Yesterday was payday, and since it's also the middle of the month that meant today was "pay the bills" day. When I looked at the balance online for this month for my credit card, though, I truly had a "yikes!" moment. I guess you could say it was sticker shock after the fact.
My bill was a few hundred dollars more than I intended it to be -- not because of anyone stealing my card, but because of my own haphazard charging on it during the past month. Normally the minimum balance it carries is only $25, with recurring charges for my monthly Sirius and Adobe Photoshop subscriptions. This time, though, using the card so freely plus previous purchases pushed it way past that amount. A dinner with my Meetup group, a lunch from my office building's cafe, lunch out with a friend, a purchase at the supermarket, an item of clothing, etc. Not to mention a lot of meat from my company that I've been buying. Seems there were a few times I was simply too lazy to go to the ATM, so I just used my credit card for the convenience. And therein lies the danger that so many Americans have been undertaking for decades now...
Just last Sunday, I had watched a two-minute long commentary on CBS Sunday Morning by Mellody Hobson on Americans' cash-less trend and obsession with charging purchases to credit cards (or using a debit card or a mobile phone to pay.) Very little of us carry cash around in our wallets today, or write out paper checks, for that matter. (You know, money...those green slips of paper your parents and grandparents used to pay for stuff.) As a result, our credit card debt has skyrocketed -- and Hobson says the average household carries $15,000 in card debt. Holy smokes! You can watch the video clip here before I continue (it wouldn't work when I tried to embed the link.)
Well, even before seeing my latest credit card bill, I had already intended to take Hobson's advice to heart: pay for everything -- or at least as much as I can -- in cash. Most of the time, I do. I've always been a saver rather than a spender. When I was ten my mother got me a savings account at our town bank. I loved saving the allowance I earned from doing chores into the account and watching it grow, along with interest, via the little book the banks used to give everyone (today, my account's records online and I don't really like it; I still miss the little books because to me it made the money feel more "real" and I could instantly see how much was in it versus calling the bank's 1-800 number and punching in my account number to get the balance.) And if there was a special toy I wanted to buy, I'd delight in saving my money until I had earned enough to pay for it.
I was in college when I got my first credit card, and then a few cards to my favorite stores. I never had a problem with overspending or overusing them, but it did amuse me how I would get rewarded with increased credit at a young age. If I weren't so dependable, I could have purchased a car with the credit amount that was given to me.
We don't live at or below our means so much anymore. We've become a nation of shopaholics. That old saying that was prevalent during the Great Depression, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" fell by the wayside decades ago when Diner's Club and Mastercard (then Mastercharge) were introduced to the public.
When you carry cash, as the video points out, you're more aware of how much money you're actually spending. And you're also curbing an addiction for instant gratification -- if there's something you really want and don't have enough cash for it...well, you can always wait for the next paycheck (although most people won't -- they're going to pull out their card.)
The Germans, by the way, love paying for as much as they can with cash -- even more so than other European nations. Part of their motivation is because they simply prefer not to accumulate debt. The German word schulden, which means debt, comes from the word for guilt, which is schuld. According to this article, only about a third of Germans have a credit card.
I was surprised to learn that some stores such as T.J. Maxx and Kmart still have the layaway programs that they brought back almost a decade ago, because I don't know of anyone who actually uses them. Maybe if stores gave incentives (such as points you accumulate that earn you a discount or coupon) for those that use layaway, it might entice more people to pay for something when they can afford it.
Personally, I feel more powerful and in control having some dough on me at all times. So here's what I'm doing from here on out. I'm paying off the credit card bill, obviously, and taking out only so much cash each pay period to cover gas and needed toiletry items, plus a bit more to cover any upcoming social outing, special occasions that require a purchase, and unexpected purchases. And sticking to it. I look forward to seeing only those two recurring charges for most months on my credit card again.