She also promised that I could buy whatever I wanted. Dinner out after I'd been in grueling classes all day ... sure why not! A handful of new CDs (I realize I'm dating myself here) after a tough week ... by all means! A nice spring break trip because the semester has been a beast ... indulge!
We had a good run (or so I thought). I was able to live a life of relative luxury while in college thanks to my plastic mistress. Sadly, other than the loads of mostly replaceable junk she provided, all I had at the end of the romance to show for my commitment was a bruised ego and nearly $25,000 in credit card debt. Like many another disillusioned lover, I now was left with hatred towards my ex.
My Rocky Past With Credit Card Debt
It would be easy to blame my troubles on my ignorance, or that I went to college prior to the CARD Act of 2009, which -- among its many consumer-protective features -- prevents credit card companies from aggressively market to students on college campuses. However, that would only be shifting blame.
But regardless of where the problems lay in the relationship, when I graduated, I broke up with credit cards for good ... or so I thought. Buried under the rubble of my debt, I still needed to climb out.
That climb required a number of things. I had to recognize that misusing credit cards creates nothing but debt. I had to make the serious effort to put myself on the path toward financial literacy, and get on a budget, so I could make strides toward killing my credit card debt once and for all. While these were some dark times for me personally, I am thankful I went through them; that period ingrained in me the solid financial habits that I still follow today.
On the other hand, even once I was out from under my debt, I still carried hatred in my heart towards credit cards, and disgust with myself for what I'd done. And that was something I needed to get over.
My Turning Point
Paying off my credit card debt was one of the greatest feelings in the world. My plastic mistress was out of my life for good (or so I thought). But I soon learned that I still needed her. While I'd been steering clear of credit cards during my debt-paydown period, I needed to start using them again to grow and maintain good credit. But wisely this time.
I started out with one card that had a low limit. I used it a few times a month and paid off the balance in full every month. Instead of viewing credit as play money that I could spend however I wished, I recognized that I should only use it for convenience, to buy what I could already afford at that moment. If something wasn't in the budget, then neither cash nor plastic would come out of my wallet to purchase it.
That lesson about control was a big thing I hadn't learned during in my tryst in college -- I was enslaved to spending. I allowed it to control my life, constantly giving in to my desire for more stuff instead of being satisfied with what I had, or could afford. That may seem simple to you -- and in retrospect, maybe it is. But embracing it was a vital turning point in my financial life.
Gaining the Upper Hand
Today, my wife and I actively churn credit cards. We have used credit card rewards to travel for free and get considerable cash back on our spending. You may think an endorsement of that lifestyle sounds a bit ridiculous coming from someone who battled for five years to pay off his credit card debt. It's an opinion I hear often.
While I got a few free things at the start of my initial credit card tryst, I am much better now at getting things for free -- without the attached debt. I use our everyday spending to earn rewards and meet the minimum spending requirements on new credit cards that offer lucrative sign-up bonuses.
Points funded a trip for my birthday a few months ago, and we have several more such trips planned next year. And we're still maintaining a credit score of over 800. So yes: I've changed my view on credit cards again. While I used to love them, and then hated them, I now love them again (albeit more wisely) because they can get me the things I want.
If you struggle with the temptation to spend more with credit cards or have debt, then churning credit cards is not for you. That said, credit cards are easy to demonize, but if you use them wisely they can offer some great benefits.
John Schmoll is the founder of Frugal Rules, a finance blog that regularly discusses investing, budgeting and frugal living. He is a father, husband, and veteran of the financial services industry who's passionate about helping people find freedom through frugality. He also writes about wise ways to manage your money at WiseDollar.org.