FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #51: “The longer you wait to balance your books the harder it will be to balance them.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 1st, 2011

Compound Interest and ‘Usury’ Rates Keep Credit Card Balances High

You ever get those checks from your credit card companies?  Write yourself a check at 0% interest for 6 months?  And then in the fine print they note that if you don’t repay the money within that 6 month period you will be charged interest from the day you cashed that check at something like 30% APR.  Compounded monthly.  So if you write yourself a $5,000 check and pay it back the day after that 6 month period ends, you’ll find that you’ll have to pay back close to $15,000 for that $5,000 loan.  That’s the miracle of compound interest.  Working against you.

So, in 6 months time, it will be much harder to balance your books than it would have been before you borrowed that money.  This is the worst thing about credit card debt.  High interest charges that are rolled into your outstanding principal.  This makes the outstanding balance grow faster than a lot of people can pay them off.  Car and house payments, on the other hand, have fixed balances and lower interest rates.  We usually can pay those off.

People will say that credit card companies are charging usury interest rates.  They think that we should have laws to force them to lower their interest rates.  If car and house loans can be under 10%, why can credit cards charge interest rates as high as 30%?  Well, in a word, collateral.  If you fail to pay your house or car payments, the bank will take your house or car.  They will then sell them to try and get their money back.  Credit card debt is unsecured.  It’s pretty hard to take back restaurant dinners and hotel stays and sell them to get your money back.  So when people default, the credit card companies get nothing.  So they have to charge higher interest rates to cover these losses.

Living beyond our Means Despite our Parents’ Wise Advice

So using credit cards to make up for a spending deficit is not a good thing.  Granted, there are emergencies where some have no choice.  But a lot of us just seem to spend more than we earn.  Or take bigger debt risks.  We may like the bigger house better than the more affordable one.  We may like a new car better than a good used one.  Of course, those things come with bigger monthly payments.  And we may have no problem paying for these things.  Unless a spouse loses their overtime.  Or their job.  Or the ARM on your mortgage resets to a higher interest rate.  All of a sudden, then, those monthly payments begin to hurt.

But not everyone gets into trouble because of a change in income or interest rates.  For some it just happens.  Gradually.  Money’s good.  You take some vacations.  Eat out a few times.  Buy some nice things for the house.  A home theater.  A nice patio with a twin BBQ and some nice furniture.  Next thing you know you’re living beyond your means.  You notice that your credit card balances are growing larger.  And your monthly payments are growing smaller.  Which in turn makers your balances grow larger.  All of a sudden, you have trouble paying your bills.  And you can’t understand this because you were making such good money.

Parents are often critical of their children’s spending.  Go back some 20-30 years and they were very critical.  Those parents who grew up during the Great Depression and went without during World War II know the value of not buying anything until you saved the money for the purchase.  A lot of kids got tired of hearing this.  “You shouldn’t be spending your money on that.  You should be saving it.”  But a lot of us wouldn’t listen.  Because we wanted things and we didn’t want to wait.  So we bought them. Spent our money.  Ran up our credit cards.  Got ourselves into trouble.  And went back to Mom and Dad for help.  Why?  Because they saved their money.  Lived well within their means.  Were able to retire comfortably.  And can now afford to help bail you out of your troubles.

Rising Immigration and Birth Rates Encourages Entitlement Spending

What’s true for people is true for governments.  Earlier governments knew the value of not spending money they didn’t have.  Thomas Jefferson slashed the federal budget when he became president.  He feared that a perpetual federal debt only empowered a federal government.  If the debt became permanent, then so must the government.  Alexander Hamilton liked debt for that very reason.  Not Jefferson.  Hamilton wanted to create an American Empire to give the British Empire a run for her money.  Jefferson just wanted people to own and farm land.

So in the beginning, and through the middle, Washington operated on a shoestring budget.  Kept its spending manageable.  And it’s debt minimal.  Lincoln exploded spending to pay for the Civil War.  And subsequent presidents did likewise for the two world wars.  But things really started to change in the 20th Century.  First with Wilson’s Progressives.  Then FDR’s New Deal.  Then Johnson’s Great Society.  Federal spending grew at an alarming rate.  Because America came into her own in the later 19th/early 20th century.  We became a rich nation.  A world leader.  And there was a lot of other people’s money to spend.

Thus the era of entitlement spending had begun.  Immigration was swelling the U.S. population.  We were having lots of kids.  All of us were working hard.  And paying our taxes.  America was like that 2-income couple working lots of overtime and buying lots of things.  The good times looked like they would just go on forever.  So America was ‘buying’ Social Security for everyone.  And Medicare.  Medicaid.  And lots of other stuff.  But then a strange thing happened.  Our population stopped growing.  We closed Ellis Island.  Immigration was down.  Birthrates plummeted.  Neighborhood families didn’t have 10 and 12 kids in their houses.  A Baby Bust followed the Baby Boom.  Or, more accurately, a taxpayer bust.  For the aging population was growing at a greater rate than the taxpaying population.  Which meant fewer and fewer people were paying for more and more people collecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid Unfixable?

And this is a problem.  And the problem grows greater with every day that goes by.  Because with every day that goes by, more seniors start collecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.  While fewer new people enter the work force to pay for these programs.  And despite raising taxes and cutting benefits, costs continue to exceed revenue.  So the government takes out its ‘credit card’ to finance this deficit.

Of course, we call these programs ‘third rail’ programs.  That is, if a politician threatens to cut any of these programs they can kiss reelection goodbye.  So they don’t.  They just kick the can down the road.  And the problem grows ever more costly to fix.  Both monetarily.  And politically.  Which makes them just want to keep kicking that can down the road to let someone else worry about them.

But like our credit cards, we keep running up our outstanding debt.  The debt is so high now that the interest on the debt is a major budget item.  We have to fix this problem.  We can’t keep kicking it down the road.  Greece tried.  And look what happened to them.  The European Central Bank (ECB) had to bail them out.  And Greece is still not out of the woods.  Now Greece is a great nation.  A lot of history there.  But it’s not quite as big as the United States.  Being small has its advantages, though.  It’s easier for others to bail you out.  We don’t have that luxury.  There isn’t anyone big enough to bail us out.  Except, perhaps, an old enemy.  Communist China.  Imagine that.  One of the last communist nations in the world having to come to the rescue of the most powerful (and once most capitalistic) nation in the world.  If that ain’t a fine how do you do.

We should have listened to our Founding Fathers.  Because our parents always knew best.  Pity we don’t learn that until after we make a mess of things. 

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