The Back Page Credit to the max

My parents taught me a simple lesson about credit cards when I was a teenager: Don’t have a credit card if you’re not going to be able to pay the bill, in full, at the end of every month. This lesson kept me from obtaining my first credit card until I was well into my first job out of college.

Too bad not everyone learned this lesson.

I went to the supermarket to pick up a few things recently. I got into the 10-items-or-less checkout and found myself behind a couple, a man and a woman, both of whom looked like they stepped off the pages of one of those fashion magazines I avoid so religiously. They had purchased a dozen bottles of diet green tea, a pack of cigarettes, and one of those low-calorie frozen meals. The total was somewhere in the neighborhood of $20.

The woman ran her credit card through the machine. Three times she tried, each time without success. Her companion then let out a sigh, and tried it himself. It accepted the card! I breathed an inward sigh of relief, which was unfortunately short-lived. In bold letters, the machine proclaimed they had exceeded their credit limit. The woman then extracted her wallet from her purse and attempted to try all 10 of her various credit cards in the machine. All but one were maxxed out. That one that was not had a $14 balance left on it. Now they were stuck with an even more frustrating dilemma – something would have to be put back.

The man scanned the groceries, and he decided the best thing to return would be the cigarettes.

“What are you doing?” the woman screamed. “I need those! Don’t put those back!”

Her companion then calmly asked her, “Well, what do you want to put back instead?” She chose the frozen dinner. He resisted. “I need that. What am I going to have for dinner? Let’s put back a few of the teas instead.”

Thus began the agonizingly slow process of having the teas removed, one bottle after another, until the balance fell under their limit. The woman now had a balance of 17 cents on the credit card.

“I want to get this delivered,” she told the clerk. I had managed to remain calm during this whole turn of events, but this sent me into shouts of snorting, snickering laughter.

“What are you laughing at?” she said, turning her angered expression toward me, her green eyes flashing.

“You!” I spat out the word while trying to recover. “What are you going to use to pay for the delivery?”

“There’s a delivery charge now?” Her anger shifted off of me for a moment, and onto the hapless checkout clerk. “Yes,” the clerk said, snapping her gum, “there is. And you didn’t spend enough to get them delivered anyway. You have to spend over $20.”

The woman’s lips formed a thin line, then she shoved the bags into her companion’s arms. “Here,” she said angrily. “You carry them. I’m not going to do it.”

I then decided to stop by my favorite neighborhood deli for a bite to eat. There I encountered another couple, this one a bit more ruffled than the supermarket couple, but still beautiful in the fleeting way of my twenty-something peers. They had essentially purchased the same sort of items, and spent the same amount of money, and they, too, had problems with their credit card being maxxed out. The female half of this couple seemed perplexed by the error, claiming it was her husband’s credit card and “he hardly ever used it.” She called for him, and he came lumbering up to the counter. The obliging clerk made a call to the credit card company, and it was determined that the previous night’s “evening out with the boys” had cost him $350 at one of the local strip clubs nearby. While the woman shouted her outrage and smacked him with her fists, he dug out another credit card and paid the bill. She signed the credit card slip, and proclaimed loudly it shouldn’t be any big deal for the deli to accept it, since “we both have the same last name.” It turns out it WAS a big deal, and everything they purchased had to be rung up again, and the slip signed by the proper owner of the card.

While these events were in turns frustrating and hysterical, it serves as yet another example of how odd I am. I never have used my credit cards for a purchase less than $20. I have never even approached my credit limit. I may have more than one card, but I don’t have 10 of them. I don’t have charges on my bill that would make my mother blush, and I don’t think of owning a credit card as a right, not a privilege.

But then, I had my parents steering me clear of all of this, with their simple logic.

It’s too bad these people seem not to have learned it. – Mary Bernard


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