sister, a paragon of financial stability and responsible spending, told me that she uses her credit card for things she “feels bad” about, but pays it off every month. A sweater at Uniqlo that causes that slow rumble of doubt in your stomach as you stand on line is much easier to wear when you can put off repayment until the end of the month.
“Use it only for emergencies, real emergencies,” she told me. “Use this instead of borrowing money from me when you somehow end up with none between paychecks.”
At first, that’s what I did: $30 on groceries, on the credit card, no problem. Supplies to knit a baby blanket for a friend purchased while on a self-ordained week off, no problem. A haircut, a backpack, a Mophie, no problem. I checked my balance constantly, and when the first bill came around, I patted myself on the back and paid almost the entire balance off, leaving just a little bit on there, to “rebuild my credit.” Checking my balance on my phone, and seeing all the credit still available felt like potential. It felt like a ticket to a life of casual extravagance, a life that I had always wanted, but never quite had. The tremulous excitement that came with a credit card, shiny and unused, was unsettling.
I am bad with money. I have spent my whole life grappling with the amount I have, and scrambling to get more of it, telling myself with each new job, each promotion, that this extra bit will be the final thing that pushes me over the edge towards thrift. I would tell you my dream is to have a robust savings account, with dollars lined up in tiny rows, waiting to be spent on things like the security deposit for a sun-dappled apartment somewhere nice, but that would be a lie.
My dream is to be able to spend without worry, to stop engaging in the nervous arithmetic of shifting numbers in my head every time I find myself ready to pay. I dream of being able to drop $60 on dinner on a Monday night and not feel that sharp pinch of anxiety. I dream of being somebody that doesn’t really worry about where the money is coming from, and where it’s going, but just trusts that it will be there. My credit card holds dangerous potential.
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.