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Credit Card Debt: Legislation or Personal Solutions?

It is no secret that millions of Americans experience massive amounts of credit card debt , especially college students. I remember in the mid 90’s, my college allowed (invited?) credit card companies to set up shop and sign students up for cards inside the cafeteria, offering free giveaways of utterly useless stuff on our way in to lunch. (It is amazing that there are even varying degrees of uselessness, but in modern consumer culture there’s useless, deeply useless, and then there’s utterly useless). I always found it interesting how much protection the University offered students from physical danger (any time there was a crime anywhere near campus everyone was on high alert), yet the University willingly (and profitably) put ALL its students in much more long term danger – the danger of youthful stupidity converted into the tar pit of long-term debt. We could all use some protection, in the form of credit card legislation.

Seriously, if Mara (the Buddhist mythological figure who anthropomorphizes destructive addictions)  has corporeal form in 21st Century life, this is what he/she looks like, without a doubt:


I am quite happy with President Obama’s stance on credit, as outlined in his New York Times magazine interview a few weeks ago, as well as this clip below. Credit card legislation is a good thing, and the Senate should follow the House’s lead and pass a bill. What would Jesus do, Senators? He would go nuts on those money lenders.

But what about personal mindfulness? Usery and shameful fine print traps aside, can we really blame someone else for spending money on things we don’t need with money we don’t have? I hope we learn a lesson from this chapter in history. Putting something on your credit card impulsively is a mindless act. Amindless act cannot create real wealth. Mindlessness can only createthe illusion of wealth, until the bubbles–both personal and societal–go pop! Mindlessness is convenient instant gratification, a retreat into habitual grasping, and does not produce anything of benefit.

 I cut up my credit card three weeks ago. I still have a balance I’m paying off (relatively small compared to the estimated $8000 credit card debt per indebted household), which will be gone by next month. I still have the account, which I will keep, but the card is now in dozens of fragments, hopefully getting reincarnated as some more enlightened form of wealth, or else as a tupperware container. And should I run out of money, I’m going to follow the advice of comedian Louis CK. I just won’t “do more stuff” until I get some money.

At a Buddhist teaching last month, one of my teachers, Acharya Eric Spiegel of the Shambhala  tradition took the idea of false wealth and false generosity further. Provocatively, he said (paraphrasing) that an act of generosity performed on a debt-riddled credit card (like a donation to NPR or taking a friend out to dinner) is not true generosity, because the money isn’t yours to begin with. You feel good about the act for a moment, and bad about it later on.

Of course, unemployment or underemployment brings a whole new dimension to this ballgame. And then there’s taking out loans for long term projects – home, business, and education. These can’t be seen as instances of mindless credit, because they are true investments, just like mindfulness practice is a long-term investment.

 If the money isn’t in the bank, what this economic crisis has taught me is to put the useless junk down. And whatever money is in the bank, I want to use to promote things I consider useful and sustainable. That means less bars and more books. Less plastic crap from China and more nonprofit donations. Enough is enough.

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posted May 15, 2009 at 11:45 am

My credit card debt is all locked in at a rate of 2.9%, which doesn’t even keep up with inflation most years. It was an overly generous balance transfer offer from the go go days, and now they send me like two pieces of mail a week trying to trick me into fouling up the arrangement. It’s nice to put one over on the man sometimes.

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Julia May

posted May 15, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Did you see this article in the NY Times? What a nightmare.
Good news is I’ll be accumulating massive debt in my 3 year MFA Program this fall.

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posted May 15, 2009 at 2:20 pm

That’s a good one. I lean toward stressing the role of personal responsibility here, rather than legislation.
However, what kept me out of debt in my youth was not any sense of personal responsibility, but lack of access to credit. So regulating the access may not be such a bad idea.
Back in the day (mid to late 80s), college students couldn’t get a credit card. It was a real pain when you had to rent a car for a road trip, or a wedding, or to move, or drive home, since you had to be either 25 or have a major credit card to rent a car. And many folks under 25 did not qualify for a major credit card.
I recall being an editorial assistant just out of college and desperately applying for an American Express card, which was supposedly the responsible choice cuz you had to pay it off in full every month.
I got a letter saying they looked at my salary and determined that I did not seem “to be in a career-track position” and so they denied me the card. Since I now co-own a small company, I like to think that I laugh last and laugh well. And I rip up every American Express card offer I get. You will make no profit from me, American Express! (plenty of other card companies make exorbitant profits from me, alas.)
But to return from personal anecdote to the question at hand, I agree we can’t blame someone else for spending money we don’t have. Yet the societal conditioning toward mindless consumerism is obviously conscious, omnipresent,and strong.
Here’s a recent book announcement: Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail. The authors purport to report on “the buying habits and influence of Generation Y” and “show how societal shifts contributed to a generation that’s strongly connected to shopping” and “present Gen Y’s unique—often gendered—buying behaviors and the psychological motivations guiding its purchasing.” If you’re making products and want profit, you better understand that stuff, right?
But “Strongly connected” or strongly addicted? And the psychological motivations? That’s Mara, authors, that’s Mara.

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posted May 15, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Losing my job amidst the spectacular flameout of our economy has been good for my awareness of money and consumption. I’m amazed – AMAZED – at the stuff I bought and the restaurants I went to when I had a well-paying job.
Just about everyone can live on a lot less than they think.

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posted May 16, 2009 at 1:26 pm

This is a non-issue. If you don’t have the funds in an account to cover the amount you want to charge, leave the card in your wallet and come back when you do. This is just basic individual responsibility. Now we have the feds wanting to save the irresponsible among us, at the expense of the rest of us. It is not the government’s job to save us from ourselves (ref: the U.S. Constitution). Credit agreements, like mortgages, are between the lender and the lendee…no roll for a third party like the government.

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Your Name

posted May 16, 2009 at 1:26 pm

I like many others in America am drowning in a sea of credit card debt. I have to re-evaluate my thinking about money and what we actually NEED. After food, water and shelter there really isn’t a whole lot else. I am cutting way back on things and only paying cash from now on.
I will be doing a debt consolidation program soon. Hopefully I can get out of debt and stay out of debt. With me I think spending money is like a sickness, just another addiction like so many others. I hope being more mindful will help me to defeat this ugly monster.
Good luck to all in debt, we will win this battle!

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students credit card articles

posted January 21, 2010 at 12:33 am

credit card holders should learn how to manage their finances and do budgeting. They have to set priorities and they should take care of the monthly debts and bills to avoid penalties with the banks.

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posted June 26, 2010 at 9:06 am

Faxless Payday Loan, Your Online Source to Instant Cash, we understand the stress that comes alongside a cash crunch. Our team will work with you to alleviate this burden and find the best solution for you. With a Faxless Payday Loan, you quickly get the cash you need to satisfy your financial obligations.

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DebtMan from

posted July 25, 2010 at 11:40 pm

I think the education of credit card holders should be the responsibility of both banks and holders. It is a product that is easy to use, but difficult to use right for the uneducated, and banks should approve holders based on financial intelligence as compared to financial capability.
With credit cards being such a large part of society, I also believe that banks should have some initiative and fund a financial intelligence course at high school for students. This would allow students to learn how to correctly manage their credit cards, as well has give those willing banks some effective marketing to the new breed of credit card holders. A win win in my opinion.

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Credit Cards

posted August 24, 2010 at 5:39 am

The initiative taken for the concern is very serious and need an attention of every one. This is the concern which exists in the society and needs to be eliminated from the society as soon as possible.The people are loosing their moral while becoming modern. The society needs to be attentive that moral value.

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jim willson

posted August 25, 2010 at 10:25 pm

There is nothing called a free lunch is this world. If anything
needed to be resolved then initiated need a support to be sorted out.
Jim Willson
Debt Management

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Credit card apply boy

posted August 26, 2010 at 2:45 am

Banks and the users is always responsible for the cards

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creditcard rays

posted September 28, 2010 at 1:33 am

Yes both are responsible…If some time client doesn’t ware of the credit card debt so they have to inform them..

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Debt Counseling

posted October 16, 2010 at 11:30 am

The initiative taken for the concern is very serious and need an attention of every one.I appreciate this just keep it up this.

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posted October 23, 2010 at 6:19 am

Well credit card companies will always do a lot of marketing to bring people in but in the end it all depends on the person if he or she will use it the right way.
Credit card has a good use and it also has a bad use. The good use is you are able to leverage about a month thus instead of your money being use to pay something now you have a month to put the same money into something that may possible earn(though at of this moment an ordinary savings deposit probably only gives less than 1%)
The bad thing about it is when the cardholder use it as you say for utterly useless stuff. It is much more on the cardholder’s wise judgment if such tool will be sue for the good or for one’s downfall.

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Debt Help

posted November 8, 2010 at 4:12 pm

When it comes to types of debt, credit card debt is often the most crippling because of the high interest rates and exorbitant fees of the credit card companies. That is why it is important to seek credit card debt settlement soon after you start experiencing trouble paying your bills. When looking for credit card debt help, you want to find the ideal situation for credit card debt relief. Credit card debt relief

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RotoShave Review

posted January 10, 2011 at 5:46 pm

That sounds good, in theory. But in reality, many consumers are unable to take advantage of these benefits because they carry a balance on their credit card from month to month, paying finance charges that can go up to a whopping 23 percent. Many find it hard to resist using the old “plastic” for impulse purchases or buying things they really can’t afford. The numbers are striking: In 1999, American consumers charged about $1.2 trillion on their general-purpose credit cards. RotoShave Review

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Wonder File

posted January 26, 2011 at 4:55 am

I appreciate these type of instructions and guidelines for the beginner and sometimes it useful fr professionals as well. I like your illustration work, your creativity and designs are really amazing.

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Secrets2Money Get Out of Debt Help

posted February 4, 2011 at 12:13 am

We all need a Get out of debt jail card however I think government might overstep their power here. Everyone has choice. You don’t ‘need’ a credit card.

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Out of Debt Stories

posted February 10, 2011 at 1:17 am

Great article Ethan,
I’m going away with what you said here: “A mindless act cannot create real wealth. Mindlessness can only create the illusion of wealth, until the bubbles–both personal and societal–go pop! Mindlessness is convenient instant gratification, a retreat into habitual grasping, and does not produce anything of benefit.”
Needless to say, I enjoyed this article.
If you don’t mind publishing this, here is a story of a family overcoming $106,000 debt, it will motivate anyone who is struggling with debt at this time: Out of Debt Stories

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posted February 10, 2011 at 2:07 am

We will contact your creditors to request that they accept lower payments from you
We will take care of any phone calls or letters that you get from creditors
You just need to make your one monthly payment and we will look after everything else.

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posted February 10, 2011 at 2:39 am

We will contact your creditors to request that they accept lower payments from you
We will take care of any phone calls or letters that you get from creditors
You just need to make your one monthly payment and we will look after everything else.

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posted February 10, 2011 at 2:40 am

We will contact your creditors to request that they accept lower payments from you
We will take care of any phone calls or letters that you get from creditors
You just need to make your one monthly payment and we will look after everything else.

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debt management plan

posted March 17, 2011 at 1:45 am

Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks.

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posted March 17, 2011 at 4:56 am

It is no secret that millions of Americans experience massive amounts of credit card debt , especially college students.

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posted March 17, 2011 at 10:54 am

I like your site very much because all the comments are very informative and superior.
Get Out of Debt Fast

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