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Living Without Credit

Living Without Credit
Living Without Credit

    Picture this: I’m 18, going to college, living 3,000 miles away from home. I stop in at a music store and fiddle around with one of the keyboards there. It’s nice. I strike up a conversation with one of the salespeople. He’s nice. He asks if I’d like to buy the keyboard I’m playing. I tell him I couldn’t possibly, since it’s a good $2000 out of my range. He introduces me to store credit. A couple hours later, I’m setting up this glorious keyboard in my dorm room.

    When I went home for winter break, I took the keyboard with me. And almost got the whipping of my life when my dad found out what I’d done: over $100 a month for 24 months — and me a college student without a job. He made me put an ad in the paper, and I was lucky enough to sell the keyboard for about what I still owed on it.

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    You’d think I’d have learned my lesson then, but you’d be wrong. A few years later, I was planning a year abroad, just out of college. For emergency use, I got a secured credit card, one of those deals where you put $200 in an account and get a $300 credit limit.

    That wasn’t a bad move, really — during my year in Europe, it gave me a great deal of security, and I had arranged with my mother to make the $10 minimum payments until I got back. And when I got back I paid it off.

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    Problem is, I didn’t cancel it once I’d paid it off, and pretty soon started getting more offers for “better” credit cards. $1000 limit. $2500 limit. Gold card. Platinum card. I was living in New York by then and traveling a lot and making pretty good money and before I knew it I had racked up $20,000 in credit card debt.

    Then I got laid off. And suddenly the $500 a month I was paying in minimum payments wasn’t feasible. I fell behind. Then I fell really behind. Accounts were canceled, and charged off, and sent to collection agencies. It was a mess.

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    I’ve spent years dealing with that mess, and to be honest I’m still working on it. I don’t have an advice to offer on debt recovery — it’s a slow, painful, messy process, and frankly I’m not that good at it. One thing I have become good at since my credit score plummeted is living without credit.

    It seems impossible, in this online era with cash becoming rarer and rarer, but it’s not impossible. In fact, there are a lot of good reasons to live without credit:

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    • It forces you to live within your means. When I had charge cards, I could always rationalize a big purchase. “$400? That’s only $12 a month!” Twelve dollars doesn’t seem like a lot of money, does it? Or else, I’d tell myself I’d pay it off next month — and next month, there was always some pressing cost that kept me from paying off my balance. Without credit, I simply can’t do that — there’s nothing to spend when my bank account balance reaches zero. There’s no way to push costs into the future — I can only spend what I have, when I have it.
    • Things cost what they cost. That $400 purchase I just mentioned? Taking into account interest and annual fees, it could easily cost $1000, $2000, or even more, making only minimum monthly payments. These costs get buried in the sum total of charges — you pay off a little and charge a little more, pay off a little and charge a little more, and pretty soon you have no idea what you’re paying for or how much you’re paying for it. Without credit, I walk in to the store, pay $400 cash, and that’s it: $400, period. Or, more often, I don’t pay $400, because I can’t afford it.
    • It forces you to discipline your spending. When you have $10,000 in available credit, it’s easy to get carried away. Living without credit means weighing every purchase, every expenditure, against your available cash. $400 seems like a lot more when it comes out of my monthly paycheck than when it comes out of a revolving line of credit with thousands of dollars to go before I max out. If there’s something I want, I have to work for it — either by finding a way to offset the expense or by saving up over time until I can afford it. Either way, impulse spending becomes impossible.
    • You can’t default on cash. Cash doesn’t call you at work, send threatening letters, or track you down through your references. You pay and that’s it.

    My biggest regret is that I didn’t realize all this at the time, and that I didn’t take steps to live without credit when it would have been a choice, rather than a forced exile. But I wouldn’t go back; if I somehow woke up with perfect credit tomorrow, I’d still keep to my credit-free lifestyle, for the reasons listed above.

    There are some inconveniences, of course. If you want to buy a house someday, you’ll probably want to have some credit history, although records of on-time utility payments and rent payments are often adequate (though who knows what the mortgage lending field will look like by the time the current meltdown works itself out?) Likewise, buying a car can be tricky.

    But that’s about it. Between my debit card and my PayPal account, I have no problems ordering online — PayPal even offers virtual credit cards for online ordering. Likewise, you can almost always use a debit card to make travel reservations or for rentals (sometimes they charge a deposit to your account which is then charged back when you pay the final bill, so you need to be able to cover both the deposit and the payment).

    It’s been six years since I made my last charge to a revolving account, and to this day I don’t miss it. I’ve found myself running short a couple of times, but to be honest, tightening my belt for a week or two doesn’t seem so bad next to the prospect of spending 20 years paying off the balance on a credit card. And while I’m still getting my house in order today, in ten years I’ll be in much better shape than I would be if I’d never screwed up and still held a pocket full of plastic.

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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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