I Survived College Without Consumer Debt, But Not Grad School

Recommended background reading: yesterday’s post I Survived College Without Consumer Debt, and So Can You.

I didn’t have any consumer debt in college either. Unlike Jim, I never really thought about credit card interest; it was more like my parents told me “credit card debt is bad,” and I was all “okay.”

In retrospect, I’m surprised I wasn’t more curious about credit cards. I was definitely curious about what life circumstance might be important enough to grant me access to the $3,000 of summer job earnings that my family had steered me towards stashing in a CD. (Thankfully, none of them. At least not while I was in college.)

I was also very interested in earning money, because I never felt like I had enough spending money in college, despite receiving an enormous and generous scholarship that covered tuition, room, and board. You can’t buy a pizza with a scholarship, though, and I wanted enough money to buy pizza — along with all the other hidden costs of the college experience.

But I swear I never thought about credit cards. They were something adults dealt with, like mortgages.

When I moved to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois to start grad school at Illinois State, I opened a Commerce Bank account and received my very first credit card, with a $5,000 credit limit. I do not recall asking for this, and felt very uncomfortable having it. I didn’t really know what to do with a credit card. I knew you were supposed to pay them off in full every month, and I knew not everybody did, and I thought “well, if you have enough money to pay the card off in full every month, why not just use that money and not use the card?”

The first year I had the card, I never even activated it; I kept that little white sticker that read “To activate this card, call 555-whatever” on the card and never called the number. If I didn’t use the credit card, it couldn’t hurt me.

Then I had the opportunity to go to a conference, and suddenly needed money for a hotel room. Which, of course, I couldn’t afford; I was a grad student living on a $650/month stipend, and my checking account rarely had more than $100 in it.

Today, I could have hopped on Twitter and been all “Hey, friends! I’m looking for a couch to surf on WOO YAY!” But it was 2006, so I decided to pull the little white sticker off my credit card.

It felt like the responsible choice. The irresponsible choice would have been to skip the conference and jeopardize my career, right? I mean, it turns out the conference had no effect on my career whatsoever, but at the time it felt like a very mature decision.

And that essentially started me on the pattern of “using my credit card when I can’t afford things, and paying it off when I can.” I finished paying off my debt after I graduated and got a job, and then I lived for about three years with no consumer debt (this includes the year I saved $10K), and then I started getting into debt again. And now I’m paying it off.

It seems like the adult thing to do. Like mortgages.

This story is part of The Billfold’s College Month series.

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