Friday, August 03, 2012

In Which I Learn What I Am Worth


I bought the computer I'm currently typing this on, in May of 2006. It's a very-first-generation Macbook Pro. I was hoping to get seven years out of it. I'm glad to have gotten nearly that. I bought it when I was in grad school at Miami University of Ohio, and I used a generous school loan to pay for it — the cost got rolled up into my other student loans.

It still works, though it's becoming apparent that I'm going to need to update very soon. The latches that keep the computer closed (a feature they did away with in the next iteration) are bent, making it hard to open. The computer hasn't accepted power from a battery for more than two years; it shuts down a minute or two after the power cord is removed. These are livable problems: the killer is that it's hard to keep more than one or two programs open without the computer becoming almost unbearably slow, and as I make a little bit of money using photo editing software and doing web building, I need a computer that doesn't stall or crash, which it's started doing.

So it's time to buy a new computer. Since we don't have a lot of money saved up, I decided to finance it. I looked at Apple's financing program, but figured I could do better. I went to where we bank — Chase — and saw that they were offering credit cards with much more competitive offers. The application was so easy, and I was so delighted to get immediate approval, that I wrote this funny little piece on Facebook right after (you can skip if you've read it):

Lately whenever I open up my computer, it puts one hand on its knee, and holds up a finger while breathing heavily for a couple minutes. Since it seems the average computer has the life span of a gerbil, and mine's been spinning the ol' internet-wheel for seven (auspicious) years now, it's more or less time to put it out to digital pasture and give one of those glorious newfangled things with the decimal place moved over on all the numbers a shot. 
"But!" says the barely audible voice that maintains mental track of my finances, "you don't, as Chris B. says, got the scrilla." 
"This is America," I say. "We play with other people's money 'round these parts." So I go hunting around for a good zero-apr-for-many-months kind of thing to let me make a major purchase and pay it all off before I accidentally owe somebody something (I LISTEN to that quiet voice. It's just quiet is all. Quiet is a fine way to be sometimes)...
... and I find a good looking card that's all slick because the front's designed by like i.m. pei or something and the words are sideways, but it also has the right numbers in tiny font at the bottom of the screen, and I go ahead and click "apply." Now, it's been a short while since I've applied for a credit card. I was younger then. Banks maintained some level of discernment. I remember having to give hair and blood samples. I know things got easier for a bit, but I heard that crashed the economy, so I was expecting it would be something of a process. Instead it went like this: 
Credit Card Application: Hi There! We'd LOVE to put some of our money in your pocket! Can you answer a few questions?
Me: Sure.
CCA: Do you seem like a nice enough guy?
Me: I do seem like a nice enough guy.
CCA: You live somewhere, right?
Me: In a place, with a child and a wife.
CCA: You work?
Me: Nope. But my child is mighty cute.
CCA: Good enough! Have fun with all the things you are about to have! 
... All right then, America. Tomorrow may be a wall of fire, but tonight we shall dance. 

Ah, how wrong I was. When the card came, it had a credit limit of $300. I actually thought it was a typo. I haven't had a limit so low since I was in high school, if then. But when I looked at the fine print, it mentioned that my credit score was a full 150 points lower than it had been last year. I went online to check my credit scores and found that the agency Chase used had listed one of my other credit cards as closed, when it wasn't. I filed a dispute. Clearly, this was all just a big misunderstanding. I called Chase to explain and see if they could raise my credit to something that would allow me to make an actual purchase.

It was during my phone call with Chase when it began to dawn on me that there weren't any misunderstandings. The first thing the woman on the phone did was ask what my last year's income was. I explained that I'm a homemaker, but my wife — she cut me off. "I just need your income, not your wife's."

"But, well, you see, I'm a stay-at-home dad. So it's our household income that pays all the bills," I said.

"Well, we need to know that you'll be able to cover any bills in the event that.. well..."

"Are you saying that Chase Bank is worried that I won't be married soon?" I asked, astounded.

"We don't like to put it that way, but… yes." I didn't know what to say. The woman put me on hold and must have checked with a supervisor, because she came back and said they'd accept the household income. I was shaken. When my request for a higher credit limit was processed, they raised it from $300 to $500. That's it. There was nothing more they were willing to do. I hung up the phone.

I then went to my old credit card at Bank of America, the one that I thought had mistakenly been listed as closed. This one had a less-decent APR, but it also had a $10,000 line of credit on it. When I spoke to a rep I discovered that it had indeed been closed as of early July. Without notice. In fact, the website still showed it as open. This was a credit card that I'd had for at least ten years. So when they closed it, it just killed my credit score. It turned out that low score Chase was looking at was accurate. In desperation, I went to Apple's website and applied for their financing.

I was, of course, denied.

In all three of these instances of applying for credit, I had to tell the representative my occupation. In the little drop-down menu box of options, the technical term for what I do, apparently, is "homemaker." Saying this on the phone was always followed by a moment of awkward silence. It's clear this doesn't make credit card companies feel very secure about my ability to pay my debts, despite the fact that I am exceedingly good about paying on time, often above the minimum due, and have been for years. Until a year ago I enjoyed excellent credit. In fact BOA closed my account without stating a reason (the representative said it was listed as "at the bank's discretion"). If I had to guess, it was because I didn't use it enough. The last month that I carried a balance on it was April.

Part of what is hard about this, for me, is that it represents a very literal, if not a very figurative estimation of my current worth. As a "homemaker," I can see that I have lost exactly $9,500 in hard-currency worth. This was worth I started building when I was a non-profit manager, and continued to enjoy while I was a graduate student and a Fulbright scholar. I no longer have access to it.

Now, there are several things I should be clear about: I realize that no one denied me credit because I am a homemaker. If anything, it was because I refused to be in debt often enough. And whether the banks know it, I know that none of this has anything to do with my ability to make regular payments. This is temporary. Karen has put a card in my name, and I will use it regularly to make small purchases, pay them off, and will rebuild my credit rating as a homemaker.  But right now, being technically jobless makes it much harder for me to get a line of credit on my own. I'm confident that $300 is far below what an employed person with even with my current credit rating would have been offered. Which is an incredibly frustrating side effect of being a stay-at-home dad. More frustrating even, than potty training.

1 comment:

Nita said...

Great post in which I am infuriated by your situation.