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credit cards are like alcohol

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A while ago, Patrick @ Cash Money Life wrote about how credit cards are like guns. Well, this English person doesn’t like guns in the slightest and willfully and deliberately fails to think of a good reason to have them around. You might think that’s a touch irrational if you’re not British, so just remember that I come from a different culture with a very different attitude to gun control than some of the rest of the English speaking world.

On the other hand, one of the things that is widely available in the UK is alcohol. Not only is it widely available, it is also used and misused by all sorts of people. Really, quite a lot like credit cards. I use both.

Alcohol is a dangerous substance. Lots of people misuse it, by binge drinking to excess, and cluttering up A&E departments in hospitals with alcohol poisoning and drunken accidents, or by drinking and driving (IMHO an almost completely inexcusable crime), or by becoming addicted to alcohol.

Credit cards are dangerous. Lots of people misuse them by, making payments late and getting fees, or running up debts that cost them a fortune to clear.

On the other hand, a small glass of red wine a few times a week is good for your health. And a cashback credit card, with the balance always paid off in full, is good for your wealth.

You can, of course, go without one or the other relatively easily. You don’t need to drink alcohol to celebrate momentous occasions, to relax with friends - even in the pub, or to enjoy gourmet food. You don’t need a credit card to make purchases online, rent a car, or build a credit history.

But, just like there’s no replacement for the sensation of champagne bubbles on the tongue, or savouring a pint of excellent beer, it’s harder to replace a credit card for some transactions - particularly those where it represents trust.

If you don’t drink alcohol, whether because you have been physically addicted to it, or some other reason that’s fine. If you don’t use credit cards, whether because you have previously had a problem with them, or you just don’t want to, that’s also fine. You’re a grown up, I respect your ability to make your own decisions.

What’s not fine is projecting on to everyone else. Your fear that you will be unable to use credit cards sensibly (which may well be perfectly justified) shouldn’t be applied to everyone else. They may know that they can use them sensibly. Just like your dislike or fear of alcohol (which is generally a reasonable one) shouldn’t be applied more widely than yourself. Other people are grown ups who can make their own decisions too, and those decisions can be different from yours.

For me, I use credit cards all the time and have never run up major debts, don’t carry a balance, and only spend money that I already have. I strongly suspect that I’m not the only person in the world able to do so without a problem.

Image by Gaetan Lee

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35 comments for “credit cards are like alcohol”

  1. All things in moderation, right? ;)

    I agree, I’ll take a pint on occasion, and I don’t mind using my credit card to pay for everyday purchases.

    But I always pay my credit card bill on time, and I never drive after drinking. The only thing I have to worry about is the rare headache, but I can deal with that. :)

    Posted by Patrick | June 19, 2008, 12:43 pm
  2. Having overindulged in both, I can safely say that it is not fun. :) But lessons are for learning, yes?

    Sometimes I drink for fun, and sometimes I need some liquid courage. And sometimes I use a credit card to buy something, and sometimes I want to build up credit.
    But now, at least, I can do so responsibly.

    Great post!

    Posted by deepali | June 19, 2008, 12:51 pm
  3. Good comparison. I look forward to your follow-up article, “car loans are like the weekend omnibus edition of Coronation Street”.

    Posted by guinness416 | June 19, 2008, 1:03 pm
  4. First off that photo has made me crave a Pimms and Lemonade (bizarre- I know it’s Champagne) which is sad because I’m pretty sure that morning drinking is frowned on in my office.
    Second- I’m so with you on the projecting part, I’m a little sick of the “credit cards are evil” vs “credit cards are a great tool” debate.
    My credit cards are just credit cards, I don’t use them as a money making tool (just don’t spend enough to make it worthwhile) and I really don’t think I have sold my soul to the devil just because of some plastic in my wallet. Like you I have never carried a balance.
    Thirdly- very excited about Guinness’ suggestion, eagerly awaiting said article…

    Posted by Looby | June 19, 2008, 6:41 pm
  5. This is called a credit card boom. The youth has been driven by credit cards as young people usually select the latest gadgets and influence purchase decisions in the household. They think that credit cards can not be many. They want more and more. I agree, it can be compared to alcohol addiction.

    Posted by virgel | June 20, 2008, 5:41 am
  6. @guinness416:
    That’s a great idea for a post. I’m looking forward to inspiration hitting.

    It’s summer, therefore time for Pimms and Lemonade - and what is it with office restrictions on morning drinking? I also think that, quite frankly if I’m going to be selling my soul to the devil I’ll be wanting a lot more than a credit card in return.

    It’s true that many people have a problem with credit, although since it’s not physically addicting it’s not as bad as alcohol, nor is it as dangerous. I find there’s only so far I can take an analogy. But certainly people should be careful with credit.

    Posted by plonkee | June 20, 2008, 8:34 am
  7. Excellent points. My father, for instance, was an alcoholic. So he doesn’t drink and won’t drink ever again. No sense in risking it. On the other hand, he doesn’t mind when friends drink if he think they’re tending toward alcoholism.

    Dave Ramsey and some of the people he counsels probably can’t “hold their credit,” as it were. So they shouldn’t use it. But, for instance, I got a comment from someone who assumed that now I have a credit card I’m going to get myself into significant debt. I found that assumption insulting.

    Posted by Mrs. Micah | June 20, 2008, 3:59 pm
  8. Its an interesting analogy on the ethical reasoning…. I’ve heard many prohibitionists state, “Well I’ve never met an alcoholic that never had their first drink…”

    So if you take that line of thought and this analogy to credit cards, “I’ve never met a person in serious credit card debt who never got their first card….”

    Behaviorally speaking, sociologically speaking there is an awful lot more to both items than the people who market them discuss.

    Alcohol has had the MADD movement, the AA movement, legislators in the US cracking down on their advertisement, etc. Society has done a lot to adjust to the dangers of alcohol.

    My thoughts are that we’re just now starting to see some of the social backlash to the credit industry.

    I think its interesting to note - it use to be you never ever talked about alcohol related problems in public. Now conversations about careful consumption of alochol is the norm.

    In the US - the only time you really ever hear anybody say anything about their own personal credit card debt is in an FPU meeting… (Which do have an element of AA to them.)

    I have a feeling that in years to come we’re going to see much more social response related to the credit industry. We’re already seeing Pay Day loan companies here posting ads - use us responsibly. My prediction is before long we’re going to see Public Service Announcements from the government on credit misuse.

    Alcohol has been around since the beginning of time. Credit cards didn’t exist until 50 years ago. Easy use of credit cards as personal loans for every day shopping experiences has only been around since the 1980’s on a widescale basis. And really only in the last decade have fast food, grocery stores and every other retailer under the sun made card purchases the norm.

    Posted by Going Gazelle | June 21, 2008, 8:06 am
  9. It’s interesting that there’s a split in the comments between those who are thinking of the analogy in terms of sensible use, and those who think of the poor use scenarios (apart from Mrs. Micah, who notes both). I think that they both work surprisingly well.

    @Mrs Micah:
    I find that assumption insulting on your behalf. And absolutely, if you’ve already demonstrated to your own satisfaction that you have a problem with drinking alcohol or using credit cards, then you should make different choices to people who don’t problems with them.

    @Going Gazelle:
    I agree that there should be more discussion and less shame involved in discussing debt and bad use of credit cards. And that the sorts of ads that imply that if you have a credit card, your life will be better are nearly as unhelpful as ads implying that you’ll have better luck with women if you drink.

    Posted by plonkee | June 21, 2008, 8:59 am
  10. Brilliant post and so very true. I’ve worked for addiction programs before and definitely see the similarities.
    Some people can very safely use both, some can’t.

    Posted by Frugal Trenches | June 22, 2008, 8:33 am
  11. Great analogy and the one I often use as well.

    @Going gazelle: While I like the analogy, I do see a few major differences between alcohol abuse and overspending with cards which may explain the difference in public sentiment:
    1) Alcoholics’ behavior like drunk driving carries a high risk of hurting even killing others. While overspending with cards affects relatives, it doesn’t kill them, nor does it doesn’t affect strangers. There are even some strangers who benefit: banks’ stock holders, those who get credit card rewards without paying interest, store owners.

    2) One can die from alcohol overdose. Unless we see lots of suicides because of credit card-related debt - unlikely since it is an unsecured debt - this isn’t the case with cards.

    3) Alcohol addiction is a physical dependency. Credit card “addiction” is not as much an addiction as plain stupidity, failure to learn that “if you borrow money you have to pay it back”, desire for more “stuff”, envy. It is more difficult to break physical addiction.

    4) alcohol affects brain i.e. after a first few drinks drinker’s thinking process is impaired which may make it more difficult to stop. Not so with cards. It is always one’s conscious choice to buy.

    “, I got a comment from someone who assumed that now I have a credit card I’m going to get myself into significant debt. I found that assumption insulting.”
    I always get insulted by these type of comments on blogs - one reason I tend to post in this type of discussions.

    Posted by kitty | June 22, 2008, 10:32 pm
  12. My mum is what they call a high-bottom or functioning alcoholic. She never missed a day at work, or many social events due to boozing - until she landed in hospital and almost died at least. Sometimes reading the tales of people with credit card issues seem the same - they don’t freak out about their bills every month but wake up one morning and realize they owe $50,000 to american express.

    Posted by guinness416 | June 23, 2008, 12:23 am
  13. @kitty:
    I completely agree that you can only take it so far, and alcohol is much more dangerous - physical addiction is serious, and the consequences of getting it wrong can be devastating.

    I agree that it seems to be easy not to notice the slide into poor use of either alcohol or credit cards. I hope your mum is much better now by the way.

    Posted by plonkee | June 23, 2008, 9:58 am
  14. I like the analogy, Plonkee. I’ve recently written about whether credit cards are good or bad… and it seems to me it’s not as black and white as some people make it out to be.

    And in the case of alcohol, it’s not as black and white either (or should that be black and tan?).

    I enjoy a good beer… and I still use credit cards even though I’m currently on a journey to get out of debt.

    Posted by Debt Reduction Formula | June 23, 2008, 5:17 pm
  15. @ Mrs. Micah - I don’t know, I’ve heard you are quite the extravagant spender! ;)

    Posted by deepali | June 24, 2008, 10:32 pm
  16. @ Going Gazelle, I’m not so sure the government’s going to bring attention to poor money management. They have a vested interest in an ignorant public. If people were finally savy, it’d be a lot harder to get re-elected after wasting the public’s money, creating entitlement programs, and running deficits!

    @plonkee, I’m with you—driving under the influence is totally unacceptable. Unfortunately, it’s a fairly easy crime to get away with. Which is why it’s probably going to persist no matter how severe the punishment is.

    Posted by Aaron Stroud | June 25, 2008, 6:04 am
  17. @Aaron:
    Driving under the influence has (fortunately) become socially unacceptable in the UK. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I certainly notice the difference compared to say, rural Ireland, where people are more concerned about getting caught than the fact that it is dangerous.

    Posted by plonkee | June 25, 2008, 8:03 pm
  18. i admit it, i love alcohol, all ’shapes and sizes’, but just like with credit cards, and everything else… moderation is key!

    Posted by James | June 25, 2008, 9:35 pm
  19. Exactly why I rarely drink. I think anyone with financial problems could be very susceptible to drinking problems. One addiction (credit cards) could easily translate to another (alcohol).

    I luckily grew up in a family where alcohol was not so vilified that I rebelled, but its power was respected. It’s not something to mess around with, and plus, it’s really expensive!

    I’m a fan of soda when out with friends who are drinking. It’s cheap, it’s refillable, and I’m darn sure there are no coca-cola rehab groups!

    Posted by DebtKid | July 1, 2008, 7:52 pm
  20. Credit cards really are a drug. People really get a high by going out and buying stuff they don’t need. It’s like short term pleasure and long term pain. We need a change in attitudes in regards to how we consume products.

    Posted by DebtFreeDave | July 25, 2008, 11:53 pm
  21. Ohioans have a chance to speak up for their financial freedom. This election day, consumers who depend upon the availability of payday loans for unexpected emergency expenses they hadn’t budgeted for must speak up. HB 545 is not a Robin Hood that will “steal from the rich and give to the poor.” The reality is more like the Sheriff of Nottingham appointing more vassals. That’s what’s happening when banks and credit unions throw as much money as they do behind this measure; they seek not only to snatch up the business payday lenders who have been squeezed out of business will leave, but to subject consumers to a product that will be even more profitable for banks: overdraft protection. Opponents make a big thing out of a “monster” 391 percent APR on faxless payday loans, but overdraft protection typically costs in excess of 1,000 percent APR. Which one’s the moneymaker? Keep in mind that payday loans are typically only two-week loans to begin with, so it’s an apple to orange argument. Moreover, voting NO on HB 545 will help prevent a mass exodus of jobs (in excess of 6,000) from leaving the state of Ohio. Odds are that many who lose their jobs due to such government overregulation will leave to work and/or live outside Ohio, which creates a tax and spending power deficit for a state that’s already suffering severe budget problems. Then there will be over 1,600 empty storefronts. How will that look when you’re courting businesses to move to your state, Mr. Strickland? Maybe you should be reading the discussion people are having about HB 545 on the blog at http://ideatreks.wordpress.com/2008/05/01/ohio-house-bill-545/. NO on HB 545 makes sense if you want to fix your state’s economy.
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    Posted by Payday Loan Advocate | October 30, 2008, 7:55 am
  22. Thanks for sharing your useful ideas on this topic!

    Posted by same day payday loans | January 26, 2010, 6:08 am
  23. I agree, I’ll take a pint on occasion, and I don’t mind using my credit card to pay for everyday purchases.

    But I always pay my credit card bill on time, and I never drive after drinking. The only thing I have to worry about is the rare headache, but I can deal with that.

    Posted by Credit Cards | June 17, 2010, 2:40 pm
  24. Credit cards are dangerous.

    Posted by Best Credit Card UK | July 7, 2010, 11:00 am
  25. Your post is very interesting and brings up several points. For one, is it the system under which we live or our own actions that further the vicious cycle of credit card debt? Also, are credit cards really that essential to everyday life, or are we merely convinced of that fact?

    Posted by Credit Card Processing | October 4, 2010, 6:11 am

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