I’ll never forget my first lesson in personal finance. I was twelve years old. I got a letter in the mail. I was still at the age when getting mail addressed to me was fun. It was one of my first pieces of junk mail, but I had no idea it was junk. I opened it up, and found that a music club was offering me 13 free CDs.
As a kid with with parents who didn’t believe in giving an allowance, I was elated. I had a little bit of money saved from my birthday, but it was enough for maybe two CDs. And even at that young age, I knew CDs weren’t worth blowing all of my savings on.
I ordered music. Lots of music. Music I liked. Music I wanted. Music I knew my parents wouldn’t like. Some music I didn’t even know.
I did it without telling my parents. I knew they wouldn’t let me do it. I didn’t know they would have a good reason why.
I got my box of CDs in the mail a couple of weeks later. I was so excited. My mom asked me where I got the money to order all of that music. I elatedly informed her that this music club gave them all to me for free. She didn’t have a happy look on her face when I went back to my room to unwrap disc after disc, sitting in my room listening to my very own CD collection for hours.
I got to the bottom of the box. I saw a piece of paper and pulled it out, hoping it was my pass to my next batch of free product.
I’m not sure if I knew the word yet. But I had definitely never seen one with my name at the top. I unfolded it and found an itinerary of all the glorious albums I had just listened to. In the price column there were thirteen beautiful zeros. But there was another column. “Shipping and Handling.”
$19.95. That was the number that was written 13 times. My heart stopped. The number at the bottom was $259.35.
I cried. Through my tears I thought about all the future birthdays and Christmases I’d have to donate my money to my misguided mistake. I felt fear as I envisioned the police coming to get me because I clearly couldn’t pay. (At this point I thought debtors’ prison was still a current phenomena.) I felt anger because the company had pulled one over on me. I felt stupid because I had let them.
I had to tell my parents what had happened. It wasn’t pretty. But they did get that I was messing myself up about it more than they would have in the first place. My mother assured me they don’t still send people to jail for owing money. My father assured me I’d be paying them back every penny as it came my way and that the company would hear about this.
Luckily I started babysitting not too long after this, so I was able to actually save some of my Christmas and birthday money for stuff I wanted. It was my first lesson in so many things; debt, gratitude that my parents’ weren’t charging me interest (because they made sure I had a full lesson on how much it would have been otherwise,) how companies make their money on “free” products by charging an arm and a leg for shipping, to always, always read the fine print, and that nothing in this life is truly free.
Looking back I think a lot of my good financial habits probably come from this single experience. It may have also caused some of my neurotic aversions to any type of debt and buyers remorse, but, hey, I’d rather have that than twenty grand plus in debt in my twenties.
So thank you, music club, for screwing me over when I was twelve. You just may have saved my credit report.