Friday, January 16, 2009

An excellent metaphor for credit

For a while now, I've been a fan of the show 'Til Debt Do Us Part. It's a highly addictive reality show about couples trying to right their financial ship and salvage their relationship in the face of out-of-control spending and spiraling debt. The host, Gail Vaz-Oxlade, is a very entertaining, no-nonsense personality, who also maintains a great blog with tips, tricks and diatribes on all things financial. Scanning through her articles this morning, I found a fantastic post likening the age of easy credit to having a bottomless cookie jar:
The problem with the bottomless cookie jar is that eventually you begin to take the cookies for granted. It’s human nature. And so when a couple of weeks passed and none of the cookies had been eaten, I stopped filling the jar. Several weeks later, after the jar had been emptied, washed and put back in place, Alex dipped her fingers into the jar to find it empty. She was very disappointed. The cookies were gone. It was the end of the world.
This serves as a very effective metaphor for people's relationship with their credit. Just look at the mystery surrounding the calculation of credit scores and credit limit assignment criteria, and it's not hard to see why most of us don't really understand how we got the credit we have. When a bank first hands you a $10,000 credit line, it's difficult to imagine how you could ever spend that much money, and you can develop a false sense of your ability to manage the ensuing debt. "They wouldn't have given me the limit if I couldn't handle it!"

I remember when I first started digging my way into my hole of consumer debt, I looked into the option of getting a line of credit to pay off my credit cards. At the time, my utilization was so high that I didn't qualify (thankfully), and I spent a good deal of time thinking over how to approach the problem of my debt. I'm a smart person, but I found myself grappling with the idea of whether consolidating my cards onto a line of credit would solve the problem. A small voice in the back of my mind tried to explain that shuffling and adding to the pile wouldn't get me anywhere, but I still didn't get it.

I find this disconnect fascinating. The "math" of personal finance really couldn't be simpler: you need to earn more than you spend, and you need to pay off more than you add to your debts. There's not even any multiplication or division here; it's straight addition and subtraction. Heck, you can even reduce it to the point of "is this number bigger than that number?" All the same, however, we all seem to struggle at some point with this dilemma. We just don't understand how the cookie jar works.


Traciatim said...

I am a fan of Gail, but I find the show a little stagnant. Each and every show the premise is the same; "Stop spending your flippin' money". That sums up every show from every season.

Andrea said...

Traciatim's comment may be true, but for the people on the show, it's ALWAYS new to them.

And I still love the show anyway. It helps to keep me determined even though my debt isn't anywhere near as bad as the people on the show. I almost wish I wasn't learning how to be better with money so that I could be on the show and get $5000!

I actually posted a link of some online episodes to a forum where someone was asking for help and just starting to realize what a big problem he has, but unfortunately they only work if you're watching them in Canada.