Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Citi, you are now my #1 Enemy

It's no secret that I'm not the epitome of wealth and success* right now. There are reasons (not excuses) for this, among them a misguided choice of a college major, an expensive degree that I'll be paying off well into my thirties, an early divorce and followed by another breakup that left me...stumbling...for a while, putting a little too much time into volunteering for a nonprofit, coming out of the closet a little late (and jarringly), taking care of my mental/emotional stability first instead of focusing on my career situation, being unable to find the right long-term living situation and moving a lot during my time in Seattle, and having a noticeable lack of safety nets and cheat codes. Do I have regrets about any of this? Sure, some, I guess. That's what I'm supposed to say, right? But I also realize I did the best that could with what I was given, considering my background and all the circumstances leading up to my current situation. Now thirty is right around the corner, I'm childless, still renting, and most frustrating of all, I'm still "tied to the system" with all my debts.

And that's what I want to talk about here: debts, and banks. In the last year or so, I've finally had some breathing room to start thinking about how to turn my financial situation around. It's a challenge to begin with, since I don't inherently value money and grandiose displays of wealth. But I do want to get rid of my debts, to distance myself from the corporate gluttony of banks, to get myself back in school, and to find a career that is more suited to passions.

I'm starting off with simple things. I had been banking with WaMu-turned-Chase until earlier this year. It's stupid that I didn't switch to a credit union earlier, but I was mostly lazy, since my account was still free. Chase itself lit the fire under my ass when they decided to start charging fees for essentially not being rich enough for a free checking account. Goodbye Chase, hello Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union.

I'm glad that the country is waking up and realizing, despite whatever good the banks may have created for us historically, the greed and sliminess at the root of the current system. Of course, when it comes to both easing up one's budget and screwing the banks, the real culprits are loans and credit cards, not personal checking accounts. The truth is, Chase (14% interest) and Citi (23% interest) are still reaping in a small fortune through my two credit cards, and Bank of America is making a nice chunk of change through the interest on my car loan. The student loans that I have left seem endless, true, but at least their rates aren't quite as bad.

I'm not proposing a Fight Club-style take-down of the banks and credit card institutions. I've seen a lot of talk going around about simply obliterating these debts, but I know that's taking it too far. This is my problem, even if I've used those two credit cards out of desperation for food and health expenses and sometimes to pay another bill. What I do have a problem with is the percentage of money they're making off me every month.

A decade ago, following the typical middle America advice about building credit history, I got my first credit card -- a Citi Mastercard. I didn't use it much at the university. I might put my books on it, just for the sake of using the card, then pay it all off in the next month or two. That was how it went. I think it was my junior or senior year when I got a Chase Visa card, which gave me piddly reward points (I'm embarrassed I actually thought that gimmick was worth it). When I entered the real world and moved to Seattle in 2005, that was when I started consistently carrying a balance, which slowly grew into the thousands over the course of the above-mentioned life trials.

And despite those trials, I never let my debts get out of control. I guess if there's one thing I can be proud about, it's that I never paid a bill late. That's my one pathetic victory. When it came to loans and credit cards, I wasn't paying as much as I would have preferred, but even at my worst, as I got sucked down into the depression of a life turned upside down, I still scraped together what I needed each month to survive. And thank goodness, because it means that I still have a not-too-shabby credit score in the 700s. I think a lot of the credit score game is bullshit, but I'll save that rant for another time. The point is, I've kept my head above water for the last six years and have the credit history to prove it.

That doesn't matter to Citi, though. Their rates have continued to skyrocket for no good reason, and at my current rate of 23%, I feel like I'm being robbed every month. So much for customer loyalty, eh? I don't use this card at all anymore; I just try to pay it off. On a lucky month I might have $150-$200 to put toward that balance, but then I get charged a hundred in interest. I just want to cry the months I can only afford the minimum payment. So if there's one bank who's really on my shit list right now, it's Citi. That's the debt I need to focus all my energy on, and hopefully even transfer to a different line of credit whose rates aren't so atrocious.

* Success as defined in the typical American Dream sense of the word. [Straight-]married with kids, white picket fence, a 9-to-5 job with spectacular benefits, and lots of expensive toys to show off said success.

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