Henrietta Hay Column November 11, 2008

Credit issues haven’t changed much over the past ten years

When you read this, the election will be over, for which we are all grateful. We all must hope that the country can recover after one of the dirtiest, meanest elections I can remember.

To get away from television news, I have been going through some of my old columns, and I found one that I think is timely. Here is a part of it. This was my Sentinel column for March 27, 1998: 

For a “Depression” kid, it is hard to understand the massive credit problems that are facing us today, both personally and as a nation. In my youth it was pretty simple. If you didn’t have it, you didn’t buy it. And usually you didn’t have it. There wasn’t an awful lot to buy anyway.

I have partially recovered from the Great Depression philosophy, but it still rattles around in the back of my head and bites me now and then. To this day when I buy something I really don’t need, I can hear my dad’s voice saying, “Whoa. Do you really need it?” I’m always glad to hear his voice in my head, but when I’m looking at a faster modem for my computer I wish he’d keep quiet.

A lot of the old-fashioned virtues are out of style in today’s world. Paying your bills, however, something we learned in the ’30s, still seems like a pretty good one to hang onto.

But then somebody invented credit cards. Don’t get me wrong. I use one regularly and appreciate its convenience. I would hate to be without it.

But misuse of credit cards is causing major financial problems. Every day we hear of cases where excessive personal credit debt has destroyed marriages, businesses and personal reputations.

According to Reuters, credit card debt balances rose 6.4 percent in 1997, involving an estimated 55 to 60 million households. In each, there is an average debt load of more than $7,000, plus payments of more than $1,000 a year in interest and fees.

I’m not easily shocked, but that did it. (Remember, this was 1998.)

Recently I have been personally aware of several tragic situations caused by excessive credit card debt. One friend on the Eastern Slope is approaching 90. He has always been hunting for the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow, and now he thinks he has found it. He has sent off for every offer of a way to make money — the easy way. He has maxed out several credit cards with no way to repay the debt.

A friend of mine worries about her brother on the East Coast. His wife has put thousands of dollars of debt on their credit cards. He has no way of paying them off and she has no intention of doing so. The whole family is in turmoil.

Multiply these by 50 million, and we have major tragedy, to say nothing of a national problem.

Senior citizens are very vulnerable to illegal attempts to steal card numbers, and the “Gen-X’ers,” who never have heard of the Depression, are also highly susceptible to “buying it when you don’t have it.”

Somehow I seem to have gotten onto both mailing lists.

In the past three weeks, I could have acquired a credit of $300,000 and moved to a desert island.

I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I think it is long past time to face the question. That naive ’30s idea of paying our own way looks pretty good. Wonder whether Congress has thought of that.

(This was written 10 years ago.  Sound familiar?)

Henrietta Hay can be reached by e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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