When my 20-year-old daughter, Ashley, asked me to watch Confessions of a Shopaholic with her, I told her to pick the time and I'd be there. I hadn't read the book, but the movie sounded like an amusing way for us to spend some time together.
If you haven't seen it, the movie's heroine, Becky Bloomwood, is a shopaholic in serious credit card debt. She's hounded by threatening phone calls from debt collectors, one smarmy guy in particular. Becky's afraid to open her mail because of all the credit card bills. Oh, she's also a finance journalist, of all things. The idea that she was supposed to know about finances made it even more entertaining.
During the movie, I'm laughing at Becky's debt dilemma, thinking it's all wildly funny. But about 20 minutes into the movie, I stop laughing. My brain is suddenly flooded with bad memories and it hits me like a lightning bolt. A few decades ago, I was Becky Bloomwood. I hadn't thought about it in forever. It's like I'd completely blocked out an entire decade of spending the likes Atlanta probably hasn't seen since.
It All Started Innocently Enough…
After I graduated from college, I got a good-paying job as an accountant for a petroleum company. I worked my way through college and felt proud to have landed this job.
Every night I'd go home and check my mailbox. And there, waiting for me, were letters telling me how special I was and how I'd been "pre-selected" for all these credit cards. And they all promised me high spending limits (and instant happiness, too).
At the time, I only had a Rich's Department Store credit card because that was my favorite store (it later merged with Macy's) and it had been easy to get while I was in college. But I started thinking about how convenient it would be to have a card I could use everywhere. So I applied for a Citi card because that bank had sent me an especially flattering letter—You deserve this card! was plastered all over the envelope—and I got approved in no time.
When it came in the mail, it was such a rush to hold this shiny card with my name embossed on it. I decided to apply for another. And another. I got approved for every card I applied for. At this point, I had seven cards. When I reached my limits, the issuers kindly raised them.
Honestly, I never even read the fine print on any of these cards. Okay, I confess that I had no idea there even was fine print because I didn't look for it. All I focused on was the offer letters and how much the issuers wanted me as a cardholder.
One Spending Binge Leads to Another
My job paid pretty well, but not well enough to pay for all the things I needed. My credit cards paid for my power suits, which I thought I needed to be taken seriously. But that meant I also needed power handbags, power shoes, power jewelry, power makeup, power lunches, power cocktails. You get the idea.
It didn't take long before my minimum payments exceeded my income. One month, I bounced 12 checks. Yep, I said 12. With the NSF fees for each check, I was deep in the hole that month. I stopped making credit card payments for a few months, convincing myself that my cash flow would have a chance to catch up to my monthly expenses.