My Biggest Financial Lesson

Lizzie O’Leary learns a lesson in debt and confidence

Lizzie O'Leary Mar 25, 2015

The interest rate made my stomach drop: 27.6 percent.

I stared at it, trying to understand how that was even possible. I’d signed something else, hadn’t I? A lower rate, I must have. It was 2000, I was 24, making less than $30,000 a year, and the American Airlines Citibank Card was the first I’d ever had. It was shiny and silver, with the old airline logo at the top. Get miles! Live like other people in New York! Welcome, kid.

Foreshadowing what was to come, I couldn’t remember the credit limit, only what I bought.

A gold, strapless Nicole Miller dress for a glamorous friend’s sister’s wedding. Gold sandals. A filmy wrap for around my shoulders. A Meg Ryan “You’ve Got Mail” haircut. Altogether, it cost maybe $1,000. Outside the careful budget my stepfather helped me draft (and I promptly ignored).

Instead, I got a lesson in debt, confidence and identity that still lives somewhere in that startled gut.

I grew up privileged. Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school in Washington. Williams College in Massachusetts; my family paid for it. Financially, I was spoiled, because I knew next to nothing about money. I didn’t have to. I had the kind of parents who allowed me to focus on academics and curiosity.

Moving to New York, I took a job as a desk assistant at ABC News. I answered phones, arranged newspapers for senior executives and changed into running shoes in the afternoons to sprint script pages up and down the hall to Peter Jennings.

And I was surrounded by wealth I’d never seen before. Women my age who wore Manolo Blahnik shoes. Carried designer handbags. Were whisked past lines into clubs I fantasized about. Feeling desperately uncool, I moved into a pint-size studio apartment in the East Village (again, too much money) from an Upper East Side studio. The remaining squatters next door shouted “Die yuppie scum!” in the mornings.

I was naïve, unhappy and lost. All I wanted was to fit in.

I put things on the card. And more. And more. So full of self-doubt, so unsure of who I was (Could I someday be a reporter? Would that guy from MTV ever call me back? Maybe a leather jacket would help?), that spending became an outlet for my insecurity. Anything to seem less scared, less wrong.

Until the day of 27.6 percent. I’d hit my credit limit. I got the penalty interest rate. I missed payments. And lots of letters with big red type. The debt ballooned to close to $10,000.

I blew up my measly credit score. Citibank, rightly, had no sympathy for a privileged kid who’d gotten herself into trouble. Frankly, I don’t have any now.

I didn’t even have the nobility to work all the debt off. I paid off half of it with savings that I swore I would never touch until I was 30, and the rest by rationing my income over time. And I canceled the card.

It still followed me for years. On my credit reports. Apartment rentals. The loans I took out for grad school.

The experience lingers on in the understanding that “retail therapy,” shopping to make yourself feel better, is a farce. And nobody, certainly nobody I’d want to befriend in my adult life, finds identity through things.

The loneliness that comes with being young and unsure of yourself is actually a great teacher — one that material things can never match.

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