I should have never gotten a credit card, and I knew it. Nobody without a job, savings, or assets of any kind should, especially if their income is less than their rent. It’s basic math.
I resisted getting a credit card for a good long time. It wasn’t always easy—in the days before your debit card had that logo on it, certain things (renting a moving van or a car, for instance) required a serious cash deposit. Still, I held out, even though I received so many offers I felt like the belle of the ball, tossing rejected suitors by the dozen into the recycling bin, turning down their promises of rewards and frequent flier miles with a tinge of regret.
Obviously, I caved.
The first time I filled out an application, I assumed it would be reviewed by some pragmatist whose job it was to protect the interests of the bank. How, then, to present my employment status—”on disability due to mental illness, moonlighting as psychic reader”—in a way that would garner that pragmatist’s approval?
In a retrospectively absurd compromise between lying and disclosure, I listed my occupation as “minister.” I do, in fact, have one of those certificates from the Universal Life Church, which I carry in my wallet because I have a grandiose and messianic fantasy that I will be unexpectedly called upon to conduct a wedding or administer last rites to a dying person. I then padded my income by a couple of zeroes, fully expecting the application would be tossed directly into the shredder.
Instead, I received a card with a surprisingly high limit. Did they fail, I wondered, to run my social security number through any kind of fact-checking system? My monthly disability check (about $700) was my only income! Well, if they trusted Reverend Jenna Leigh Evans with a credit card, she’d take it.
I put it in a Tupperware full of water, and placed it in the freezer to be defrosted only in an emergency—just as directed by the back issues of Reader’s Digest that littered my therapist’s waiting room. If defrosting did ever happen, I’d repay the balance promptly. Reader’s Digest advised that, too.
There it remained, until it didn’t. There were car repairs. I needed snow tires; I needed to pay for airfare to a funeral. Then I fell in love with a beautiful, vivacious girl with a taste for the finer things—road trips; ordering appetizers and an entree—and for a while, that credit made a plump little cushion upon which spontaneous pleasures might comfortably fall.
How punctually I paid those bills! Cleverly outsmarting the interest rates, I transferred my balance from one zero-percent-interest account to another. Pre-approved cards were still courting me, after all. Somehow, despite my paltry income, I was managing my debt!
It was London, where love was ours and the roses were in bloom and a bottle of water cost about $10, and where I willfully disconnected from reality. I’ll get a gig bussing tables, I told myself, taking a suede jacket to the cashier. I won’t eat out for a month, I muttered, signing the receipt at yet another great restaurant. Good thing I have a credit card, I thought. Or none of this would be possible.
I confess that my rationale, during this period, was that I stood to inherit when my grandfather died. Or so I’d believed, based on his gloomy pronouncement: “You need money, kid. And you got a lot of it coming to you. But unfortunately you gotta wait ‘til I croak.”
I adored Grandpa, but I won’t pretend I didn’t jot duly noted on a mental memo pad. After his death, I wasn’t the only one stunned to discover that he hadn’t had one dime. I took his woolen watchcap, with its neatly-darned hole. Then I cut up my credit card.
I didn’t stick to cash exactly. I’d buy clothes on a store card for the discount, and then pay it off immediately, supposing it might help my credit score. But that old balance accrued interest with blinding speed. I stopped qualifying for zero-interest rates. Maybe they were reading those applications. I started panicking in the dead of night.
I tried to keep up, and whenever my payments rose, I negotiated them down. But by ’06, they were hovering at the equivalent of about four day’s worth of groceries (at least, that’s how I saw it).
Then my dog’s spine ruptured, paralyzing him from the waist down. He and I had recently lived together in my minivan. He’d alerted me to strangers and bears; when the cold came, he’d slept curled around me. The surgery was $8,000. Did I mention that I kept a card in case of emergency? Of course I did. When it comes to emergencies, credit cards are magic.
My dog learned to walk again. But before I knew it, the monthly payments had become unmanageable once more. A credit counselor patiently explained that no payment plan on earth was modest enough for my means.
It was then that I started Googling “what happens + default.”
Conventional wisdom painted frightening scenarios. But how bad could it screw me really: a mortgage, car, or loan was out of the question anyway. And what else was a credit score for? All I owned was a beater car. Could they garnish disability? Plus, statute of limitations. Hmm.
I bookmarked a how-to site. “The guilt will be excruciating for the first four months,” it advised. “But you’ll get past it.”
And then the 2008 financial crisis happened.
As each day brought fresh revelations about the empire-destroyingly immoral conduct of the banking system, I crunched the numbers and realized that I’d already paid enough to cover my actual charges years ago. Wall Street’s jaw-dropping fuckery became ever more egregious. Politicians started calling for the decimation of the safety net. And I decided the bank could kiss my ass.
The calls began shortly afterward, as the bank’s in-house debt collectors politely repeated offers of payment plans. I politely repeated that I had nothing to pay with.
Late fees accrued. The guilt became acute. I’d done this to myself, after all! The first four months, I reminded myself.
After they sold my debt to a third party, the calls changed dramatically, now coming at all hours. These agents were gleeful thugs, manipulative rageaholics. “Tell me something,” one demanded. “Why’d you ever think you deserved credit, huh? You obviously can’t be trusted. Answer me!”
Previous communications had concluded with version of “Are you declining this deal?” Now, they ended with the challenge: “Are you refusing to pay?” If I hesitated, they’d crow triumphantly, “You are refusing to pay!”
“Blood from a turnip, buddy,” I’d say. The turning point came during a dialogue with a collector so surreal I had to put it into the novel I was writing. An agent had been harassing me for the better part of an hour. Frightened and angry, I burst out, “As I’ve told you a thousand times, I have no wages to garnish, I don’t own anything, and I don’t have anyone to borrow from. So just let your fucking company throw me in jail, if that’s what they’re going to do!”
Suddenly he started to simper. “Oh please, don’t say that, Ms. Evans,” he begged. “I’m sorry if I scared you! You’re not going to jail, I promise! Ms. Evans, I would never let that happen,” he cried, nearly hysterical.
Had I stirred up some awful scene from his childhood? I started letting the calls go to voicemail. That only increased their frequency, so then I began picking up to say, “sorry, wrong number.” I knew they knew, but it made it easier to hang up. The calls stopped a year later. My sleepless nights, on the other hand, stopped almost immediately.
All right, there was one thing: When applying for an apartment, I had to show proof of my credit score. I took the tactic of unapologetically announcing that it was bad and offering to get a co-signer on the lease. The broker said my score—680—was low, but not ruinously so. Then he agreed to my proposal. So, I had to find a friend that trusted me enough to co-sign.
It wasn’t difficult. The thing about friends is, you know they’re not out to screw you over. Oh, and by the way: I got over the guilt in four months.
Jenna Leigh Evans is a writer, editor and urban peasant living in Brooklyn. Her novel, Prosperity, imagines life after debt becomes illegal. She has been published most recently on The Nervous Breakdown, The Toast and Autostraddle. You can find her (and watch an entertaining little book trailer) at jennaleighevans.com.
If you’re looking for help with managing your debt, get in touch with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit credit counseling organization.