When I was 19 and had finished high school, I took a year off to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. In that time, I took on full-time hours at the paint and wallpaper store where I had worked in my spare time while in school.
I also applied for my first credit card.
At first, I was afraid to use it and promised myself that I would use it only in cases of emergency, that I would still use cash as my primary form of payment. For almost the first six months with my card, which originally had an $800 limit, I never touched it.
It was a friend who worked in another bank who told me that it was a good idea to use the card at least once every six months, to keep the account from going dormant. And so, just before my six-month, semi-anniversary, I used my card to purchase gas at my local Sunoco.
I felt instantly grown-up, felt that I was a responsible member of society.
I tried my card again, at a nearby restaurant, Hurley's, on an evening with my friends. I showed them the flashy plastic. Oh yeah, my confident grin revealed, I'm a contributing member of society.
I paid the bill, in full, when it first arrived. Only a handful of charges, well within my means. It wasn't so hard to be responsible and use the card. Perhaps, I'll use it more often, I persuaded myself.
Each month, it was easy to see my spending habits. My bar tabs at Ruby Tuesday's. New clothes at Warren's House of Britches. Rolls of film at Black's Cameras.
My first large expense came the following year, when I paid for my college tuition and books on my credit card. Having returned to part-time hours, I found that I had to reduce my entertainment spending. I also carried a balance for the first time, though I worked extra hours to get my debt paid off.
When I left the paint store to work at Black's, I made more money but I spent more, too. More bars, more restaurants. Though I received substantial discounts at work, I bought more film, expanded my camera equipment. My credit card was becoming less of a status symbol and more of a ball and chain.
It wasn't until I worked at a bank, had managers and accountants who had my best interest at heart, that I got my credit-card spending under control. And, when I moved to Korea, I became fully debt-free.
Over this summer, DW and I found ourselves in our basement, clearing out junk and reducing paperwork, that I found an old cardboard box with the words, Ross' Old Receipts. In it, the first five years of VISA statements: the receipts, stapled neatly in chronological order; the items on each statement, checked off with pencil marks. Long before the tap or swipe, the card would be slowly worn out from a carbon-paper slip being pressed against the raised numbers, name, and expiry date. My signature, evolving over the years, scribbled on the bottom line.
By today's standards, my monthly expenses were minimal, rarely more than a couple-hundred dollars. Even when I flew to Cancun and to Scotland, or when I paid for my college semesters, the total rarely broke the thousand-dollar mark.
Good ol' days.
To keep my credit-card bills under $5,000 each month, these days, is a challenge. But I always pay my balance, in full.
I'm a responsible, contributing member of society, after all.