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.


18 Comments / Post A Comment

Lyesmith (#4,385)

In my experience, the easiest way not to abuse your credit card is 1) to add any expenses to your monthly budget so you don’t feel only money spent from debit is “real” money, and credit is magical manna from the sky and 2) to only use it to pay for things you can’t purchase with debit (for me, that’s my metropass, phone bill, and online shopping).

I think #1 is key, though. Since I pay off my credit card each month, including any expenses from it to your budget is key to making the “credit card money=real money” connection.

Blondsak (#2,299)

100% correct on #1. I only started really controlling my spending when I added a line for “Credit Card bill” to my budget, with a set amount. Every month I have done this I have consistently spent less than when I don’t.

ETA: Regarding #2, I will add though that I use my credit card for a lot of every day purchases (lunches, groceries, drugstores, etc.) because of the cash-back rewards I get from them. If your card has those types of rewards, you should try to use it for purchases that give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Lyesmith (#4,385)

@Blondsak Definitely! I know people who reap pretty great rewards from their credit cards. Unfortunately, I’ve had the same card since I was 17 and it has no rewards at all. I spent some time researching fee-free credit cards with rewards, but it’s fallen by the wayside.

@fo (#839)

@Lyesmith More likely than not, your card issuer has a rewards card of some sort. More likely than not, they would let you switch to the ‘new’ card with just a phone call. May or may not be worth the effort of a phone call, but if you don’t ask, you already know the answer.

@Lyesmith Oh, but don’t close that card, ever. That’s a long credit history and you want to keep that.

milena (#3,288)

I honestly don’t think that many people can “spend without worry” — the only ones that come to mind are gold-digging trophy wives spending their husbands’ money, and even they worry about money (what if he loses his fortune? who would I marry next?). Even rich people worry about their investments, their high-paying jobs, etc.

In order to streamline my spending, I’ve started playing a game with myself that basically consists of hyping up a potential purchase and then hyping myself to walk away from it. If I can walk away from the reaaaally cute earrings at J. Crew, I win. (And I allow myself to come back for them if they get marked down.) The bigger the hype/desire for the purchase, the better I feel when I walk away from it. It’s curbed my spending A LOT. Turns out a lot of stuff we really want or think we need or can rationalize spending money on… we just forget about it a few days later.

chic noir (#713)

@milena I play mental games with myself as well to keep my spending in line. The biggest game is walking away from fast fashion cause” it’s just going to fall apart anyway.”

@fo (#839)

@milena “I honestly don’t think that many people can “spend without worry””

I had much the same thought. We’re well into comfortable, but still have much worry about ‘where the money is coming from’, bc (1) we don’t have a billion dollars (ie, potentially $100k PER DAY, 365 days a year, in passive income), and (2) we aren’t vacuous fools. Even if we had #1, it would still be a problem if we were #2, as you have the Nic Cage problem of spending tens of millions on frivolous, overpriced, things, and even a billion dollars can be frittered away in a lifetime.

chic noir (#713)

H&M handbags on credit are a major NONO. If you are going to charge a bag, wait until the after Xmas sales and buy yourself Gucci or something with a good resale value. A purse that will last you for years.

Vintage coach bags are good too.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

This is me – trying to figure it out too, ten years after the fact. I’ve taken them all out of my wallet for the time being. I had a very large cc debt built out of similar items (down the cheap h&m handbags, camel lights, and plane tickets). Unfortunately, when I lost my first job out of college, it just got worse because I became delinquent on several and though it’s been years, and I’ve paid off those large ones, I still have some that are a lot higher than I’d like. But chugging right along – hoping to be debt free by the end of the year!

@chic noir – to echo your sentiment, I’ve only learned in the past couple of years that certain things (shoes and bags really) are better purchased at a higher quality, lower volume.

sea ermine (#122)

‘paid almost the entire balance off, leaving just a little bit on there, to “rebuild my credit.”’ no no no no. Just a tip for anyone here who read this and thought “wow, that’s a great idea”, you don’t have to leave money on the card to fix your credit. All that does is make you pay interest on a tiny sum, for no reason. For years I paid off the full balance on my card at the end of the month and my credit score grew just fine, and is now awesome (like 800 something). And it’s way less stressful than leaving any amount of balance on the card when you don’t need to.

Senna (#3,456)

@sea ermine Seconded. Not sure, but isn’t it worse for your credit to NOT pay it all off every month?

ocello (#5,234)

@sea ermine This is actually a double “No” because once you start carrying a balance on your card, interest is charged on new purchases FROM THE TIME OF PURCHASE, not starting with the next statement. So, you are paying interest on ALL your purchases, not just the tiny sum! (Whereas if you pay your bill in full every month, no interest is charged.)

I feel like there is so much misinformation out there about various “tricks” to improve your credit score. Ultimately, the most effective way to raise you score is to 1) Pay your bills on time, and 2) Decrease your debt.

@fo (#839)

@sea ermine “All that does is make you pay interest on a tiny sum, for no reason.”

Plus, usually, you lose your grace period on new purchases, too. If one *insists* on doing that, one should use two cards, one that is paid off every month, to avoid paying interest on *current* charges.

EDIT: ocello beat me to it.

@fo (#839)

@Senna “isn’t it worse for your credit to NOT pay it all off every month?”

Only to the extent that it affects your usage number. BUT card issuers have (historically) raised limits when there is a carried balance with more frequency than when there is not. So there is a (possibly dated) concept out there of a connection bt a carried balance and an increased credit limit. Which isn’t exactly the same as “building your credit” is typically used around these parts.

jquick (#3,730)

Please dream bigger than spending a bunch of money on a meal.

Lili (#4,882)

JUST DO the nervous arithmetic about the $60 dinner. That never ends, no matter how much money you are making. I assure you, it beats doing the nervous arithmetic about $900 in payments each month. This from someone who also just didn’t want to worry about it. I’m paying back that anxiety with lots of interest.

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