July 18th, 2013
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
I felt tiny. It was as if my husband and I were granted an audience with the Great and Powerful Oz.
Had we become too big for our britches?
We visited a succession of banks in early 1992 trying to secure pre-approval for a mortgage. Waiting in cushy chairs in bank lobbies did little to prepare us to face the scrutiny of loan officers.
Wages were disclosed. Credit reports were meticulously mined for missed or delayed remittances. Graduate student loan payment schedules were scoured. Sitting in those bank offices, I felt relieved that I’d never missed a Stafford Loan payment, even when it was hard to write that monthly $200 check. Our loan for a base model Toyota Corolla, purchased the year before in Vermont, was perused with similar, eagle-eyed precision.
We smiled and tried to make the case that we were good risks as gainfully employed young professionals with a healthy credit history. It felt like going under a magnifying glass or, better yet, an electron microscope with numerous questions fired at us. Each time I left one of those banks, I felt just a little bit smaller. Actually, I felt tiny.
In the parking lot, I’d lean into my husband and ask, “How do they treat people who don’t have good jobs and good credit?”
I wondered what my immigrant parents went through to secure a mortgage after spending years in apartments where landladies didn’t like us because, supposedly, “kids did damage.” My parents used to hide my sisters and me in the car when they looked at apartments for fear no one would rent to them. They finally bought a home—a powerful symbol of the American Dream—that they lived in for nearly 30 years.
My husband and I were pre-approved for a mortgage by a local and noticeably friendly credit union—the one we’re still with. We then set about the task of calling a Realtor to begin the fun part — looking for a house to call home. We were careful to limit our search to “nice, but not too fancy” housing stock.
Just a few years before, I learned the hard way the dangers of easy credit. I signed up for my first charge card as a 22-year-old graduate student. It was simple. It was fast. It was easy.
I filled out a form in the student union and voila, I had instant credit…up to a whopping $1,000! It’s amazing they granted me the credit with my student status and part-time job working for a professor. I kept the card in check, saving it for emergencies and annual plane rides home. Living on my own, emergencies did creep up, mounting into four-digit debt.
Once graduated and employed full-time, I endeavored to chip away at the credit card balance each month. Sadly, the amount paid—after meeting rent, utility and school loan obligations—did little to dispel the debt. Living in an urban area saved me from financing a car I could not afford. Walking or taking a bus suited me just fine.
I learned a hard lesson. I learned I never again wanted to use credit cards unless I was confident I could pay off the balance at month’s end…unless facing a true emergency.
Why do I write about personal financial history? I think it’s because many of us in America seem to have lost our way, financially. Signing on for unreasonable debt to support lavish lifestyles when “safe, affordable and reliable” will do seems a little short-sighted.
We’ve witnessed Wall Street’s indiscretions spill over onto Main Street. Maybe it’s time for readjustment, a realigning of priorities, forcing us to assess what we truly need—materially—to live a good life.
Emerging from my own personal credit card purgatory as a young adult, I realized sometimes you have to lose your way in order to find a new, more responsible path.