What do French fries have to do with building your credit history? Nothing. At least that’s how it should be.

I should probably start at the beginning of my credit history. But, I’ll probably end up starting somewhere else, so bear with me.

I have a credit card from Chase Manhattan bank. Again. I say again because the first credit card I ever got was from Chase Manhattan Bank. Nothing special, a visa that allowed me to buy stuff without having the money first. There are a lot of ways this can be useful since expenses can vary from moment to moment. And while your income may be sufficient for your expenses, sometimes the timing merits the use of a line of credit to cover an immediate need that can be settled by the next pay period.

I can’t recommend myself (this young guy with that card, not the present-day me. I just finally got a card again with them; do you have any idea how long they hold a grudge?) as an expert, or even an example of sound use of credit. Especially then.

I was actually trying to figure out why I had the card, considering that today I’m pretty sure this would be frowned upon (if I can find the rules infringed, I’ll add a link here).

I thought about this for a while and I think my first appearance in the credit-file world was a loan on a car I bought for school (you can read about it here). That’s really the only thing I could think of since everything else came after. And this was less a loan to me or even against the car. It was more my Dad vouching for me at the bank and my grandma (who worked there) offering pointers to ensure there were no problems. Given the amount (like a thousand dollars; banks rarely do loans like that anymore), nobody was expecting me to ‘default’ on the collateral, even with my questionable income sources (I had a job!… As a waiter, I think. I had several others over the course of that loan so not sure about the details). Since this loan was to ‘build credit,’ it was best that I made the payments on time and as prescribed (don’t pay it off early, for example. But if you’ve read anything else about me, at that time, that was unlikely to happen).

So, I did. And a year later (Yeah, a 1-year car note. Would LOVE one of those now…) it was done. While this likely established my credit, what didn’t make sense is why Chase would send me a credit card afterward.

And I don’t mean, they sent me an application to get one of their cards; I mean they sent me a credit card, with my name on it, an actual magnetic strip, potentially valid card number, the potential credit limit, and phone number to activate said card. A fifteen-minute call later and suddenly I had 500 dollars to spend.

Today I realize that’s the wrong way to view that since a ‘credit limit’ is a debt you may not have borrowed yet. I was fortunate that it took me so long to max the thing out since I was really limited in the places I could use it.

You have to understand this was the dark ages of credit card use (where I lived, and in general). I was better served writing a warm check (it would take a couple days to clear then, so you could buy something and then deposit your paycheck the next day. Not a good idea, but it was possible) than trying to use this thing. I usually had cash anyway; what was I going to use this for? Renting a car? making a hotel reservation? I didn’t need to do these things, I was only 17!

Oh yeah, did I mention I was a minor when I got this? Yeah, about that…

I’m not sure whether Chase realized that when they mailed it to me, but they would’ve realized it when I called (If they asked the right questions. I really don’t think they ever asked) but I don’t blame them for maxing the thing out. That’s all me. But it is fun thinking to what lengths I went to, to even use this thing.

Consider: These are the places I would likely use this card, but couldn’t:

  • A gas station
  • A grocery store
  • A novelty shop (maybe)
  • The thrift store (did I mention I was poor?)
  • The restaurant I worked at (this was barely a ‘sit-down’ place)
  • Most fast-food joints

Now the last one would likely be of interest since I mentioned the French-fries at the outset. And yes, out of all the fast-food places that existed then, there was only ONE that accepted credit cards for payment.

And I loved their French-fries. They were the best in the world (I thought then. They’re still good, I’m just not willing to go into debt to have them). And it wasn’t like I needed to order any other food; just a large fry and I’m good.

Now, considering that this French-fry order was probably barely over a single US dollar, and I had a 500 dollar limit, you would probably (rightly) question my use of credit cards. Considering that I wasn’t buying them every day on the card (sometimes I actually had money), it begs to question when I decided I should stop.

I think it was at about 497. Because I wasn’t sure what would happen if I just peeked above 500 and then paid it back down a couple days later.

Now, if you’re wondering if I was just not paying the card, the answer is yes, I was paying on the card. I just wasn’t paying it off (Um, building credit?). I paid the minimum. That’s all they asked for, and I (did) have plenty of space for a long while. And to add insult to injury, I occaisionally got credit limit increases, so the party didn’t have to stop there.

And once I had this card, now I could get cards at other places. And I did get two more (then), but I was having a hard time keeping stuff straight so I stopped there.

So I amassed a massive one thousand dollars in debt in short order and was buried alive by the interest (Yeah, remember those minimum payments. Yeah, don’t ever do that when you can pay more. Just FYI). How would I dig myself out of this insurmountable hole?

Here is one pointer that can help anyone, anytime with debt, and getting rid of debt – pay more than the minimum! Recent changes in the credit laws in the US make it a little harder to finance debt like this forever when you pay the minimum. But, I do remember that when the card was at the limit, and I made a minimum payment (like 20 US dollars), after adding the interest back in it typically freed up about 4 bucks. Woohoo. I can buy 4 more orders of fries with the real money that could’ve bought 16.

I also got a different job. With CAW (you can read about it here). Not only did I pay off my credit cards, but I also stopped using them! Mostly because I experienced a 250 percent increase in income just taking the job, but you know.

But I did use the cards for things like renting cars and making hotel reservations because suddenly I was old enough to maybe need to do these things.

I did end up making some different (bad) financial decisions, and Chase decided we needed some space. I would’ve preferred to keep the card (I even paid the debt off, but they were not amused) but it didn’t work out. I knew they didn’t like me for a while since I would later get a card with a different bank (the ill-fated Washington Mutual Bank), and they chose not to renew the relationship then.

It would take several more years before Chase would let me have one of their cards again. I will admit for a long time I went out of my way to avoid applying for a card issued by Chase Bank (that is both easier and harder than it sounds) just to avoid them telling me no. By the time they came around, I can’t say I needed the card. I just wanted the airline points.

In the intervening years, credit cards obviously are everywhere now. You can use them at all the places I mentioned, but it has more to do with debit cards (imprinted with the Visa/Mastercard/Discover/Amex logo in the US), rather than credit cards specifically. I assume there’s an effort to promote a ‘cashless’ society, and this would make it easier. I could say I was on the bleeding edge of that reality.

I mean, how many 17-year-olds do you know that were using their credit card to buy French fries in the previous century? Well, now you know one.

Next week, we’ll dive into the new characters presented in my next book.

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