Dear future son,
During your first week of college, you’ll have chosen your courses and will have to go to the college bookstore, if such a place still exists.
Mostly it will be sweatshirts and stuffed mascots, but perhaps some craggy old fart will force you to buy an actual biology textbook made out of tree. You will find it on the shelf, and you will gawk at the price. $600. Or Units. Or whatever currency is now, point being, it will be more than you thought.
I, your old man, will have been pretty stingy with you growing up, so you already know you’d sooner get blood from a stone than that kind of scratch from me. Dejected, and angry at the concept of core curriculums at state schools, you’ll leave, fists frustratedly shoved into sweatshirt, looking at ground. You don’t have any friends here yet, so you’re all alone with no one to entertain your grousing.
But then you look up, and a beautiful girl sitting behind a table sustains eye contact with you… and smiles.
You are lonely in this moment, as I already mentioned. You are in a new place, and are basing way too much of your self-worth on the facial expressions of strangers. You have the unfortunate arrogance of a teenager, so you don’t even realize how vulnerable you really are right now.
But son, when this happens, and it will exactly as I described it… run.
Do not, under any circumstances let her engage you. Doing so will create a mess you could still be cleaning up 20 years later, when you are 38, as I am while writing this, with an APR of 20%.
Son, she works for a credit card company.
She has been carefully selected based on personality and magnetism and placed precisely into the eye line of dejected young boys like yourself, stalking out of the college bookstore, furious at how broke you are. She is there to offer you the illusion of free money, just for being you. Just for having a name and a social security number.
You’re walking toward her, as the waves of egotastic tingling come over you, and she continues to hold your gaze, but think carefully about this: if you had a credit card, borrowed a tiny bit here and there, and always paid it off right away, then they wouldn’t make any money off of you, right? It would be a horrible business model.
They only make money when they get you to borrow money you can’t pay back.
The juice starts flowing. They get their tentacles on you. They are loan sharks. Or, loan squids.
Before you know it—seriously, you see two movies, splurge a little on a date, finally buy that iBrain and you are FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS IN DEBT (please adjust this for inflation from 1992 to 2031). And you’re still as broke as you were walking out of that bookstore. But now you owe them, every month, an amount of money that you can barely afford. And that amount you owe them never goes down, no matter how many payments you make. Then they’ve wrapped their tendrils around you and pulled you to the bottom of the sea to feed on you slowly.
Then you miss just one little payment because February has 28 days, then your credit score plummets, then all of their friends can also make ridiculous money off of you and you’ll have severely limited your ability to ever have any free time or to backpack through Eurochina with you buddies this summer, because you have to scramble every month to pay back these faceless tall buildings.
Don’t do it, son. Don’t get a credit card.
Or better yet, get one, buy one thing for ten dollars, pay it off, and put it in a drawer forever.
Twelve financially wretched years after your idiot father destroyed his credit by talking to that girl behind the table, I finally figured out how to start gradually climbing out of the hole: by jerry-rigging my online bank account to pay these jackals weekly instead of monthly, so it hurt a little less. I was paying the same amount, ultimately, but didn’t carry the psychological wound the monthly payment did (and now I never forgot because it was automatic). I could get my head around parting with $35 a week much easier than $140 a month.
Then the balance finally started to creep down. Then I’d inch up the weekly payments, and get more confident. Then I used the online banking to pay all my bills this way. Then there was only one number I had to keep track of. Then, after five, or Christ it might have been ten years, I finally paid it all off.
I haven’t missed a payment on anything in five years. But my APR has only gone down to 20% from 29%.
It’s a game, son. And the rules are: be suspicious of tall buildings, watch and learn how they rig the game, then beat them at it. Set up your credit card to automatically pay a small utility bill every month, then set up your bank to automatically pay your credit card, and zero out without even keeping track. Then watch the good credit history grow.
Living cash-in-cash-out can suck when your friends are out galavanting on plastic. But you should avoid buying on credit at all costs. And never, EVER buy future sewage on credit. Buying something on credit is paying triple. Buying something on credit is giving future you the middle finger. But future you is older than you, and deserves respect.
Instead, get the coins out of your couch, buy an onion, make soup and have an evening in with a library book. You’ll be smarter, less poor, and you won’t get a beer gut, which will be the subject of my next letter.
We are very proud peasants in this family, kid. Restaurants are for millionaires.
Your future dad