Dave Ramsey frequently refers to credit cards as the “financial cigarette”. I couldn’t agree more, and I don’t think even he realizes how poignant that comparison is. The more I look into this analogy, the more parallels I find between the two. As a former smoker (for 6 years) and a current (responsible and very hypocritical) credit card user, I feel qualified to break them down. Here are my top 5 parallels between cigarettes and credit cards.
1. They look cool
In movies and popular culture at one point you couldn’t be considered the “cool” guy unless you were a smoker. James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood, hell even doctors and athletes all smoked. It was part status symbol, part badge of badassery. Now it seems that those same types of badasses and starlets are pushing the new product. Now it’s hard to look anywhere without seeing an ad for a credit card, and even harder to find an actual friend of yours who lives life without one! Aren’t you worried about your credit score? Don’t you want to rent an apartment? Buy a car? Get a mortgage? You can’t even rent a car without one! All common arguments for this present day “necessity”… and not one of them are true.
2. At first they’re harmless
I’ll get some pushback from this. I know we’ve all heard that each cigarette costs “x” amount of minutes off of your life per cigarette etc., but we all know that that isn’t factually true. No one gets cancer from the first cigarette they ever smoked. Hell, I’m not convinced that if you only smoked one cigarette per day for your entire life that you’d ever even get sick. At first they’re harmless. You do it to fit in. You do it because it looks cool. You do it because everybody else is doing it. Before you know it you’re doing it alone, and you’re just doing it. You’ve lost sight of the reasons that drew you toward it and it’s just a part of you. You don’t do it for any particular reason beside just the fact that you do it. And it’s easier to keep doing it than it is to quit. Just like cigarettes at first when you start to use a credit card it just feels good. You can do whatever you want and just make payments on it! All of the sudden everything is affordable. You can go out to dinner all you want. You can buy whatever clothes you want and just put it on plastic. It’s painless to just swipe a card and as long as you can make your minimums, what’s the harm…right? Before you know it you’ve built a budget around paying your minimums and maybe you go and open another card. This time the limit is even bigger! Isn’t that awesome? You’ve proven you borrow money and pay your bill on time (with interest) so the good people at the credit card company, out of the kindness of their hearts, have seen fit to Trust you with even more of their money! How nice of them! It doesn’t take long after that point until you’ve run up multiple cards, hit the limits, maxed out your budgets to minimums, and you’re hit with an emergency. All at once, your whole stack of cards is coming down.
3. They both cause cancer
I see a lot of commonality between cancer and debt. We’ve all seen cancer and debt firsthand, so it’s easy for us all to draw on personal experience. I’ve watched people struggle with both. Both of them can lie dormant in someone’s life for years. You hum along none the wiser to what’s really going on underneath the surface and all at once, out of nowhere…you’re blindsided. It seems like the news comes out of nowhere when in reality, in both cases they have often slowly been eating away from the inside out for months, even years, undetected… until it’s too late.
4. Smoking totally permeated the culture before it turned negative
Smoking isn’t nearly as prevalent as it was even 10-15 years ago. As the general population becomes more and more educated and knowledgeable of the risks, cigarettes are slowly being phased out of every day life. They’re no longer in restaurants, movie theaters, office buildings, bars, it’s really hard to find any place aside from walking around outside where smoking is even acceptable. Often smokers are even ostracized beyond simply forcing them out of all public institutions. Smoking has slowly settled into being very much more prevalent in low income and destitute situations.
Gone are the days where a doctor would look down at you over the end of his Marlboro Red and tell you that you should really switch to slims while you’re pregnant.
That being said, we mustn’t forget that there was a point where smoking was so acceptable and widespread that that was a real possibility. And it wasn’t seen as insane or pure silliness. Now consider the fact that credit cards can cause just as much damage to your financial wellness as cigarettes can to your physical wellness. Credit cards make you feel “ok” with debt. They start the process of desensitizing you to paying interest, borrowing money. They may even make you ok with welshing on a debt by making late payments. The scariest part of this whole analogy is that while smoking is estimated to have peaked at around 42% of US adults being regular smokers, the latest statistics show that well over 70% of US adults have at least one credit card.
5. It can be almost impossible to quit
We all know cigarettes are addictive, and dangerous. It’s common knowledge. But so are credit cards, maybe even more so. Believe it or not, being able to buy whatever you want whenever you want it, on someone else’s dime…feels really Really good at the time. There aren’t many things in the world more addictive than that. The difference is there are a million voices screaming at you (with an unlimited advertising budget) to use credit cards, and there are precious few voices out there attempting to get you to quit borrowing. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that debt consolidators, people selling you HELOCs, or any “debt relief” agency has your true best interest at heart, or is going to truly fix your problem. Your debt is a symptom of living irresponsibly, and beyond your means. The credit card is the most effective tool available to quickly reach that horrible goal. Don’t fall for it. Don’t buy what they’re selling you.
So how do I quit?
It’s not easy, and I could spend page after page and thousands of words trying to explain a thousand different ways to skin this metaphorical cat, but there’s already a system in place that actually works. It’s the only system I know of in my personal experience with a 100% success rate for people who actually work the system faithfully. It was created by a guy much smarter than me and it’s been working for people all over the world for about 30 years. It’s Dave Ramsey’s baby steps program, and I can’t suggest it strongly enough. It’s the simplest possible answer to the problem, and it’s what my wife and I personally used.
Do you have your own debt story? Have your own concerns or stories about credit cards? Share in the comments below!