Thursday, September 10, 2009

My First Credit Card

“I think that we should get a credit card.” A simple phrase, often uttered in the same unceremonious timbre one would reserve for placing an order at Sonic; yet, the implications of it (much like the chili-cheese Coney) will continue to resonate long after the words are spoken. In this particular instance the phrase was spoken by my wife, who shares my disdain for credit cards but felt it a prudent accessory considering our upcoming travel plans. We had decided to take a trip to Europe this summer (in lieu of procreation) and she was concerned that in a medical emergency we might be unable to cover say, an emergency room visit. As much as I hated to admit it, the thought of lying on a stretcher while my wife attempted to trade a watch and our battle-weary luggage for an appendectomy was troubling.

So, being voted man of the house (it was a close race) I set about procuring a piece of plastic adorned with my name and backed by a somewhat shadowy hierarchy of financial institutions. Before I go any further, it is necessary that I reveal some of our financial history:

We have no debt other than a mortgage and one car, are both college educated, have individual credit scores above 700, and full time jobs.

Armed with a clean credit history and a desire to rejuvenate our ailing economy, I got online and filled out a credit card application. The lucky recipient of my query was a financial institution into which I had been depositing my paychecks for the past 11 years. If anyone could be assured of The Taylor family’s financial prowess, it was this bank. A smile crept across my face as I pressed the submit button and prepared myself for the inevitable phone call from the bank’s president, thanking me for the honor of extending us such a large credit limit. A follow-up page informed me that most credit decisions would be made the same day. It was almost too easy….

Eight hours later I checked my e-mail, but was slightly disappointed after I had cleared the superfluous Facebook notifications and found no correspondence from my FDIC-insured financial franchise. No matter, with over a decade of loyal service they probably felt that such impersonal electronic correspondence would be an insult to one of their star customers. That night, I collapsed into my bed and slept the sleep of a man whose fiscal destiny was to become the fodder of legend; a tale to be recounted at banker’s conventions and C.P.A. retreats for years to come.

A week or so passed, and eventually I received a rather official looking non-descript envelope. This could mean one of two things: I was now the official owner of Visa Platinum card (complete with a spending limit that bordered on sacrilegious) or the local Dodge Dealership had fooled me into opening another coupon for “Smokin’ Hot Deal Days.” As it turned out, it was a letter informing me that after careful consideration; they were unable to approve us due to “a lack of revolving credit history.”
I was flabbergasted! We were being refused a credit card on the basis that we did not have any history of using a credit card. It was like refusing to sell someone a handgun because they don’t know what it is like to shoot someone. I hadn’t felt this betrayed since I found out that Mr. Ed was cancelled in 1966 and all the episodes I loved as a child were Nick-at-Nite reruns. At any rate, I was determined to hold on to my newly-acquired domestic presidency; and any hiccups could be grounds for impeachment.

For the next few days I was racked by insecurity: “Am I damaged goods now that I have been turned down?” / “Is this retribution because I always refused a Macy’s card when asked by the clerk?” / “Would my wife’s ex-boyfriend have been able to get a card?”

Thankfully, I was comforted by the thought of another institution that I had overlooked; an institution that currently protected our cars, our home, and even the life from which I speak to you now: our insurance company.

I fired up my trusty laptop and within minutes was completing an application for their “members only” Visa card. I was in there like swimwear, and the only thing standing between me and the purchasing power of a small third-world village was my indecision over the card design. Minutes later my application was adrift in cyberspace and I was intoxicated by my own ingenuity; nothing could stop me now….

Another week or so passed, and as I opened the mailbox I spotted another official looking envelope sandwiched between a Pottery Barn catalogue and a notice that I needed my teeth cleaned. I groped the envelope but felt only paper; a sure sign of denial stated at the expense of an old-growth forest. Gingerly unfolding the letter, I started to realize that all credit card companies must be issued some sort of “After careful consideration, we regret to inform you” template. The rejection was identical to the last one even down to liberal use of the phrase “lack of revolving credit history” for good measure.

I was incensed by the injustice of it all. Why must we sit by and watch our friends and relatives new-couch and plasma-TV themselves into financial oblivion while we were stuck on the sidelines with a checking account and a debit card? Exactly who is responsible for this “careful consideration”, Inmates? Fourth graders? The French?

It was at this point I decided that I was simply not appreciated by these traditional institutions. I needed to take the battle to the frontlines of the new generation, a place where fresh thinking about money could be understood, a place that would welcome my desire to make purchases sans money. And my dearest friends, that place was Unrivaled in price, selection, and volume of reviews; had served as my online retail haven since I was legally old enough to rent a car. Time and time again I had passed up the lure of an extra 30% off while proceeding to my shopping cart, but not today. Today, I would embrace my monetary destiny and become the proud recipient of an Visa.

I waited expectantly for the message that I was the new owner of an Amazon card, but as days stretched into weeks; my enthusiasm gave way to despair. Soon enough, that same inconspicuous envelope delivered the official mantra of my credit quest: “lack of revolving credit history”. What in the name of all that is holy was happening here? When I turned 18, pre-approved credit card offers were as ubiquitous as cannabis brownies at a Pink Floyd laser show. What had changed?

I was being constantly bombarded with the details of a bad-debt driven economic crisis that seemingly threatens the very foundations of capitalism, but the coach wouldn’t let me off the bench. Dejected, I had to then explain to my wife that the man she married now commands a portfolio barely capable of sustaining a Blockbuster account.

As if this travesty hadn’t gone far enough, a few days later were received a pre-approval offer for one the very cards that had turned us down. That was the final straw; they had called my financial stability (and by extension, my manhood) into question and now they were utilizing the postal service to mock me. There was only one explanation for this: Identity Theft.

I ran my credit reports though all three major bureaus, certain that I would find some indication that my good named was being soiled by an international con artist or perhaps even a terrorist sleeper-cell; but every report was spotless. I, Brian Taylor, was unfit to wield the broadsword of capitalism and there was no one to blame but myself.

We eventually received a card from a local credit union, but the experience highlighted a fundamental flaw in our credit system: Purchasing power is more readily available to the eager than the responsible. We have created an infrastructure that rewards those who spend with reckless abandon and punishes those who carefully consider their choices. I am not suggesting that the interest generated from my personal credit account would have offset Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme, but I am worried that companies have become reticent to extend credit to those who are not dependent on it; and that is a habit that needs to change…

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