Fool.com: Kicking the Credit Card Habit (Fribble) June 30, 2000

Fribble Kicking the Credit Card Habit

By George Runkle (TMF Runkle)
June 30, 2000

The following classic Fribble originally ran January 13, 1998.

About 19 years ago, I quit smoking. Why? Beyond reading about lung cancer, and watching my grandfather suffer with emphysema, I was suffering with chronic bronchitis every winter. Not only that, it was having always to revolve my entire life around having a cigarette. In the winter of 1978-1979 I had a very bad case of bronchitis, and I decided it was enough. That spring I decided to quit. It took several weeks of agony, and then it was over. I did gain a little weight, about 20 (OK, 40) pounds, and I made up for the savings in cigarettes with an increased appetite.

Now instead of giving up smoking, I've given up credit cards. Since I got into Foolishness, I've been on a controlled credit card habit. My wife and I have generally kept the balances down, and paid the balance off almost every month. This summer it got out of hand again, and we ran up the cards too high for comfort. It was a lot of things we didn't expect, but that didn't make it feel any better. So much for controlled credit card spending. At the end of December we sold some investments and paid the balance again. (For other tricks on paying down debt, visit the Fool's Get Out of Debt area.) We took care of it, but like that last winter with bronchitis, it was enough.

There was something annoying about this whole credit card thing. Oh sure, the interest payments are bad, but that wasn't it. It was having to send a couple hundred to MasterCard every month. In most cases it was just normal monthly expenses -- gasoline, meals, that kind of stuff. It just had that "I gotta stop at 7-11 to get a pack of smokes" feel about it. I was beholden to the card.

Oh sure, I make house payments, and ever since the Foolmobile went to the great junkyard in the sky, car payments. However, those aren't as irritating. Perhaps it's because I'm paying to live in this house and drive my car. If we subtracted the balance we owe for our house and the cars from what they are worth, it would be in our favor. Also, no one can realistically be expected to have tens of thousands in cash to buy a car, or six figures of cash for a house. Even if you did, would you want to tie it up in one place like that?

Credit cards are different. The payments don't appear to be for anything tangible. They're just annoying. There is also a vague feeling of guilt about owing money for things you should pay for anyway, the same type you get when you go outside to smoke a cigarette. It just doesn't feel right. To me, it was time to quit.

There isn't any kind of patch for helping you get off credit cards, and I checked the drug store to see if there was come kind of gum available. I figured I'd carry a pack of it with me, and chew a stick or two whenever I got the urge to use plastic. The pharmacist told me she wasn't aware of such a product, but if I found it, let her know. I guess the only solution was cold turkey. Well, I'm an expert at that. I've quit more bad habits than most people ever start.

The first thing you have to do is take the card out of your wallet. I know, like cigarettes, some people feel you should carry it so you don't feel uncomfortable. I disagree; get the credit card as far away from you as possible. That way, in a moment of weakness you won't charge. Carry around some cash; that seems to lessen the cravings somewhat. If the cravings get bad, make a minor purchase using the cash. For example, if you feel a really bad need to charge at the mall, go to the food court and buy ice cream with the cash. You'll gain some weight, but it's a small price to pay.

It can get scary if you wake up in the middle of the night with the craving to charge. A nice warm bath will help ease the craving. Or order a pizza with your cash. I find that to be even better. Gas stations are also a serious problem. I have taken to using a debit card. I know, that's a crutch, but what's wrong with that? Hey, if I have a broken leg, I have a cast, don't I? It's the same with the debit card; it really can take you through those otherwise impossible situations. Remember, you only have to give up the credit card one day at a time.

In the end, you will feel free. You can drive by sales and say, "Nope, don't have the cash." Or you can say, "Hey, let's stop in and get this. I have enough money in my checking account to pay for it." No longer will you feel the burden of the plastic. You may weigh a few more pounds, but your wallet will be fitter.