Living on Fear and Credit Cards

Debt didn’t feel like chains—it felt like freedom.

Photo credit: skyseeker, CC BY 2.0.

When I was twenty-one, I took a plane to Italy. I booked the flight on my credit card. I didn’t once think I was doing something stupid. My whole family was sunken in debt, and they’d never seen shit. If I was going to sink, I was going to see something first.

My first credit card was sent to me in the mail when I was eighteen years old. I remember standing in my parents’ room in our red brick trailer, opening the envelope, thinking, this can’t be good. But I didn’t trash it. I let it skim the outskirts of my wallet for a while before trying out the swipe. It felt good. Like power. This world wasn’t just made for the rich. It was made for those who were willing. Willing to sell their future for their present. It didn’t feel like chains—it felt like freedom. Sign. Me. Up.

Debt didn’t feel like chains — it felt like freedom.

That was twenty years ago. Do we even want to know what I have paid in interest? Citibank owes me more than some rewards points. They owe me a personal thank you, maybe another flight abroad. At this point, it’s likely I’ve paid for the CEO’s seventh car.

The odd thing is that I don’t regret this move, the one I’ve done and continue to do. Keep the card. Keep it moving. Buy things that no one needs and everyone wants. The Loft has my card number on file and I can’t afford a damn thing from there, but the card can. The card can afford to give me the things my parents didn’t, my parents couldn’t. The things I still haven’t learned how to earn for myself.

It’s complicated, now. I have a partner and a baby and I’m getting a little scared. I don’t want to riddle anyone with anything. I don’t want to wrong anyone. I don’t want anyone to think I’m dumb.

My card stays locked in drawers for weeks at a time. I do so good. I don’t go online, I don’t even fill up virtual carts — and then empty them — before I can click “confirm.” I don’t even walk into stores. My partner stops for groceries on his way home. He knows how I can get. Need versus want gets so blurry.

While this moment hangs suspended in air, I preen myself. You are so wholesome, so good. You are the picture of restraint, you are a vision of cleanliness — godliness. I use vinegar to clean the floors and get high off of my thriftiness. I put the laundry on the line — dude, we ain’t even wasting drier sheets.

We comb the cupboards for unlikely combinations — and giggle through dinner. Cottage cheese on top of ramen, ramen with canned beets. We’re so funny and we’re so cute and we are EARNING this — this life — I think.

But like any comfortable addiction, the longing creeps back in. Wouldn’t it be nice to eat what you want? Fresh mozzarella is a million times better than the packaged shit.

Wouldn’t it be nice to eat what you want?

I put my baby in the car and we drive to the local co-op. I throw everything in our cart we need, and a couple of things I want. Organic string cheese, haughty non-dairy yogurts, $15 eco-friendly detergent, gourmet chocolate chip cookies.

I don’t like the traditional supermarket because I’m scared of traditional meat and I’m scared of traditional cheese and I’m scared of traditional life. Tradition in my family meant microwave meals for dinner or macaroni & cheese. Clothes that covered the body, that no one would call beautiful.

I have lived my life scared constantly about money. But more than any other thing — I am scared of not living. I refuse to live underwater when I could live in the air. I refuse to watch every beautiful thing be placed in everyone else’s house — to see every beautiful thing in everyone else’s mouth.

I refuse to watch every beautiful thing be placed in everyone else’s house.

On the day I go down, they will unearth my credit card bills and they will be ashamed of me. May they see my fist flying high above them. I went down in debt, but I went down swinging. I looked beautiful, and I was so, so well fed.

Kelly Green is a writer living in Iowa. She loves dogs easily, humans with some effort. She can be found at and on Twitter @kellygreeeeeen. (That’s six e’s, because her name is anything but unique.)

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