I used to hate shopping. I used to have no credit cards, a low wage job and a meager budget to make ends meet. With under $20 I could go to the grocery store, buy a loaf of bread, apple juice, a bunch of bananas, a jar of peanut butter, ten ramen packs and I’d be set for the week. Every once in awhile, I could even treat myself (if I had a little extra change handy); I would pick up a box of mac ‘n cheese, milk, butter, a can of tuna, some broccoli and green onions–all the ingredients needed for a deluxe meal. But I’d always have to count every dime before, as well as during, the shopping trip.
I never went to any store just to browse, to make a list of things I might buy myself later on, when I could save up for it. There was no saving. I only had enough to get by, get ramen or mac ‘n cheese and simply subsist.
All that changed when I got credit. I was an undergrad at the time, and had just gotten my first student loan, which gave me some spanking new imaginary good credit (based on the fact that I had a loan that didn’t need to be repaid yet). Someone somewhere had given me the green light to quick cash–for my education’s sake–and it led to a rush of credit card offers in the mail that I felt helpless to ignore.
I felt liberated by my newfound credit line. Suddenly, I wasn’t limited to shopping on a super tight budget. I could put things on the card, that devilishly deceptive little bit of plastic, and hash out a plan for paying down the surmounting balance later.
I could buy myself new shoes for work or school whenever I wanted, not just pick from whatever I was lucky enough to find in my size in the clearance bins. My new cards eliminated the need for a finely tuned budget; I had the option to live large, buy new shoes or jeans or CDs whenever I felt like it.
And then came that first Christmas after I got credit. I went from shopping exclusively at the local dollar store for nifty little gifts to really going wild. I tried to remain sensible, but I bought my mom a lamp at an online store for $17, which was more than my entire budget for Christmas shopping the prior year. I wanted to show my appreciation to my parents and my sister for their years of dedication to buying me way better gifts than I was ever able to get them in return. I wanted to show my son that I loved him by getting the toys only his grandmother could usually afford to buy. Despite creating a modest shopping budget for myself, I managed to double it because I started shopping early and often for the best deals online and in stores.
At first, I was able to pay down my balances with relative ease. I was working full-time and getting financial aid, and I did well to keep the balances manageable (even sometimes paying them off entirely). But soon, I found myself in a predicament similar to what many other Americans have found themselves in during the past decade. I was financially supporting a partner who simply could not find work in the once thriving industry of writing/editing. So I went from using cards for the little extras in life–the occasional presents and perks that I could not have afforded otherwise–to swiping the card for the essentials–gas and groceries.
Now my credit score is shot, but I still want to treat myself to new shoes and music; I still want to buy my son the latest gadget for the upcoming holiday, and show my mom just how much I love her by getting her something thoughtful as well. I browse online and in the stores. I window shop just for the sake of looking, just to see what I would buy if I could buy special things for the people I love. Before credit I hated to shop, but now–even after ruining my credit–I’m addicted. I want to make people happy by getting them stuff.
And so, in my life post-plastic, I’m back to counting every penny, saving every dime, and instead of waiting for the cool stuff to go on sale, I’m slowly weaning myself off of the self-torture of window shopping by steering clear of storefronts, ignoring internet ads, and creating my own handmade gifts for the people I love. It’s a pause; it’s a start…