It’s not worth the free candy bar

My life is controlled by a series of small plastic objects. They’re small enough to fit in my wallet, yet somehow manage to make it unbearably heavy. They’re every freshman’s friend and every senior’s scourge—credit cards!

Credit companies are pretty smooth: They offer free pop, t-shirts, jumbo-sized candy bars and gift certificates just for filling out a measly piece of paper. What a deal.

So suppose you want the free offers without getting snagged by the credit company. You indicate that you have no job, no savings or checking account and no other sources of credit. Assuming the company will find you a terrible financial risk, you sign your John Hancock and walk off chugging from your free two-liter bottle of liquid sugar. You think you’re pretty clever.

But then several weeks later you get a surprise in the mail. Turns out that company wanted your debts so bad, they didn’t care if you were a panhandler.

This is the credit company plan of attack: You (the newly-captured cardholder) have no money, so you’ll start charging lots of necessities (and not-so-necessities). Then you’ll have a good-sized balance and a minimum payment. And since you can’t pay off the balance without any income, the company will begin racking up interest charges on your account.

And of course, if you don’t pay them, you’ll never eat lunch in this town again.

You have to give these companies credit—it’s a pretty slick strategy. But be it known, as one who has been there and is still there, that I have formally warned all of you against participating in this potential disaster.

Yes, it’s very tempting to get “free” credit and go wild at Wal-Mart. It’s pretty cool to be able to charge groceries at Jewel and gas at Shell. But when that bill comes in the mail, you’ll curse yourself for lack of self-control and the credit card company for its luring appeal.

The worst kind of credit card to get is a department store card. First of all, they have the highest interest rates on unpaid balances. Many of them also have outrageous minimum payments. And they’re only good in one place (this is actually probably a plus).

If you do succumb to the temptations of the plastic god, only get one card, maybe two. But displaying a whole portfolio of little plastic won’t get you anywhere, except maybe with a gold digger who’ll dump you when the bills come.

I recently took inventory of the state of my credit. After doing some simple math (which is about all English majors can do), I figured out that I have more credit than income. That means I make less working various jobs than is available to me on credit. (Well, no one said working for NIU would make me rich.)

And there’s no end in sight. I opened up a certain department store bill yesterday to read this exalting message:

Based on your excellent account status, we have raised your credit limit—just in time for your holiday shopping needs.

Oh they’re no fools. They keep raising my limit, I see how much potential credit I have, and then when I’m in the store I think, “It’s OK, I have lots of room left.” Very clever. But the clincher is that last line: Just in time for your holiday shopping needs. Well, isn’t that convenient of them. They know damn well I’ll be scowling my way through some suburban shrine of capitalism before Christmas. And I might just happen to pass through that department store, thinking about my roomy credit options …

Well, I’m on to them. I have willpower. I have other financial options.

I have hundreds of dollars in available credit …