Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Where Credit is Due

I hate credit cards.
I am a reformed credit card abuser.

Abuser might be a little strong, but I certainly used credit cards beyond my ability to pay for them when I was younger. Like most 20-somethings, out in the world for the first time, the allure of tangible things in return for a small monthly payment was too good to pass up.
I was hooked.
I had “stuffitis.”

It took 15-years and a lot of hard work to shovel through the mess I made. By the time I came to my senses, I was married, had two kids in elementary school, and a monthly nut to cut that was growing larger by the month than was my meager paycheck

We were fortunate.
We never got so desperate that we were buying groceries or paying rent with credit cards. But we were stupid… leveraging our purchasing power with plastic, buying things we didn’t really need. Oh, there were real emergencies from time to time, but those just piled up on top of the fluffy stuff.

Finally, choking in a backwash of monthly bills, we turned to the local Consumer Credit Counseling Services office to guidance. Had we known then what we know now, we might have worked through the problem a bit differently—creditors back then perceived a stint with CCCS the “grey” equivalent of filing bankruptcy.
I didn’t know that.
I just wanted to get out from under, pay what I owed, and move on.
And that’s what we did.

I now view credit cards as necessary evils.
I use an American Express to book business travel expenses. I use my checking account debit card for all other purchases, unless I perform the archaic chore of writing a manual check, or presenting a stack of dead presidents to pay the bill.
I use Microsoft Money to manage my checking and savings account balances—I have balanced to-the-penny each month for years, since using the Money software.

While I still laugh out-loud at the antics in those Capitol One advertisements (“what’s in your wallet?”), deep inside, there is a pang of disgust for the credit card industry that has, through its lobbyists, made it tougher for debtors to discharge their obligations in a bankruptcy, while continuing to paper every mailbox in America with all manner of offers and come-ons with easire and easier ways to become submerged in credit card debt.

American Express has been operating a promotion for the past few weeks called The Members Project, where in you can donate $1 to the charitable/social cause of your choice.

They all have worthy notions and noble goals—like “Children Alfresco,” which seeks to inspire kids to enjoy life outdoors (we need an organization to do this??), or a global reforestation effort, “Plant A Million Trees,” and a network of physical therapists to donate a few hours to helping rehabilitate injured soldiers returning from Iraq, called “Treating Our Troops.”

Education is high on the wish list of The Members Project. Sadly, not enough to go far enough, as in the case of “Preserve Music Education in Our Schools,” a special branch of Young Audiences, which notes, “music education is one of the most effective means of cultivating discipline, cooperation, commitment, beauty, and mathematical skills in our young people, yet it is one of the least appreciated.” Amen.

They’re all great premises.
The world would be a better place if our kids were healthier, learned better, and the earth was more ecologically sound.

Cynically, I must question whether a dollar per card holder is enough to really gain sufficient traction in any one of these areas. Does it really matter, or is it another warm-fuzzy, Amex way of asking “what’s in your wallet,” in order to gain market share?

The answer is, to those people who are touched by these programs, indeed, there is a difference to be made.

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