Last week part of the Credit Card Act of 2009 went into effect. Intended to get those fee-happy card companies under control and give charge-happy Americans a break, it lays out new regulations that do just that: rate changes can apply only to new charges, not existing balances; companies can't raise rates in the first year of an account; and adults have to sign for kids under 21 who want a card. (Please, keep reading. The column gets more interesting. We're just on orders to peg every story to something in the news.)
All these anticapitalist governmental restrictions must have the credit companies feeling desperate for new business, and I have proof: the high-end card recruiters are now after me, of all people. This very week I received a paper invitation in my mailbox for a prequalified Barclays "Black Card" from Visa. Apparently, according to the fancy letter, this is quite an honor, because "The Black Card is not for everyone. In fact, it is limited to only 1% of U.S. residents." Ha! In your face, other 99 percent of Americans!
I was deeply flattered, but I have one question for the Visa people: Have you lost your minds? Top 1 percent? How bad must it be out there for the rest of the country? Not only do I have a job in a dying industry, but over the last five years a major illness and a divorce have left my financial house in shambles.
In fact, one day not too long ago I was brainstorming (read: daydreaming) at work and I went online to see what sort of house I might be able to afford. I punched all my financial data into the program and clicked on the button and waited. After a few seconds, a message popped up that said, "Congratulations! You can buy a home worth $48,000!"
I'll always remember those gratuitously cruel exclamation points. They still haunt me. Luckily, I live in Washington, D.C., where there are plenty of houses that fit into that price range. I'll just have to give up my dream of having an in-ground pool. And a roof.
Don't the credit-card companies have access to my financial information? If they did, I don't think I'd be among the illustrious few they think "demand only the best of what life has to offer." If by that Visa means driving a Korean compact car, renting a tiny cable-free apartment, and buying all my clothes at thrift stores, then, yes, by all means, sign me up.
But I'm pretty sure that's not what they mean, because I just watched their frankly awesome online commercial. It made me nostalgic for my younger days. It's been a while since I've flown my personal black helicopter to a remote island to pick up my leather-clad supermodel girlfriend so I could deposit her in the ocean in her black bikini so she could then climb onto a shiny black racing boat. Seems like forever since I did that.
The offer made me feel like a charter member of the Finer Things Club. Maybe it was this quote from the literature: "The Black Card is made with carbon, creating a more unique card, guaranteed to get you noticed." It'll get me noticed, all right. Oh, how the heads will turn at the Goodwill when I buy my used cowboy boots with that precious piece of carbon! That's how the salesclerk and the hoi polloi waiting in line behind me will know I'm an aristocrat. Because my card will be flecked with bits of real carbon and theirs are just…plastic. So sad for them.
Yet, as I looked closer at the application, I noticed a few small drawbacks. For one thing, the membership fee is $495 a year! That reminds me of one of my favorite old sayings, which I shamelessly stole from the movie Rounders: "If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker."
In the golden age of old media, two years ago, NEWSWEEK would have laid down those five bills for me, no questions asked. Then I would have lived on the phone with the 24-hour concierge—another perk of the Black Card—asking her wacky dumb questions, like how do I tell if my bundt cake is done, and what happens if you eat gunpowder? But today, the shortsighted drones in the accounting department would reject that paltry fee out of hand, all just to save a measly 50,000 pennies. They'd also warn me I'd better not use the office stamp machine to mail back the application.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess I have a credit score near 800 and almost no debt, which might explain why I ended up on the 1 percenters list. But guess why I have such a good score? Because of everything I wrote above, and because I would never in a million years waste $500 a year on a fee for a card whose main benefits seem to be its color and chemical composition, and access to a fancy airport lounge once or twice a year when I fly.
So, thanks, but no thanks. As Groucho Marx said, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member." I would consider making an exception if that bikini-clad supermodel came with the $495 annual fee, but I'm pretty sure that would be illegal, except in Nevada. Sorry…that was just me brainstorming again.