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The Plastic Life: All Outgo, No Income : The first credit card came just in time for Christmas and made college life a blast--for a while.

December 14, 1996|ESTHER RAMIRIOS | Esther Ramirios is a journalism student at USC

For me, going off to college was an opportunity to have fun--drink, come home late, be independent and, somewhere in there, go to class. Four years later, after developing my own expensive lifestyle, I am still in college. But I have moved back home because I could no longer pay my bills.

The credit card offers were everywhere on campus. In the Student Union. In Alumni Park. Even near the library. They were being hawked by really good-looking men and women who tried to persuade you to sign up on the spot for their particular credit card.

At first, I was overwhelmed. It was flattering that everyone wanted me to sign up for their card. Of course, that's a naive way of looking at it but there's a reason for that--I was naive.

Since I had never bought anything that required "easy monthly payments," I had no credit history. Still they wanted me. I had no job and no source of income. Still they wanted me. I had no phone bill to prove my residence, no driver's license. Still they wanted me.

How could I say no to the beautiful brown eyes on the guy who first approached me? He handed me a complicated form and finally, it happened. In one stroke of the pen, I signed my life away.

I remember the chill I felt the day my card came in the mail. No sooner had I called to activate it than I found myself at the mall with my best friend, each of us breaking in our new plastic.

The card came just in time for Christmas. I shopped for my mom, my dad, my brother, my aunts, uncles, cousins--even those thrice-removed cousins I never hear from. I also picked up some new additions to my winter wardrobe.

After all the skirts, toys, shoes, perfumes and makeup, I got my first bill. I had already charged my card to the limit. That was the bad news. The good news was that other credit card companies were sending me preapproved cards. They still wanted me. I was a hot commodity.

How could I resist?

Card after card came in the mail. For the first two years I made "easy monthly payments" on all of them--in the end, a total of nine cards. I now had a job, a steady monthly income, my own phone and a driver's license. All was well, or so I thought.

Then I started using my credit cards for something new--to pay off my USC tuition. A big mistake.

The more I charged, the larger my interest payments. Then the worst thing happened. My cards were canceled. I had charged so much that I was unable to keep up with all of them. With every snip of the scissors, my heart broke into tiny pieces.

After that depressing day, everywhere I went, it seemed I needed a credit card. I couldn't even rent videos across the street because it required a card to open an account.

I finally learned my lesson the day my car stalled in the middle of Santa Barbara. When the tow truck came I tried to pay by check. The driver politely informed me that he didn't take checks, but I could charge it on my credit card. I just about pulled my hair out!

In the end, he didn't accept my check but he did tow me to the nearest auto shop where he dumped me off and waited until my mom drove up from Los Angeles with his money.

I took three part-time jobs and all of my inome went to those pesky bill collectors every month. I have cut back to one job but still try to dodge collectors by always screening my calls. My dad got upset with one of them when she tried to get information about my whereabouts. I had not paid them in three months. The collectors have perfected the art of making you feel guilty.

Living at home provides me a free roof over my head and food in my stomach. But I still remember those fun-filled days of shopping for nine hours straight and coming home with bags full of beautiful things.

Those days may be over for now, but I will enjoy them again. Of course, I'll be paying with cash.

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