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‘Maxed Out’ – teaching kids about credit cards

April 2, 2008 Leave a comment

I’ve been feeling very fractured in terms of time lately, pulled in too many directions with the new time demands involved in having my 14 year old son home for part of the day.  It’s great having him home, but it has really changed my schedule and I haven’t yet integrated the changes in a way that feels smooth to me.  So that’s why I haven’t been posting much recently.  Plus, by the time everyone’s asleep and it’s quiet enough to sit down, I’m so tired that I hardly have any intelligent thoughts left! 

Anyway, this week I watched a documentary on dvd with the kids called ‘Maxed Out’.  (I was able to get it at the library.)  It’s only the second time I’ve shown them a dvd in this kind of format – the first time was Supersize Me.  Maxed Out is about credit card spending in the US, and a look behind the scenes at credit card industry and its victims.  I thought it was well done, definitely had a strong emotional pull, but it was lacking balance in terms of adequately defining the problem and the solution. 

Afterwards, I asked my kids what they thought the message was.  My eleven year old said it seemed like credit card companies were killing people.  That gave us a chance to discuss what techniques the makers of the presentation used to make it so emotionally effective, and to see what the agenda of it was.  But more important was the talk we had about the danger of irresponsible and uncontrolled spending when using credit cards.  Many of those who were portrayed sympathetically were preyed upon, but I don’t doubt that the majority of them used credit cards irresponsibly.  That’s the part they didn’t show in the film that was crucial but missing.  And I know that some of the experts interviewed believe in personal responsibility (from reading their books), but they obviously edited out any reference to consumer responsibility because it wasn’t part of their message.  It was all about the people as victims – no one has a credit card forced into their hands, and even if they did, you don’t have to use it!

I want my kids to understand the motivation behind the credit card industry, and that was effectively accomplished with their film.  But they need to recognize that people don’t become victims of credit card companies by standing by passively.  Kids need to know what they can do to avoid credit card debt and the kind of sad things that can result (some shown in the film).  Feeling like a victim leaves you feeling helpless, but when you know you can do something to improve on the situation, you feel empowered.

When a person uses credit cards, it’s been proven that they spend more than they buy with cash, because there isn’t the same consciousness of spending money when using plastic.  That’s why credit card companies want their terminals in every possible location, even for small purchases, because they know people will buy more.

When you combine that with the desire for immediate gratification, you have large numbers of people buying things they can’t afford because they want it now.  So lesson number two for my kids is, you have to be responsible when you spend your money, and the first part of being responsible is having enough money to buy what you want.  If you don’t have the money right now, then you shouldn’t buy something.  It may be old- fashioned to teach kids not to buy something until they have the money for it, but that’s what I tell my kids.  It’s okay to wait for what you really want.  It builds self-control, discipline, patience, and responsibility, and when they finally get whatever it is they are saving up for, they’ll appreciate it in an entirely different way. 

I find programs such as these provide a great springboard for discussion, which is why I don’t have a problem using them as educational material with the kids, even though the answer they presented was more governmental control.  I don’t need to show them things that agree with my perspective on life, because part of what I’m trying to teach them is how to evaluate information.  This film was definitely worth watching – it isn’t intended for kids, but my kids benefitted, and an adult audience would definitely benefit from it!

Avivah