It’s freshman year of college. I’m on another shopping spree — not because I have an endless amount of cash to burn, but because I have credit cards. Name the store, and I likely have their card. I’ll use my Visa card here, Mastercard there, JCPenney card here, Target card there. Pretty soon, I’m in $10,000 worth of debt. But that soon turns into much more when interest accrues and one month of skipped payments leads to many months of skipped payments.
This was the old me, more than 15 years ago when colleges gave out credit card applications outside the dining hall. I’d take them to be polite, not reading the fine print about APRs, and vowing to use them for “emergencies only.” But soon, “emergencies” went from paying for a new car tire to buying a dress I had to have. Everything became an emergency.

How my credit card spending derailed

I’d gone to a private university, paid for by financial aid and student loans. Throughout college, I worked at the school gym, which funded my social life, but didn’t pay for my growing shopping obsession.
I couldn’t ask my single-parent mother or grandmother for financial help — they had no money to spare. Besides, they had warned me to pay my bills immediately. But as each bill grew, and some went into collections, I could no longer pay them immediately, if at all. I wanted to go to grad school right after earning my bachelor’s, and didn’t want to take my credit card debt with me.
I decided to start paying off the cards instead of avoiding them. I took on two more jobs, both waitressing, and sacrificed sleep and socializing. I spent the summer after college living at home and working non-stop. By this time, I’d also stopped using the cards. I was working so much, I had no time to shop anyway.
Just before I started grad school, when all was said and paid, I vowed never to use credit cards again.

The upside to life without credit cards

The years post-credit cards have been a bit challenging, like when I needed someone (my grandmother or mother) to co-sign when I bought a car and leased an apartment. I did, for the record, make the payments alone and on time to rebuild my credit.
These days, the only plastic I use for day-to-day spending is a debit card. In addition, I keep “in case of emergency” money in my PayPal account, which I can transfer to my bank if need be. As for savings, I don’t touch those accounts.
By no longer using credit cards, I’ve learned several things:
1. It’s easier to budget. For me, it’s easier to manage my money when I live a cash- or debit-card-only existence. Since the money is taken from my bank account immediately, I know what I can afford. For instance, if something unexpected comes up — a doctor’s visit — I’ll know it will be subtracted from my bank account right away. Then I’ll reduce my spending in another category, such as that week’s grocery budget, to accommodate.
2. It reduces the urge to impulse shop. Back in the day, I’d walk into Target for a $2 tube of toothpaste and walk out with a $200 cart. These days when I go into Target — or any store — I’m less likely to impulse shop knowing my money will be gone from my wallet immediately.
3. I have to use ATMs strategically. For some people, not using credit makes it easier to excuse withdrawing cash whenever you want. But there’s no better way to curb an ATM habit than seeing a bunch of extra fees on your bank statement. Because I live abroad, I’m charged for both using a machine outside of my bank, as well as foreign transaction fees. To reduce them, I estimate how much money I’ll need for a set period of time in whatever country I’m in, then I make a one-time withdrawal. This requires me to think ahead about planned purchases — and avoid unplanned ones. My debit card also charges a percentage at stores and restaurants abroad, so I’ve found my cash system to be the most cost-effective.
I left the U.S. on short notice for an opportunity abroad, otherwise I would have left with a more ATM-friendly debit card. I’ll soon have one that doesn’t charge fees — so I can continue my credit-less life without looking back.