Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
Modern Times: Modern Debt
March 27, 1998
For a "Depression" kid it is hard to understand the massive credit
problems that are facing us today, both personally and as a nation. It
was pretty simple then. If you didn't have it, you didn't buy it. And
usually you didn't have it. There wasn't an awful lot to buy anyway.
I have partially recovered from that philosophy, but it still rattles
around in the back of my head and bites me now and then. To this day
when I buy something I really don't need, I can hear my dad's voice.
I'm always glad to hear him, but when I'm looking at a faster modem for
my computer I wish he'd keep quiet.
A lot of the old fashioned virtues are out of style in today's world,
but paying your debts, something we learned in the '30s, still seems
like a pretty good one to hang onto.
But then somebody invented credit cards. Don't get me wrong. I use
one regularly, appreciate its convenience and would hate to be without
it. But misuse of credit cards is causing major financial
problems. Daily we hear cases where excessive personal credit card
debt has destroyed marriages, businesses and personal reputations.
According to Reuters, credit card debt balances rose 6.4 percent in
1997, to an estimated 55 million to 60 million households, each with an
average debt load of more than $7000, plus payments of more than $1000
a year in interest and fees.
I'm not easily shocked, but that did it.
Recently I have been personally aware of several specific situations in
which excessive credit card debt is causing major personal problems.
One friend on the Eastern Slope is approaching 90. He has always been
hunting for the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow, but as he has
gotten older he has fallen for too many offers of ways to make money --
the easy way -- and has maxed out several credit cards with no way to
repay the debt.
A friend of mine worries about her brother on the West Coast. His wife
has put thousands of dollars of debt on their credit cards. He has no
way of paying them off and she has no intention of doing so. The whole
family is in turmoil.
Over the years I have watched friends go through many major crises
caused by excessive debt. It is so easy to get into, and so hard to get
Just last week I had my first telephone scam pitch. A warm, syrupy
male voice purred into my phone that the insurance on my credit card is
expiring and he wanted to verify the information before renewing it --
at absolutely no cost to me, of course. I started out polite and
explained that I had no such insurance. Without missing a beat he said
it was important that he have accurate information, and what was my date
of birth. At this point my politeness level dropped, and I told him
that if he knew my phone number, he must already know my age . Ignoring
that, he went on to say that if I would give him my credit card number
he could get the renewal right out to me. For the record, I did not
bang the phone in his ear, but only because I didn't think fast enough.
Senior citizens are most vulnerable to illegal attempts to steal card
numbers, and the "Gen-X'ers" who never heard of the Depression are most
susceptible to the siren song of more and more cards. Somehow I seem to
have gotten into both groups.
The invitations inviting me to get another card or two keep rolling in.
In the past three weeks I have received -- unsolicited -- three
invitations to acquire new credit cards. Each of them offers a credit
line of "up to $100,000." With $300,000 I could leave the country and
loll on a beach somewhere never to be heard from again -- if I wanted
to. Each offer comes with skillful come-ons including color brochures.
They didn't tempt me, but they might lure my friend on the Eastern
I don't pretend to know the answer, but I think it is long past time to
face the question. That naive '30s idea of paying our own way looks
pretty good. Wonder whether Congress has thought of that.