Tuesday, July 09, 2013
I left it too late to get a credit card. I missed out on the golden age of free money. My first memory of a credit card is when one of Paul's wives on Neighbours got into trouble and he cut up her card for her, thereby solving all her money worries. I think they got a puppy the next week.
I spent the first half of my twenties definitely not having a credit card. Then along came Amazon and it seemed vital to have one in order to be able to get Digital Versatile Discs. The problem was that I had left it too late. Everyone else had got a credit card years ago, if not four of them. My lack of existing debt actually made me a problem for a bank - if I hadn't got one by the age of 24 there must be something wrong with me.
Eventually I persuaded a bank and it was joyous (how I remember the X-Files season 1 turning up like an alien artefact, a bargain at only $150). Nervous of my card, I paid off the balance every month in full, until, of course, that skiing holiday which, in many ways, I feel I'm still paying for (you've never lived till you've eaten 20 euros worth of tepid spagbol on top of a mountain).
After that my credit card became a companion. Now, don't worry, this isn't going to be a terrible story of debt and bankruptcy. I'm just saying that it was chic. The early 2000s was the era when people you'd never heard of would send you credit cards through the post. GET SOME MORE DEBT, the post would scream. The sign of a good holiday was telling friends "We spent so much I had to ring up the bank for more!". And we'd laugh. Because there was something fun, absurd about owing a couple of months' salary. Which, of course, you'd pay off. At some point in the never never. A sign of how successful you were was how much thrilling debt you had.
Even credit card fraud was glamorous. I still remember giggling with someone at the bank after my card had had a wild weekend without me in Monaco. Some day, I decided, I too would like to blow two grand on casinos and lingerie. We all laughed at all this money, money owed by someone to someone. But the good news was that it wasn't us. Or at least, not today.
It all seems so long ago. The bank no longer rings you up after your card's been fiddled with. Now they stop the card the moment they detect you trying to do anything unusual. In the last two months I've tried to book a couple of cheap flights and a theatre ticket deal. In 2005, this would have been the credit card equivalent of a tin of value beans and a panda cola. Hardly lingerie and roulette. But in 2013, alarm bells went off both times.
Banks are no longer Bertie Wooster - they're one of his more Presbyterian Aunts. They're more cautious. Or maybe their fraud systems are better. The nice lady at first direct (sometimes I wonder if, when nice people die, they go to work for first direct) did say something curious about it all; "I'm sorry this has happened. But I'm afraid it's not the bank. It's a problem with society."
She said it in the jolly tones of your favourite teacher shortly before a lesson on making shortbread and the deaths of the saints. But the phrase stuck with me. Even first direct has a training manual. A nice one. And I wondered how often over the last few years we've heard a variation on the phrase: "It's not the bank. It's a problem with society."