6.11.2017

How to use a credit card: Part 3.

In the last post I went through the basics of credit. It was in no way comprehensive but I tried to touch on the things someone most needs to know in order to manage their credit score and understand how it's created and maintained. In this post, I'll get to the point of all this: how to use a credit card.

Let's start with three popular reasons someone might obtain a credit card.

1. To ease the cost of day-to-day living. This is, in my opinion, the most common reason people apply for cards. And with our mediocre dedication to the financial education of youth, it's also how we think of credit cards when we're just starting out on our own: supplementing the cash we have (or, in the case of many students, don't have). If it's true that fully half of Americans could not come up with $400 in an emergency, then it's easy to see the void credit fills when there's so much uncertainty piled on top of bills, childcare expenses, student loans, groceries, transportation, and the tiny bit you might set aside to do something nice, just to to feel human.

2. To build good credit. This is popular too, and has become more so over the last decade as sites like CreditKarma allow people to see an approximation of their credit scores and track how their decisions affect them for good or ill. Read reviews of secured cards on any website and you'll hear the same story over and over: "I needed to rebuild my credit after bankruptcy/a divorce/an expensive hospital stay/defaulting on my student loans," etc. etc. etc. etc. Because credit card companies report to the credit bureaus each month, it is an incredible opportunity to increase your credit score as time goes on. When factors like number of open accounts, credit utilization, payment history, and average age of accounts are so important, even using just one card responsibly can really have an amazing impact.

3. To reap rewards. You may have seen articles every now and then about how one crazy guy has 98 credit cards and uses them to fly all over the world and stay in luxury hotels, all for free. I hate those articles. But they illustrate the fact that you can make rewards credit cards work for you. You don't have to be nuts, or have half a dozen of them. If you enjoy analyzing the impact of your spending on miles or points accrual, and especially if you enjoy planning vacations and compiling information to get the best rates, then rewards cards are a no-brainer. But it's not just about travel - cash back cards can be pretty great too, especially if you have better-than-average credit.

Credit cards are also useful when renting cars and booking hotel rooms, as the use of a debit card usually requires several extra steps like employment and housing verification. Rental car companies in particular will put a hold on the card for a certain amount (in the low hundreds of dollars) while you rent, and it's hard to have a good vacation if your debit card is missing a chunk of change.

6.04.2017

How to use a credit card: Part 2.

In my previous post, I tried to spell out the basics of credit cards by hitting the most salient points I wished I had known before I ever signed up for one. Credit can be a minefield if you are unprepared, but there is good news: you can play the game well, and maybe even win sometimes. Read on to find out how.

What is a credit score?

Your credit score is a single three-digit number which tells lenders how creditworthy you are; or, simply, how likely you are to repay the debt. Scores range from 300 to 850. Within this range are categories, as follows:

  • below 600 - bad credit
  • 600-649 - poor credit
  • 650-699 - fair credit
  • 700-749 - good credit
  • 750+ - excellent credit

Personally I think the words used to describe each category ("poor," "fair," "good") are finely tuned to keep the average person from feeling too good about their score. Just a personal nitpick I have. Also, be aware that there are slightly different credit scales depending on the credit bureau.

Creditors will extend credit with certain terms based on your score. The better the score, obviously the better the terms.

Get to know your credit score.

Your credit score takes into account six main factors:

1. Credit Utilization Ratio: this is the percentage of credit you are using of the entire amount available to you. It only applies to revolving credit, not installment loans (like school, personal, or mortgage loans), so essentially, it applies to your credit cards.

2. Payment History: quite simply, have you paid all your debts on time? Even one missed payment can really drag your score down, because this is in some ways the most important factor to a lender - will they pay me back or not?

3. Derogatory Marks: this is the serious stuff like collections, foreclosures, defaults, and bankruptcies.

5.14.2017

How to use a credit card: Part 1.

When I was in college all dorm rooms had landlines, which meant credit card companies would call us constantly, trying to sign us up for an account. Pretty shady, and addressed during our little economic meltdown later that decade. Unfortunately the lure of being able to spend more than c. fifty dollars a month was too great, and I gave in spring of freshman year to Citibank. Later that year, I also sold my soul to Discover.

As you can imagine, I was an idiot with both cards, which is a whole other story I'm too ashamed to tell, and it was a mighty struggle to become debt-free, after which I swore off debt for several years. Along the way, I learned a lot about the good, bad and ugly of credit and credit scoring. Today I have one credit card with a nice credit limit and I spend all my time obsessively not using it.

You can be like me. In fact, I want you to be. So now, for Part 1 of this series, I will launch into everything I wish I had known when Citi and Discover were unethically cold-calling me back in the day.

It's not free money. Period.

Credit cards are not the answer to your prayers. They are not for funding things you cannot afford. They are not for spontaneous splurges. They are not for paying other debts. They are not for when you feel like you want to "be bad." Credit cards are not fun. Credit cards do not make life easier. Credit cards do not give you freedom.

Now that that's been established.

The concept of credit is simple: borrow a sum of money to be paid back in installments over a period of time. It can be helpful in a number of situations, a few of which I'll enumerate at the end. But at no time in human history has credit ever been the same as a gift. If you open a credit card for the purposes of repaying it in installments, you will end up paying more than you borrowed. End of story.

Everyone knows that you have to pay back what you spend with a credit card, but a lot of people don't know how it works. When I got my first credit card I didn't know how to interpret the statement I received, so it was a few months before I understood that I was being charged money on top of what I had actually spent. This wasn't a problem for a long while - I was responsible enough, and they gently increased my credit limit as time went on so I was never in a bind...until I did start approaching that credit limit.

I would call (yes, call) the customer service number to hear my balance. Good enough, I'd think. I'd call back a few days later, having paid my bill but not used the card - yet suddenly I had fifteen or twenty available dollars less than what I thought I should.

5.13.2017

Snapshot.

What I'm Reading: Snapping by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman
What I'm Watching: finally doing the last season of Mad Men
What I'm Listening To: greatest hits of the 80s!
Mood: cautiously optimistic
Smells: ...normal air?
Sounds: the ceiling fan and spring birds
Temperature: 70s
Thoughts: we never fear the past

4.09.2017

How to write an IMDB review.

I admit it, I can be a little obsessed with reading reviews. Be they books on Amazon, albums on iTunes, movies on IMDB, tech reviews, furniture reviews, you name it, I'm reading all 146 reviews of it. In this way do I know the pattern that the average person tends to follow when writing what they assume is their totally unique perspective on a product. So herewith! How to write the most cliched of all things - the IMDB movie review.

1) Choose either a 1/10 or a 10/10 rating. No reason to waste any brain cells attaching the subtlety of a 4/10 or 7/10 to a movie based on an even basic list of pros and cons that you carefully weighed before logging in to the app/website. Either you hated it or you loved it. All or nothing. No shades of gray. Who has time for nuance in modern society anyway.

2) Make a bold statement. And by this I mean, if the movie isn't a part of your current favorite comic book universe, doesn't cater to your spoon-fed ideologies, or challenges you in any way, go ahead and boldly claim with absolute authority that it is in fact 'the worst movie ever made.' It doesn't matter that, technically, only one movie can hold that title (and we all know what that movie is); or that you've probably said that about fifteen different movies; or that making sweeping absolute statements on the subjective quality of an art form could be construed as lazy thinking at best in some circles. Go ahead! Declare it!

3) Critique the editing, screenwriting, special effects, etc. The cool thing about the internet is you can just say anything. You don't have to have any prior knowledge or experience in any field; you still can make definitive statements with comforting certainty. So if you loved a movie, make sure to point out that the technical aspects of it are award-winning; if you hated it (again, there's no in-between), it's important that people know that the movie failed technically in every way. This is especially true for CGI, as it's usually "terrible." Don't worry, you don't need to provide any evidence or comparison to back up your statement. People spend years, even decades honing their craft to bring the impossible to the big screen, but you know that they're really the worst at their jobs.

4) Point out exposition. Exposition can simply be defined as "the act of explaining something." So you'll have one more weapon in your arsenal when cogently critiquing a movie if you can point out the abuse of exposition. Does a character tell someone her age? Too much exposition! We should be able to tell by her actions and behaviors her exact age of 33. Does a character quickly toss off the fact that the main character's son died? Abuse! The script should waste time showing us in vignettes instead of advancing the narrative. Remember, if any character at any time gives any information at all - you can ding the movie for providing "too much exposition."

5) Point out deus ex machina. This of course means "god in the machine" and refers to ancient Greek plays in which a god character would be lowered onto the stage to save another character from a hopeless situation. Basically it's cheating. What it isn't, is the series of on-screen events woven into the plot that lead to a climax, payoff, or narrative shift. But who cares? The point is to pile up the movie's transgressions, not be honest.

6) Make outsized comparisons. Everyone knows that your five-year-old nephew could write a better script than the seasoned writer who was paid $1 million by a studio whose job it is to make money. Though completely impossible, it is fortunately now a 100% acceptable way of getting your point across. Use it! Besides, how could The Godfather win an Oscar when I had more fun watching stick figures on three sheets of paper scroll across an open shoebox??

7) Bring home the fight against gender and racial equality. Guys. Literally. Guys. We all know there are just things women and minorities can't do, like be the best in a difficult field or own their own wealth. It's all of our job to make sure the average person understands this. Besides, how detrimental would it be to show marginalized or underprivileged people positive representations of themselves and give them the idea that anything could change? Nonsense. Put a stop to it. Using IMDB.

***

I realize this is more of a 'how to shit on a movie you don't like' tutorial, but then, that's what so many IMDBers do best. It keeps things interesting, I guess (I may have misspelled "infuriating") and besides, it takes much more effort to defend a movie you did like, and using those brain cells for good is half the battle.

Happy reviewing!


1.08.2017

American Horror Story: Freak Show

After a three-year hiatus from watching American Horror Story, I finally really needed something to binge during the 2016 holidays so I picked up where I left off and began watching Freak Show, devoted to the lives, loves, and deaths of the performers in Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities and set in Jupiter, Florida in 1952. I actually had no idea it had been so long since I finished Coven, but my hesitation about the fourth season's premise is what kept me from catching up much sooner. For me, it ended up not being a waste of time - the show's high production values, at least, were instantly familiar and comforting - but ultimately Freak Show suffers from a variety of ills that I will, of course, now detail. (As this is a season retrospective, there will be spoilers)

I'll start with what I liked. The biggest pleasant surprise for me was Sarah Paulson. I'll be honest and say normally I can't stand anything else she does on AHS but she acted her ass off as conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler, and when the writing didn't fail her the twins were the best part about Freak Show. She was truly believably conflicted and cautious as Dot, and simultaneously eager and naive as Bette. I thought the somewhat Hitchcockian angles used when presenting only one twin head or the other worked consistently, and co-producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk - the whole team, really - made genuine and sympathetic what could have been the most banally-conceived freaks in the camp.

Frances Conroy continues to be a national treasure; she was dry and knowing as the ghostly maid in Murder House, absolutely divine as fashion-loving Myrtle in Coven, and here as Gloria Mott she is perfectly polite, doting, and deeply conflicted as the mother of the season's most ambitious character. More about them later.

The best episodes of the season for me were "Edward Mordrake Pt. 2," in which we get the bleak backstory on Jupiter's resident psycho clown Twisty and watch a new, much sillier killer rise out of the ashes of his sojourn to the afterlife; the penultimate "Show Stoppers," the one episode that lives up to the promise of the darkness, horror, and very unpleasant but thrilling surprises which the series continues to struggle with delivering; and "Orphans," which deserves its own long-winded post on my blog for being the most beautiful and poignant episode of perhaps the entire anthology, during which Naomi Grossman as the ill-fated Pepper delivers award-winning scenes and makes me long for a much more expertly handled season on the whole.