Thursday, August 23, 2012

DHV: Have some credit

When my first marriage broke up, my credit was awful. I had a pre-paid cell phone because even the phone company wouldn’t give me credit. In my defense, I must point out that I was married to a drug addict, but I must also accept responsibility for my own bad decisions – including the decision to remain married to a drug addict for as long as I did.

As soon as we separated, I formulated a plan. I eliminated all excess spending. After alimony, nearly half my take-home pay went to paying down some very old debts. I also worked on cleaning up my credit reports. I won’t go into details here, but I found a lot of useful information at the FICO Forum.  

Three years after the separation, my credit had improved enough that I was able to buy a house. Three years after that, I was able to qualify for an American Express card. That green Amex card is a huge symbol to me, because Amex was the first credit card I ever owned, and the first one to be cancelled for missed payments. Having that card in my wallet reminds me that I am now a responsible adult.

You’ll hear a lot from guys like Dave Ramsey on why it’s important to be debt-free. And I agree with most of it. But being debt-free is not the same thing as not having credit, or not using credit. And sometimes, it’s really important to be able to pull out the credit card and handle a situation.

I was recently in just such a situation. My wife and I attended a family reunion on the other side of the country. It was an area we had never visited, and to maximize our time there we booked the last flight out of the airport the night we were scheduled to return home.

That’s where Murphy’s Law raised its ugly head. Due to mechanical problems, our flight was cancelled. Two hundred people de-planed and headed to the service counter to try to re-book their flights. When it was finally our turn, the very pleasant young man informed us that he could get us two seats on a non-stop flight home at 1:00 PM. It was currently a little after midnight.

“Don’t you have anything leaving earlier?” I really didn’t want to spend the next 13 hours in that airport.

He clicked on his keyboard for a minute. “I have a flight leaving at 9:00 AM. But you have to change planes in Chicago, with a two-hour layover. It arrives at [hometown] 20 minutes later than the non-stop.”

So we take the nonstop. “Can you provide us with a hotel room?” He explained that the airline does keep a block of rooms, but they didn’t have any more available. He gave me a pink slip of paper with an 800 number, and told me that if I called that number they could find me a discounted rate.

My wife, by this point, was getting a little bit nuts. We could see some folks from our flight bedding down in the corner at the next gate. CNN was blaring loudly on an overhead TV screen. I knew it was time to Alpha-up and be the Captain.

“Sit here with the bags,” I told her. “I’m going to go over there where it’s a little quieter, and make a phone call. Don’t panic, I’ve got this.”

I called the number on the card. They told me that they had a few rooms left near this particular airport, at a Marriott. $115 seemed like a good rate, under the circumstances. There was a free shuttle. I wrote down the confirmation number.

I went back to my wife. “Grab your bags, we’re going to the Marriott.” The relief in her eyes was visible.

Instead of a miserable night trying to sleep in an airport, wearing clothes we had been sweating in all day, we got to take hot showers and crawl between clean sheets in a comfortable bed. In the morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast overlooking the bay, while watching the airplanes take off from the runway that jutted out into the water. Then we took the free shuttle back to the airport, and the flight home went off without a hitch.

The “old me” wouldn’t have been able to make this happen. After carefully budgeting the trip down to the penny, I wouldn’t have had the resources to deal with the extra Benjamin for the hotel room, not to mention the extra $50 for breakfast. That little green Amex card in my wallet bought me much more than a comfortable night’s sleep and a pleasant breakfast – it let me be a hero to my wife.

And that is a great thing to be.

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