My So-Called Life With the Credit Cult

It's about this time each year, as I'm diligently filling out my extension form for the IRS that I start cutting up credit cards, culling my wardrobe, throwing out gifts from old boyfriends, cutting my hair and cutting off contrary friends. It makes me feel like I'm rising above the everyday frustrations of pre-millennial life.That's why, when MBNA, the Wilmington, Delaware bank best known for pushing its high-interest credit cards on college campuses, calls for my soul, I am torn. My first impulse, of course, is to firmly decline any seemingly irresistible offer MBNA may float my way. My second impulse is to chastise them for thinking I was concerned enough about their petty world of interest rates and credit lines to listen to their 15-minute spiel.But my third impulse always wins out. It's this one that permits me to grudgingly accept yet another new card, on the condition they either drop the interest rate on my outstanding balance, or remove the late fees from my account--and if the mood strikes, both. That's when we--my battle-scarred MBNA banker and me--try to find a better due date for my account, a date I won't break.The cycle begins again in another six weeks, when I send in yet another late payment, find a service fee on the next statement, then make an angry call to the bank to cancel my account.They used to let it go at that--first sheepishly asking my reason for canceling, then telling me softly that they value me as a cardholder and don't want to lose my business."But your policies are unreasonable," I'd complain."I'll tell you what..." the pitch man would begin, his response like a honey-voiced Monty Hall asking me to pick a curtain.As I arrange and rearrange my accounts with entire phone banks of MBNA employees, I imagine the company's computer screens filling up with the ugly record of my half-decade history with MBNA and branding me a troublemaker. I imagine a computer-borne warning alerting new MBNA operatives to the fact that I have agreed to every due date in the month, yet I still can't get a check out to them in time. (We tried the second week of the month, then the last, then the first and most recently, the second again.)These days the MBNA crew no longer makes me ask them to take the late fees off my account (an exercise they once used to test my credit card savvy); they simply remove them. But they've long since stopped sending me new cards each time I cancel out. I guess they figure I'm no longer incensed enough to cut up the last one they issued. I am.After enduring the MBNA cancellation bluff a half-dozen times in as many months, I forgot what I was fighting for. Now when I call MBNA, I no longer come on like an enraged Roseanne, but instead act out my part calmly, having long since memorized all the lines."I don't agree with MBNA's policies," I complain in an unconvincing monotone. "I have five or six other credit cards I pay the same way every month, and I never get late fees from them. And I've heard similar complaints from friends about MBNA. Isn't it true you have no grace period?""We have a grace period, ma'am, it's just..."And before either of us knows it, the tables have turned. The poor, defenseless MBNA rep is forced to grapple with the age-old question: "Why is your credit card so shitty?"And he does a damn fine job defending the corporate entity. Truth is, while MBNA's credit card policies are for the dogs, their customer service folks are among the kindest souls you'll encounter in the usury industry.I guess they have to be.The last time I called MBNA to complain, they assigned me my own customer service representative with a direct 800 number, who instructed me to call him whenever I anticipated a late payment. Though the gesture was indeed lovely, I doubt it'll help much. I just don't have the time for a monthly confab with my own personal MBNA banker. Heck, I don't even have time for my taxes.I got my first credit card--the ubiquitous Citibank Visa--as an 18-year-old college freshman. For some reason, credit card companies think college students are a good risk--though everyone knows they can be trusted with a credit line about as much as Dr. Kevorkian can be trusted with Nembutal in a nursing home.The credit card companies must figure that as long as 75 percent of indebted collegians address their bills to Mom and Dad, the risk remains minimal. And as for the remaining quarter who actually lay eyes on their bills, some five percent ante up the 19 percent interest for each Spring Break trip to Mexico, while the deadbeat 20 percent, banks figure, can go fuck themselves--their credit rating ruined for the next seven years.Within six months of receiving my first Citibank card, I succeeded in doubling my credit line and had opened accounts in my name at each major department store within a 500-mile radius of L.A.By the fall of my sophomore year, I was living in a trailer on a horse farm six miles up a Malibu mountain. My rent was $550 and indentured me to cleaning stalls and feeding horses mornings before class--and to serving hors d'oeuvres and doing dishes at my landlord's mother's annual Malibu Christmas party (as stipulated in my lease).One day that fall, I got a letter from Bank of America, offering me a preapproved gold Visa card. All I had to do was sign the letter and provide my annual income (of $35,000 or more). So I penned in $37,000 and received my gold card in the trailer mail a few weeks later.Offers from Discover and American Express quickly followed, and before long, I was a 19-year-old with some $100,000 in available credit. I went on to buy a Bronco and about seven root canals and crowns, and even splurged on wisdom teeth extraction. I was living high on the hog--until those student loans came due.These days, I live monklike: I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I don't shop. I don't go out to fancy restaurants or clubs. I don't belong to a gym. I don't own Rollerblades. I set extremely low limits for myself when gambling in Atlantic City.My only current vices are eating like an 8-year-old, driving like a 16-year-old, watching too much Weather Channel, and listening to unhealthy doses of KYW.Sure I spend a little more in food. I have a nice apartment, and I insist upon driving to work--in my three-year-old Honda Civic del Sol.But I can't complain. I can't afford to, as 90 percent of my current income (a decent sum for most my age) goes toward paying off old debts.Thanks to credit pushers like MBNA, I now know there's no free lunch. There are, however, all the free acting lessons I can dial up.

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