What's in your wallet?Since I returned home after a fantastic (and fantastically expensive) summer of theater studies in San Francisco, only to find that my old Chevy Metro was dying and needed to be replaced, I’ve been running a balance on my credit card—a used-car-sized whopper of a balance—and I hate that!

My conservative Protestant parents (my father a Certified Public Accountant) raised me to avoid debt at all costs, and for the most part, that lesson has served me well. Yes, this may be why I so actively avoid signing onto a mortgage or even a lease (which is, after all, a form of debt: a lease is a financial obligation, a set amount of money one has to pay), why, at 35, I’m just starting to consider applying to graduate school (Student loans? Aaargh!), and why the 10-year-old VW Golf I’ve just bought is the most luxurious car I’ve ever owned.

On the other hand, in an age when thousands of people have mortgaged “the most house they can afford” and carried enormous balances on their credit cards, only to find themselves forced into bankruptcy when the economy nosedived and took their jobs with it, I have lived with very little financial worry and very few interest payments—especially for a woman who hasn’t held a “permanent” job for over five years. I have no student loans, no car payments, no mortgage, no rent to pay (and when I do pay rent, it’s a short-term arrangement that I can change if my finances change), and until recently, I’ve had no credit card balances to keep up with. My finances were in the moment, conscious, flexible, and easy to keep track of.

I want to live like that again as soon as possible. I’ve been looking for creative ways to pay off my balance fast, and with as little interest paid as possible. This credit card already has a 9% interest rate, so transferring the balance to another card would only help if the new card offered a heck of a deal—and I last week, I found one that did. The offer was a 3% charge for balance transfers, and 0% interest on that balance for up to 10 months. The math worked out: I knew it would take me more than four months to pay off my balance, so the one-time 3% transfer fee would be less than I’d pay if I left the balance on my old card at 9% per year. I decided to apply for the new card. What did I have to lose?

$12,000 in credit and some of my pride, as it turned out. I filled out the new credit card application online, explaining my financial and work situation: Employer: Self. Years Employed There: Five. Annual Income: (a number far less than a person with rent, mortgage, student loan, or car payments could live on, but a comfortable number for me, thank you very much). Then I hit the “Send” button and waited. “Ah, well,” I thought. “If it doesn’t go through or doesn’t get approved, I’m no worse off. It’s an experiment. I’ll see what happens.”

The next morning, I found a message on my phone from an organization called Credit Card Services, calling on behalf of the bank to ask a few questions about my application. When I called back, a perky-voiced representative asked questions I’d already answered online. “Where do you work?”

“I’m self-employed,” I said.

“In what industry?”

“I’m a freelance copyeditor and writer.” It seemed simpler to stick to the most businesslike of my businesses, rather than trying to explain how I also make a good chunk of my living pretending to murder people at dinner parties, playing tag while dressed as Batgirl, and feeding other people’s cats.

“Do you have any regular clients?”

I thought about what, exactly, she might mean by that. “I have several clients who come back to me again and again, but I work with everyone on a project-by-project basis.”

“Oh.” She paused for a bit, and then: “You know that legally, you don’t have to declare alimony, social security, or child support payments if you don’t want them to be considered in your ability to pay, but you can declare them if you’d like. Are there any other sources of income you’d like to declare?”

“Nope. What I put on the application is all.” It was now clear to me that I wasn’t getting the new card or the balance transfer deal. I was eager to get off the phone and back to my latest proofreading project.

“You’re sure? There’s nothing else?”

“Nothing else.” I wondered if that email had come in with the sound file I wanted to start transcribing …

“Well,” said the rep, now working to sound cheerful. “I’m afraid, with your income and situation, I won’t be able to approve the new card for you.”

“I understand,” I said politely.

“And I see that you have another card we manage.” She mentioned a card I’d kept for years as an emergency backup plan. Since I’d had a running balance on my favorite card, I’d been using that one for purchases where cards were more convenient than cash, so I zip through gas stations and such, but still pay it off monthly, without adding interest to my other balance. I hadn’t known Credit Card Services managed that bank’s cards, too. “That card has a limit of $12,000. Because of your situation, we’re going to take that down to $500.”

I felt like I’d been slapped. “I’ve had that card for over ten years, and I’ve been in this ‘situation’ for five.”

“Yes,” said the now fully artificially perky rep, “and I’m not saying you’re going to, but you could run up the balance to $12,000, and we’re not sure about your ability to pay. And you have just started using that card for the first time in a long while …”

“Yes,” I sighed. “Last month I put $65 on it: two tanks of gas.”

“So, you see …”

“Ah, yes, I understand.” I thought quickly: What is the point of a card with a $500 balance? This card doesn’t offer reward points or any perks. $500 is not an emergency backup plan. Emergencies, in my book, are massive car repairs, dental work, major medical catastrophes … Anything $500 or under is nothing I can’t handle in cash. Besides, I had two other cards … “Just cancel the card.”

“It’s just a routine … wait, what?”

“Cancel that card. Can you do that for me here, or should I call someone else?”

“Well, yes, I can, but you still can charge $500.”

“I know,” I said, artificially cheerful myself. I didn’t want the poor rep to feel bad about doing her job, and she sounded defensive now. “I just don’t need that card. I have an automatic payment set to pay off the balance on Monday. Can I cancel the card now?”

“I can put in a cancellation order now, and it will go through when the outstanding balance is paid. You really want me to do that?”

“Yes, please.” She asked if there was anything else she could help me with, wished me a nice day, and hung up.

I felt pale, shocked, like I did right after I got my navel pierced. Had I just lost $11,500 for asking a question, just for admitting to the reality of my jobless financial life? And another $500 for a split-second, pouty reaction?

No, I hadn’t, on closer examination. I had lost $12,000 in credit, meaning $12,000 in potential debt. To put it in perspective, I checked the remaining available credit on the two cards I still had—the Mastercard with my car balance on it, and the Visa connected to my checking account. (Any overdrafts just go on the Visa, but it is still an actual credit card that I am free to use anywhere.) The remaining credit on my Mastercard plus the full limit of my unused Visa came to just over $20,000! Even at times when I am paying rent, that’s enough for me to live on for one year. It’s enough to buy my current car five times. It’s enough to start any small business I’ve thought about. It’s more debt than I’d ever want except in the form of a mortgage, student loan, or small business loan. It’s enough to pay for any emergency I can imagine except for major medical or dental catastrophes—and those would offer payment plans of their own. $20,000 is more than enough of a credit-card safety net.

Yes, I felt insulted to have my imaginary money taken away, but Credit Card Services was right. I had, and probably still have, more credit available than I need. Most of us (those who haven’t hit financial catastrophes, who still have credit cards) have more credit available than we need or could easily handle. I’d found the thought of all that imaginary money comforting, but on closer thought, it’s terrifying: Imagine being $32,000 in debt on credit cards alone! Imagine years of interest payments at the usual credit card rates—18% or more. Imagine working just to pay the minimums on a slew of credit cards …

My new reality is more comforting. I can handle emergencies. I’ll have to pay off my car purchase slowly, at 9% interest, but that’s not so bad. I love my little ten-year-old car, and my life is running smoothly. Even if Credit Card Services finds my lifestyle frighteningly odd, I like it, I can afford it, and I’ll be just fine.