While plastic is used in thousands of products that add comfort, convenience and even safety to our lives, we have become addicted to single-use or disposable plastic —which has detrimental consequences to our environment. Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, and up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. And worse, nearly half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once — and then thrown away.
But there exists an even bigger problem with a different kind of plastic exposure, already proven to be hazardous to our wealth. I’m talking about the kind of plastic we carry in our wallets.
Most people begin their relationship with plastic on what I call terms of convenience. They have enough money in the bank to pay for groceries or gas, but it is just so much more convenient to swipe a card. And the monthly statement offers such a tidy record of transactions. It is so convenient.
Then comes the time when the bank balance is a bit low and the perfect shoes are on sale. Can’t pay the entire balance when the statement comes? Not to worry! Because of the minimum payment option, you can pay a small amount and buy yourself another 30 days. Such convenience.
A pattern of revolving balances and growing debt begins. All for the sake of convenience. Instant gratification. Painless accumulation.
Convenience quickly leads to mindless or “coma” spending. There’s no conscious thought of the real cost. Coma spending allows you to think that a $200 purchase is a $20-a-month payment starting next month. But right now you can take your purchase home for no cost.
Take gasoline, for example. If you used your ATM or credit card, you probably don’t have a clue how much you paid per gallon. As long as you have the security of plastic at your disposal, nothing else seems to matter.
The actual cost of plastic dependence when added up over a year’s time is staggering. There are annual fees, late fees and over-limit fees. But the mind-blowing “fee” is the interest cardholders pay for the convenience of buying now and paying later. Though statistics vary greatly. A conservative approach says the average American family with credit cards carries about $16,000 in unsecured debt, on which they pay more than $2,000 in interest each year.
There’s only one way to discover if you have become inappropriately dependent on plastic: Live without it. Here is my challenge: For the next 30 days, no debit-card purchases. No credit-, store- or gasoline-card purchases. None. Nada. Zilch.
For one entire month, it’s cash only. If you don’t have cash on hand or in your checking account to buy something, don’t buy it. If you must purchase something by mail, send a check. If you need to rent a car or secure a hotel room, arrange in advance to put up a cash deposit.
If, at the end of the 30 days, you find that you have become plastic dependent and want to break that dependence, I have a suggestion: Put all of your plastic in a sealed envelope, and put it far away in a safe place.
The bottom line is this: If you want to take back control of your finances, you must make spending as difficult and uncomfortable as possible.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at EverydayCheapskate.com, “Ask Mary.” This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheap
skate.com, a lifestyle blog, and the author of the book “Debt-Proof Living.”