NINE YEARS AGO I SOLD MY HOUSE, bought a van, and cut up my last credit card. I was free.

I hadn’t been the worst credit user, but I was far from the best. Some months I could only pay part of my balance. The periods I was all caught up didn’t last very long. The cards were always whispering, “Yeah, go ahead and buy it. You’ll be able to cover it somehow, like you always have before.” 

To quiet the tempting a little, I got rid of two cards and kept just one. And I buried it in the least accessible part of my wallet. I tried to use only my debit card instead, or the cash in my pocket. That required adjusting my thinking: spend only what I have, not what I’m going to have—or what I think I’m going to have. That was a huge change for me. 

Paying cash meant no instant gratification. But I soon realized instant gratification had left me with a lot of stuff I didn’t use. When not using credit, the urge to have that cool thing often passed by the time I had the cash to buy it. Waiting helped prioritize things.

I’m not made of money

Paying cash meant facing up to the fact I wasn’t as well off as I liked to imagine. That was a blow to my ego.

My father was much better with money. He had to be. There were no such things as credit cards for much of his life. Credit was only for people who could show they had enough money lying around that they didn’t need credit. For everyone else, unexpected expenses had to come out of savings.

So now I’m living like my father did, except without a family to support or a house to pay for. No credit card, paying cash, putting away some meager savings. And it feels good. Not that it’s easy, but it’s easier than trying to pay off a debt that somehow got surprisingly large and keeps growing.

For many of you, paying cash is nothing new. Either you’ve had financial discipline all along, or no one would extend you credit in the first place. I’m in that latter group now—partly because I have no current credit history. It’s a weird world when not using credit is bad for your credit rating.

Oh no! I’m broke!

So, what do I do now when there’s an emergency and I need more than my cash on hand? Well, after the panic subsides, I look for help. There have been a few of times I got a little financial aid from friends. I’ve also used the Homes On Wheels Alliance’s emergency fund twice. Whatever the source, I’ve always paid them back. And, unlike credit cards, they didn’t charge interest. 

You know that part in “Nomadland” where Fern had to get money from her sister? It’s humiliating when we have to do the same. We get pitied or shamed. It makes us feel like failures. But it beats having creditors and the law on your case—and then still needing to beg money to pay them off.

But I realize I’m lucky. Very very lucky. So far, anyway.

For some, a credit card is the only way out of a tight spot, the only way to buy time until they can scrape the money together. Pay it off bit by bit—seemingly forever.

Don’t make a bad financial situation worse

Yes, the economy is a mess right now and no one has enough money. But while using credit might get you out of an immediate situation, it puts you in a bigger hole down the road. Everything costs more when bought on credit.

The current economic situation makes it increasingly difficult for those who are already barely scraping by. But I hope they, you, all of us, can find ways to avoid the credit trap. In the long term, credit makes things worse.