Credit Card Christmas
By: Bob Teoh
(This story was first published in The Star December 2006 and reproduced with permission)
KIM, my wife, had a pleasant surprise when three blank cheques arrived at our doorstep last month. All she had to do was simply "fill in, sign and bank in the cheques today". Citibank CEO Piyush Gupta himself, took time and trouble to pen this personalised letter to her. No questions asked. Goody!
The bad news (you guessed right, it was in small print) is this unsolicited loan carries an 18 per cent p.a. interest on top of the one per cent fee.
Christmas is a season when credit card binge peaks – a global phenomenon where credit card companies pummel their cardholders with generous offers.
Perhaps with a credit card Christmas in mind, someone posted on the Net an alternative to the song "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer". The parody goes like this:
"Uh oh, we're now in the red dear,
On our credit card it shows,
Christmas is almost over,
But the debit line still grows."
Malaysians spent RM57.1 billion last year or more than double the amount five years ago, according to Bank Negara data, Credit card holders have already chalked up RM68.8 billion of plastic money up to October this year or a quarter more than last year. Of this already RM16.5 billion remains unpaid or 24 sen out of every ringgit loaned.
But Malaysian credit spending is still low compared to industrial countries. In the U.S., for instance, the average American household carries more than US$8,000 (RM30, 000) in credit card debt, according to one estimate.
In Scotland, card debt has become a political hot potato. The Scottish National Party (SNP) recently published a paper on credit card debt and claimed 61 per cent of Scots chose to pay for Christmas on a credit card.
The crisis has gone so bad as to prompt SNP justice spokesman and Lothians MSP Kenny MacAskill to demand that the Scottish Parliament be given the necessary powers to tackle the spiraling problem of credit card debt.
Linda Rogers posted her horror story on the Internet. She had to sell her house to pay off her debt. "Until three years ago I only had one credit card, and always settled my monthly bill," she said.
However, her household costs skyrocketed unexpectedly while her income as a freelance writer dropped by about a third. She began using her card for groceries and petrol. Within eight months, she had chalked up about £5,000.
"I got a second card to cover Christmas, with an initial limit of £5,000. I couldn't believe it was so easy," Rogers said. "The crunch came last October 2005 when I had six cards and tried to shift some of the £23,500 I owed and discovered I'd run out of companies to approach. My hair began falling out through stress and I feel utterly furious that I got into such a mess. I will never have another credit card, no matter how many offers land on my doormat," she said.
So what’s Christmas about, really?
In a recent interview by a local daily, Francessca Peters, Malaysia’s evergreen songbird puts it simply: "These days Christmas has become too commercial. It is about trees, presents and Santa Claus. In reality, it is about celebrating Jesus’ birthday."
The Christmas story began once upon a time in Palestine. The people there were living under a severe financial burden imposed by Imperial Rome to fund its monster building works including super highways so that all roads lead to Rome. To make matters worse, the Roman Emperor decided to impose yet another tax. This time it was a poll tax or a tax on its subjugated Palestinian populace. So a head count was needed. We take the story from Luke’s Gospel from here on.
"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that the census should be taken of the entire Roman world….And everyone went to his own town to register."(Luke2:1, 3).
As the story goes, Joseph took Mary from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea to register as required. It was here that the baby Jesus was born in a manger. This miracle of the virgin birth was so enthralling that it is recorded not only in the Bible but in the Qur’an as well, six centuries later.
"Behold! the angels said: ‘O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest God." (Surah Ali Imran 3:45 Yusuf Ai translation).
Mary who was still a virgin was, of course, aghast. "O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?" (Surah 3:47). Just as in the Biblical narrative, the miracle of the virgin birth came to pass according to the Quranic account too.
Every year, millions round the world would probably wish for a miracle to redeem themselves from their credit card debt crisis after Christmas. The good news is that miracles are still available Christmas after Christmas. May your wish for a miracle come true this Christmas for you. Have a blessed Christmas and a happy holiday.