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Swiping that plastic can be fantastic

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Kai Ryssdal: Americans are getting an earlier start than ever racking up credit-card bills. A study today from the college financing company Sallie Mae shows last year’s seniors graduated with average balances of more than $4,000 on their credit cards. Commentator Meghan Daum has some experience with that. She says there is lesson there, just not the one you might think.

MEGHAN DAUM: Debt, my father used to say, is the American way of life. He wasn’t condoning this, merely pointing it out with the same austere detachment you heard in that famous line from “The Graduate” — “one word: plastics.” Still, I took my dad literally. By the time I was 25 I’d acquired no less than seven credit cards.

And, granted, in my 20s, I did have some credit-card balances that outlasted even my longest relationships.

But if you’ll forgive my honesty, I’d like to offer up a defense of credit cards. Sure, they can ruin lives, but occasionally they can save them, too. Or at least help out. Don’t try this at home, kids, but in my salad days I used credit cards not just for actual salad at the supermarket but for grad school tuition fees, doctor bills, tax payments, household utilities and — keeping it classy — cash advances for the rent.

OK, not great. But still, thanks to those cards I was able pay my professional dues in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. In other words, even though I did plenty of paid work, I could sometimes take on unpaid work that would lead to bigger things. It wasn’t an ideal strategy, but in lieu of underwriting from my family or the NEA it was the only one I had.

Of course, credit was easier to come by in the 1990s. Good luck to the artist who tries to finance his book research or documentary film with a stack of Visa cards today. As President Obama said last week “excess is out of fashion.” And though he was talking to bank executives, he might as well have been talking to all of us.

But what goes out of style eventually becomes trendy again. And despite the hard lessons we’re now learning about the perils of credit, my guess is that when this crisis is over, be it in five years or around the time of the next ice age, we’ll go back to our debting ways. Why? For one thing, we have short memories in this country. For another, we’re tireless believers in the American way of life — and the plastic that makes it possible.

Ryssdal: Meghan Daum writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.

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