Before I go, I have something to say

Risky Business

I got a really funny letter in the mail last week. Not ha-ha funny, but the kind that makes you yelp in exasperation. Here’s how it began:

“Thank you for your recent application for the L.L. Bean Credit Card issued by Barclays Bank Delaware. We regret that we’re unable to approve you for an L.L. Bean account due to the following: Too few accounts with sufficient satisfactory performance.”

The letter went on to tell me how I could get a free copy of my credit report, which had resulted in their refusal to grant my credit card application. But I don’t think I’ll bother requesting that report. I know what it says, because I got one a few years ago. At the time, I thought it was a fantastic thing that I had only one credit card and it was paid off. What’s not to love about that?

For decades, it had been quite the opposite. As soon as I married my first husband, we got a shiny Visa card in both of our names and went to town charging up all the things we so desperately needed to set up our household, from a living room sofa to a TV to watch while lounging on it. Even before that, I had bought my very first new car on credit, a darling buttercup yellow Chevette whose value probably expired long before the debt was paid off.

That’s the thing, as almost everyone knows by now. Unless you pay off those charges that are so easy to make, before you know it, you’ve shelled out twice the original price, thanks to the interest tacked on month after month after month. We bought a house near Denver, Colorado, but the supposed advantages of being homeowners were lost on us. By the time we split and the place was sold, there was nothing left once the mortgage was paid off and the realtor had taken his cut, for which he had slyly placed a lien when things began to look dicey.

Moving to Dubuque in 1986, I was more hopeful. Houses were so cheap here compared with Colorado, a friend back there asked me incredulously, “Is that for the down payment?” But no, I was buying an entire house for around $30,000. Even so, my salary was pitiable and I had to borrow money from both the bank of Mom and Dad and American Trust just to get into the door of my own first home.

As I embarked on this new chapter of my life, had I learned my lesson about credit cards? In a word, No. There were so many things we needed, my two kids and I, and so few sources of income. The thing about starting out at a low salary is that even when you get a fairly predictable raise every year, if it’s based on your previous year’s pay, it’s never going to amount to anything. Three percent on top of a low salary is still small potatoes.

So I continued to borrow. I tried to apply only for cards offering low or no interest, at least for the first few months. I found out about home equity loans, and I applied for more than one, using them to fix up the house and to consolidate my higher-interest loans. This may have been the American Way, but it just got me deeper in debt. It kept me up at night, reading those magazine articles where some hotshot financial wizard looks over the pathetic economics of a family with sixteen credit cards, a gambling habit, and kids who insist on wearing Guess jeans and whatever $100 shoe their basketball hero was promoting. Reading about people worse off than me didn’t make me feel better. After all, they were getting professional help.

The one thing these gurus always said – and continue to say today – was, “Pay off your debts!” The fact that I did finally manage to do that, which I owe entirely to getting married and selling my house, made me feel really good. I stopped using the one credit card I still owned. My husband has one that he pays off every month. The only problem is, now I can’t seem to qualify for what looks like a very nice credit card. This L.L. Bean card lets you order merchandise and return it without any shipping charges. Plus, every so often you get a nice little $10 coupon to spend on whatever you want, no strings attached. Such a deal!

I used to have one of these cards. The only reason I had to apply for a new one was that they changed banks, for reasons that remain murky to me. (Maybe they were dealing in credit swap options. Why do we assume the bank was doing the right thing while we, the mere customer, must be in the wrong?) I got numerous emails from L.L. Bean warning me not to fall for come-ons by another bank, one that was trying to take advantage of this switch by luring in former Bean customers.

So I dutifully applied to the right bank, and got accepted. At least that’s what I thought. The new card arrived, looking just like the old one, and I called and activated it. I’ll admit I was a little taken aback when I learned that I now had a line of credit worth over $17,000. I like new clothes, but even I can’t spend that much in one fell swoop, especially for clothes more suited to hiking than to work.

Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got the letter from the real L.L. Bean. Do I need an L.L. Bean card? Not really. But I know how this game works. If I really want to prove my credit worthiness, all I have to do is start using that new card and pay it off every month. Somehow, I just don’t think I’ll be doing that. My new shredder takes credit cards, and it’s going to be very satisfying to listen to the crunchy noise that piece of plastic makes as it goes the way all temptation should.

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