The zen of debt

Credit cards are tempters, like the devil whispering in Eve’s ear.

Only these days, they shout their message at you, via cable TV.

“Get all the cash you need!” blares one commercial. “Bad credit, no credit — get the card you deserve!” urges another. “Just 24 easy payments,” tease the itsy-bitsy fliers that come with my Texaco statement each month, peddling VCRs and sundry other gadgets.

Back in February, I turned to the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, seeking help in resisting those enticing voices. The plan was simple: Cut up all the cards, set a monthly budget — and stick to it.

But less than a week after my first CCCS session, I sidled up to an ATM machine, secured a $40 cash advance on one of my Visa cards, then headed for Pier 1, where worlds of trinkets lay at my fingertips … and I could charge my purchases.

But ah, the feel of cash in my pocket: On my way to Pier 1, I could stop by the coffee shop and eat lunch. Later, I could catch an old movie at the Fine Arts Theater.

Denial can seem so sweet.

But somewhere in the depths of my head, I remembered the CCCS counselor tallying up my unsecured, credit-card debt: $27,000 was the alarming total. And ka-ching! go the interest charges, every second of every day.

Undeterred, I strolled down Pier 1’s aisles, sniffing the aromatic candles, fingering the cotton bath rugs from Indonesia, and hefting the colored glass from Spain. I charged $20 worth of odds and ends; afterward, I sat in the car. The icy truth was that, since the last session with CCCS, I had managed, once again, to max out every single one of my credit cards — except Pier 1. Oh, how I toyed with the idea of buying the $250 Santa Fe end table, or the $200 papasan chair.

But I remembered a brief conversation I had had with Celeste Collins, CCCS director of education and administrative services: Unlike car loans or home mortgages, credit-card debts have no set payoff date. Make the minimum payment each month, she estimated, and it could take you two years to pay off a $200 purchase. “You can see the benefit of taking 15 years to pay off a house — but not a night out to dinner,” Collins argued.

“You’ve got to get mad about credit,” she added. As a young college grad, Collins had cleaned up her own financial habits when she figured out how long it would take her to pay that $200 bill at Sears.

I was halfway to mad and fed up — the credit-card companies were starting to call me at work, reminding me how far behind my payments were. Sometimes, their employees were polite. Sometimes, they professed to know nothing about the company’s having received CCCS’ proposals for putting me on a debt-payment plan: A different department, it seems, handles debt “recovery” plans than the one that collects ordinary monthly payments.

I could just hear my CCCS advisor, Wyatt Martin: “Your spending habits got you here. We can make all the recommendations in the world, but it’s up to you to do something about it.”

Family history

So I did what I have often done in times of financial constraint: I told my father about it.

He nodded as we sat chatting about high-interest department-store cards and pesky credit-card companies — all quick to suck you in, but slow to let you go. Dad was glad to hear I was on CCCS’ plan. “I guess your mom and I didn’t do much to educate you kids on managing your money,” he conceded, launching into a wide-ranging complaint about debt struggles and the temptations from credit cards and stores such as Lowe’s — whose gleaming racks of nifty tools had proved his personal Achilles heel. Dad, it seems, had struggled years ago to pay off those debts — but he did it.

As we talked, I noticed something sitting near the TV. “Dad,” I said, “Where’d you get that new VCR?”

“Well, hmm, Lowe’s,” he replied.

We had to laugh. Buying on credit is so easy. But I did feel a certain pleasure in cutting up first the Sears card, then the others, one by one. The hard part, however, would be changing my ways and moving toward my own, personal cash economy. I’d have to start looking at money differently, Martin had suggested.

Knowledge

Take, for instance, the ways money leaks out of your pockets: Those daily trips of mine to the coffee shop — $1 for coffee, $3 for cappuccino or chai, a $1 biscotti — added up to $100 a month, $1,200 a year.

Amazing: Martin had me, the head-in-the-poetry English major, doing math after just one CCCS session.

That’s the first level of financial management, he had told me: becoming aware of what you spend. When we first sat down together, I had sworn that I spend just $50 per month on groceries, eat out maybe two times a month, never buy clothes, and wouldn’t know what to do with a vacation.

When I got home, though, I ran a little cash-in/cash-out report on Quicken, the computer program I use to keep my checkbook: $150 per month on dining, entertainment and recreation; $100 on groceries; $2,000 for karate-competition trips last year … . And that didn’t even count one of my major money siphons: Every pay check, I take a little cash off the top. That money never gets counted, anywhere — it just drizzles away, paying for coffee and knick-knacks.

Resolve

Hard up against it, I came to one simple truth: Becoming debt-free was up to me, and me alone.

If I wanted to go to a movie one weekend, I couldn’t do it by sneaking cash advances. I’d have to be creative: Sell a few of my many books at Downtown Books & News (that’s one advantage to being an avid reader — my personal library is sizable).

To take part in karate competitions in Chicago, New Orleans and Canton, Ohio, I’d write a free-lance article for the Fund for Investigative Reporting, work with fellow competitors on fund-raising ideas, and see if a cousin in the hotel industry could find me cheap rooms for each trip.

I’d make choices, like buying the $2 canola oil instead of the $12 extra-virgin olive oil when I went grocery shopping. When I felt tempted in the coffee shops downtown, I’d settle for the $1 coffee (with lots of half-and-half and sugar), instead of the $3 cappuccino. I’d eat lunch at home, rather than in some downtown eatery (living within walking distance of work made this option more feasible).

I made my first two payments to CCCS and felt relieved: They would disburse money to all those pesky credit-card companies, and I would find enlightenment by becoming a tightwad.

“Just wait,” a friend said. “In no time at all, you’ll be getting the same satisfaction from saving money that you used to get from spending it.”

Maybe he was right. In the meantime, the pieces of my credit cards went into a zip-lock bag, which I could pick up in moments of weakness and shake, like a rattle driving off evil spirits. Bye-bye, Mr. Devil.

For information about the Consumer Credit Counseling Service and how it can help, call 255-5166.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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