Me, My Dad, And My Credit Card: A Timeline

by Heather Sundell

I’ve been a card carrier for a little over a decade now. My father, a child of Depression-era parents, has instilled in me to never live beyond my means, and to only use my credit card for emergencies.

It was probably not smart to get me one at 18 years old then. For the past 11 years, I have been on a rollercoaster of emotions and financial pain, juggling multiple credit cards. My credit card debt never got wildly out of hand — although it definitely felt like it at times — and I have my father to thank for that. Racking up a balance is the only thing that has ever made him really yell at me.

Over the years, with my father’s words in my ears, I’ve made many mistakes and learned several lessons, but I’ll just give you the highlight reel:

2003 — I get my first credit card at 18 years old, during my freshman year of college, with the intention of building credit. Finally opening one of the many offers I have started receiving since my last birthday, I choose Capital One. It has a $500 limit. I regret not choosing a cool design. My parents have agreed to pay for it. I use it for gas and other small living expenses that they would pay for anyway.

2004 — My parents forget to make a payment. I learn that a late payment not only results in a penalty fee, but appears on your credit record. I am as furious as only a teenager can be at their parents (lots of yelling through the Nokia brick phone). It takes me a long time to forgive them; they make me start paying for the card.

2005 — I learn about the “cash advance” (bad news). I use this newly discovered feature to get cash from an ATM to pay for a cash-only parking structure in Beverly Hills when I don’t have my debit card. I will later use it for True Religion jeans. I am making minimum payments on my card, but careful to be on time. I slip up once. My credit limit skyrockets to $1,000!

2006 — I keep using the Capital One card to make non-necessary purchases that I feel guilty about, while still only paying the minimum. This will become a trend.

2007 — College comes to an end. I graduate and become an adult. I decide to retire the Capital One card and use my meager graduation money to pay it off and cut it up. I let it expire. I open up a new credit card account — for emergencies of course — with Chase, so that it’s easier for me to remember to make payments through my bank. I have a limit of $2,000. I use the card to buy beautiful Frye riding boots at the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale, but I still cannot afford to pay them off on my recent-grad-$15-an-hour paycheck. I cry, feel guilty, take them back, and swear I will buy Frye boots one day.

2008 — Continue terrible bad habits of putting frivolous purchases on my credit card, promising to pay more than the minimum.

2009 — I lose my job and, move from Los Angeles to Denver. Despite my parents helping me out a little, I still end up racking up some debt. Seeing the balance creep over a thousand dollars makes me feel like a failure. However, I am still making payments on time, even if they are small.

2010 — My ex-boyfriend accidentally knocks my old iBook off the couch in a “vacuuming incident.” I can’t afford a new laptop on my $25K salary, so I finance a new one through Apple. I have to open a Barclay’s card with 0% interest for one year. I budget that if I pay $100 a month or so, I can pay it off within the year. I discover that Hello Kitty credit cards are available through Bank of America. I strongly consider switching banks because of this. I move back to LA; incur minimal costs due to a few lucky situations. I go on a three-month financial diet with my best friend. Neither of us can make a frivolous purchase without the others’ permission, which allows me to pay off my personal credit card. I learn how good that can feel.

2011 — I pay off the Barclay’s card and let it expire. I have heard enough adult people talking about credit cards with points. I see my best friend reap benefits from her AMEX. I realize my current card doesn’t earn me bupkus. I open a new Chase Freedom card that earns me cash back. It has a $5,500 limit. Also, I get $250 for signing up, which is conveniently how much a flight to Denver costs to go see a boy I like for a moment.

2012 — I open a new GE Capital card through my optometrist to save 40% in order to buy frames to impress my new boyfriend. It takes me many lazy months to pay off the $400 I spent on the glasses he really liked. I still hate them, even though I still love him. In December, I start a new tradition of paying off my credit card balance and sending a screenshot of the zeros to my father for his birthday. It’s an expensive present, but it’s all he asks for.

2013 — I start making enough money to start using my credit card regularly and paying it down in large chunks, rather than erratic chunks and minimums. I need to buy a new computer so I open a new Barclay’s card with 0% interest for 18 months, with a starting $2,400 balance. It’s a stretch but I am able to give my Dad the same birthday present two years in a row. I buy my Frye boots.

2014 — Despite a big move, I make paying off the Barclay’s card a priority, and do so in five months. Because I am old enough to trust myself with credit cards, I open a new credit card with even better rewards, a Chase Sapphire. It’s heavy like a black AMEX and has an eye-popping credit limit of $15,600. I ask a bank teller at Chase if I can close out the first Chase credit card I opened in 2007. He suggests I close it out and transfer the credit line to my Freedom card, bringing it up to an $8,000 limit. I am blown away that I could do that. I remain annoyed that the old closed card still appears in my online account.

Today — I only have two active Chase cards. I use one because I get double points on dining (even at McDonalds like the commercial says), and the other really is just for emergencies. One has a balance of zero, the other has about a grand on it but, for the first time, I’m absolutely confident I can give my Dad the only birthday present he wants this year.

Heather Sundell lives in Los Angeles. This is her blog.

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