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- Growing up, my dad taught me and my siblings that all debt is bad. That lead to a lot of shame around credit card use and even car loans.
- In my 20s, I realized that debt could be a powerful tool for breaking the poverty cycle.
- Now, at 30, debt has helped me get ahead financially.
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I was standing in the bike shop with my dad and brothers when I was about 10 years old. My siblings and I didn’t get many new toys or surprise treats, because there was never much money to spare. However, my parents were always willing to spend money on bikes, probably because having wheels kept my three siblings and me occupied from sun-up till sun-down.
“Will that be cash or credit?” the cashier asked my dad.
My dad turned to us kids.
“Credit? No plastic here,” he said, for our benefit, not the cashier’s. “Cash is the only way to go.”
My dad went on and on about his cash-only philosophy, long enough that I was paralyzed with embarrassment. I don’t remember what bike I got that day, but I do remember being mortified at my dad proselytizing about the evils of debt.
The thing is, my dad wasn’t someone who should be giving financial lessons. He may not have used credit cards, but he never managed his cash responsibly, in part because of his untreated bipolar disorder. Still, his lesson was clear: cash was good, debt was bad. In our family, it was as simple as that.
I recognized that my dad wasn’t someone whose financial footsteps I wanted to follow. Still, as a young adult I internalized his attitude about debt, to my detriment. Here are three things about debt and credit cards that I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self.
1. There’s no shame in using credit
Despite my dad’s strong options, I got a credit card soon after I turned 18. It was an impulse decision at college orientation, where the bank required only my signature to give me a credit card with a $500 limit.
It was a small amount, but since I was supporting myself through college, that extra $500 made a big difference. I used it as a cushion between paychecks, when I needed food or books.
Despite the fact that I was using the card responsibly and making on-time payments, I was ashamed to be using credit. I had internalized my dad’s message, no matter how misguided it was, so I felt embarrassed by this financial decision.
A few years later, I needed a car for the first time. My fiancé mentioned getting a loan, and I bristled. Debt was bad, after all.
My fiancé pointed out that my family always had unreliable cars with mechanical trouble. Financing a more reliable car was the responsible choice, he argued. It was then, at 23, that I started to really see the issue with my dad’s teaching about debt.
2. It’s spending choices, not methods, that are important
Credit cards get a bad rap because they can allow people to live beyond their means. Of course, spending more money than you make is problematic, especially if you’re spending on frivolous purchases.
However, irresponsible spending can happen with cash, credit, or debit. My dad would regularly spend cash on expensive clothes for himself, but not budget for bills. He would invest in his hobby (writing children’s books), while ignoring the interior painting business that put food on the table.
I wish he had taught me about responsible spending, rather than simply labeling credit as bad.
3. Debt is a tool
When my dad finished railing against credit cards, he would switch to debt in general. “Debt-free is the way to be,” he’d proclaim. I wish I could have countered that point, telling my young self that debt is actually an important tool.
I’m only 30, but I’ve had a lot of debt at various points in my life. Right now I have two mortgages, many student loans, and a few thousand dollars of lingering credit card debt.
However, I’m also in a more financially stable position than I’ve ever been in. Those student loans let me earn a degree that has lead to a lucrative career that I love. My mortgage on a fixer-upper let me cut my monthly housing expenses in half. Credit cards let me fix up that property (which is now a rental), building equity that I used to purchase a wonderful family home.
Like any tool, debt can be dangerous. But, when it’s used cautiously, it can pay off big time.
It’s hard to unlearn problematic financial beliefs, especially if they’ve been reinforced throughout your life. I’m thankful that my husband was raised in a family where he learned about responsible use of debt and credit cards. Using debt strategically has helped us change our financial picture, and it’s a lesson that I’ll be teaching to our daughters as they get older.