Don’t Blame the Credit Card, Blame Yourself

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Talking about credit cards is always popular. Heck, my good friend Grayson wrote last week about Why Credit Cards Are Not Evil over at our sister site, Sprout Wealth. There have been other good articles on that topic recently, such as at Journey to Saving over at Fox Business and another over at Debt Roundup. I love to talk about credit cards as well. The problem that comes about during these discussions, in my opinion, is a very unhealthy outlook on credit cards and finances as a whole; an outlook which is usually revealed in the comments on posts about using credit cards.

That outlook is unhealthy because it believes that it’s unrealistic to blame ourselves for credit card debt and that all the blame lies with the banks issuing credit cards. That, my friends, is nothing but good ol’ fashioned blame shifting…plain and simple.  As one who has been in credit card debt myself, and has spoken about it extensively here, I get that desire to point the finger at someone else…I really do, but that does you no good as you move on with your life.

Can We Let Credit Card Companies Off the Hook?

Anyone who knows anything about credit cards knows they have all sorts of fees, such as:

  • Late fees
  • Cash advance fees
  • Over the Limit fees
  • Annual fees
  • Balance transfer fees

My head is swimming at thinking of all the fees they charge. Add that to some of the questionable marketing tactics they have and I can understand why people loathe them. Heck, they were on my campus when I registered for classes and that’s what helped start my plunge into credit card debt as my eyes opened to the world of spending whenever I wanted to.

If the fees aren’t bad enough, they’re making money hand over fist (think Scrooge McDuck, because they’re absolutely rolling in it). I couldn’t find a specific number as to how much credit card companies make each year off of fees, but I was able to find that purchase volume in 2012 between the four major credit card issuers (American Express, Discover, Mastercard, and Visa) was $2.045 Trillion! That number is simply staggering.

Suffice it to say, I think it’s a fair guess that credit card issuers are likely making hundreds of millions, if not billions each year off of us using our credit cards. Now you understand why their best client is someone who carries a monthly balance and takes years to pay if off…because it makes them money and LOTS of it.

So, the banks that issue credit cards are not without culpability, they very much play a role, but we do as well.

We Need to Take Responsibility


As I have mentioned many times before, I was spending money like the sky was falling and I had to buy as much as I could. Sadly, save for a vacation or two, all of it was on one thing…CRAP! I have basically nothing to show for it and even if I did that’s not the point. I wasn’t content with my life, so I found contentment in my little plastic god.

You see, that’s where the funny thing lies. The credit cards I was using didn’t all of a sudden sprout legs and forcibly remove themselves from my wallet and swipe at the cash register. I, of my own free will, pulled the card out each and every time and spent the money. No one had a gun to my head, no one told me I had to buy the crap, I was the one who did the spending. Yes, the credit card issuers gave a college student access to $20,000 for some unknown reason, but I’m the one who did the spending. Me and nobody else.

While it might feel good to shift blame and say that I share no part of the responsibility, I would simply be fooling myself. I believe that this blame shifting creates a dangerous precedent as it then becomes easier for us to not accept responsibility in other areas of our financial lives, from making sure we’re getting the best rate on our mortgages, to saving for retirement, to spending less than we’re making, and so much more.

The sad truth is that when you begin to believe you’re not responsible for poor financial decision making, you begin to believe it, and then you believe you’re a victim. As an aside, I do know there are times where you might get into some sort of debt problem because of something you’ve not done (like medical bankruptcies) but that’s not what I’m addressing here.

As I’ve gotten…cough cough…older I’ve learned just how much money is a tool that must be managed appropriately. Money can do great things for you, and it can also do bad things. The key is that we need to take responsibility for our money and take ownership of our decision making.

When we take ownership and make our money and all things related to it work for us, as opposed to the other way around, I have found that it’s much more freeing. Yes, you will still make mistakes but those are mistakes we can learn from and apply in close to real-time instead of ones that end up impacting us for years.

So, even though credit card issuers are not free from responsibility in this area, I believe that the onus of the problem, whether we like it or not, lies squarely on us. It’s my belief that once we begin to understand that and own it, we can move on as a society making more informed decisions that will be better for us as individuals as well as a country as a whole.


Ok, on to you…how much “blame” do you believe we as consumers have in regards to credit cards? Do you blame credit cards if you’ve ever been in debt? Are you doing anything fun this weekend?


Photo courtesy of: Images Money

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.

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  • Thomas @ i need money ASAP! says:

    Although they are not entirely to blame its still true that credit card companies and banks do some despicable stuff. I met a consultant a while back who had worked for a large bank. The project was to target clients with a certain credit score and banking history. These clients were known to have a low likelihood to default but a high likelihood to carry a balance, hence they were extremely profitable. These customers were targeted with big sign up offers, large credit limits etc. Pretty crazy stuff.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      I used to work at a large bank with mortgages. They did they same thing. The breakdown in the argument is no one made these people sign up for the card. The credit card company didn’t send them a card and say “here you go!” Consumers still had to apply for the card and then use it. Still goes back on the responsibility of the card holder, not the issuer.

      • John says:

        I could not agree more Grayson. Yes, the banks do these things, but they don’t force you to get whatever product it is and thus the final responsibility is on us as the end consumer.

    • John says:

      I agree, most, if not all, of the banks do some pretty questionable things to get people to use their product which the issuer knows will make them money. That said, it doesn’t release the consumer from ultimate responsibility. It’s about making informed decisions and taking responsibility for ones actions. Sadly it’s easier for most to just shift the blame off of themselves.

  • Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog says:

    I agree with your post, but Thomas has a point as well. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own finances; however, with all of the financial help I have given over the years to people, many have been screwed by the companies. If you are able to use credit cards responsibly, then I think they are great, but I also recognize that some people are so irresponsible with them, that they don’t even need to use them or have any at all. Good post though, I agree that we are responsible.

    • John says:

      I agree that Thomas does have a good point. Banks certainly play a role, but the ultimate responsibility goes back to the end user. It’s the end user that decides to use the card and spend money on it. I was screwed over by several of the card companies I dealt with, but at the end of the day it was me who decided to spend the money foolishly.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    I agree 100% with you, John. Consumers need to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, especially when it comes to credit cards. The company isn’t to blame. No one forced you to get a credit card and it was your choice not to read the fine print that explains exactly what you are getting yourself into.

    • John says:

      I could not agree more DC. You need to be able to make that informed decision and if you don’t know the T & C of your card then you only have yourself to blame.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

    LOVE this, John. Such an important message here about being responsible for our actions. Unless we truly own our situations, we most often cannot change and move forward. Deflecting responsibility in areas like this really only hinders ourselves.

    • John says:

      Thanks Laurie! I could not agree more, you need to take responsibility for your actions and not deflect it to someone else…that will get you nowhere.

  • Kathy says:

    Personal responsibility is something talked about a lot in this country but when it comes down to it the victim mentality prevails. No one wants to think they are at fault for their situation whether it be employment, relationships, or credit card usage. No one is to blame for anything.

    • John says:

      I could not agree more Kathy! It’s so easy to just shift blame to someone else and many don’t realize they are or, worse yet, don’t care.

  • Grayson Bell says:

    Nice one John! You know how I feel about the subject and I agree with you all the way. Unless a bank actually forced you to use the card, then we can’t really blame them. I don’t like banks, but they are in the business to make money.

  • Kim says:

    You can’t blame credit card companies because you’re broke just like you can’t blame McDonald’s if you have a heart attack of spill hot coffee on yourself. I also think you shouldn’t be able to sue your eye doctor if you wore a monthly pair of contacts for two years, but unfortunately that’s reality. Everyone blames someone else. I often wonder how awesome the world would be if we’d all just step up and say, “Yep, I screwed up, now how can I make it better.”

    • John says:

      “I often wonder how awesome the world would be if we’d all just step up and say, “Yep, I screwed up, now how can I make it better.”” I think, no I know, that would solve a lot of our problems Kim. At the very least, it would send us far down that path.

  • Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life says:

    I have to agree. While some credit card policies and tactics are questionable, at the end of the day, it’s the consumer who spends money they don’t have.

  • Andrew@LivingRichCheaply says:

    I agree with many of the commenters above. Credit Card companies have some shady practices, but ultimately we as the consumers have to take responsibility for our actions. I don’t think credit card companies like me because I never carry a balance, I pay the full balance on time and I take their bonuses =)

    • John says:

      “I don’t think credit card companies like me because I never carry a balance, I pay the full balance on time and I take their bonuses =)” Ha ha, THAT is the way to do it!

  • Raquel@Practical Cents says:

    I don’t blame the credit cards for my debt. I was the one who decided to use them so now I’m taking responsibility and paying them off.

    • John says:

      I relate completely Raquel. It might not be fun, but accepting responsibility is such an important step to take.

  • E.M. says:

    I’ve never been in credit card debt, but my parents were, and I never saw them blame anyone else. They made mistakes, learned from it, and paid the amounts back without complaining. I do agree that a victim mentality is common these days, and it’s not going to get people anywhere. You can’t go through life thinking you’re right and blame-free 100% of the time. We all make mistakes! Thanks for linking to Shoe’s post as well!

    • John says:

      Unfortunately far too many play that victim card and they don’t realize they’re only hurting themselves. Sure, I’d love to not accept blame, but I’d only be lying to myself. Not a problem!

  • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse says:

    It’s always so much easier to blame someone else though, John!! I don’t blame credit card companies. Do are they think they are lily white? Heck no, they are an incredibly profitable business who love to make money. And sadly, we seem to love to give it to them too, even when we shouldn’t be spending money! Yes, they make it incredibly easy to live beyond our means because we don’t have to go to the bank and ask for a loan to buy clothes, purses, smart phones, big screen TVs, etc – things we never normally consider getting a loan for. Unfortunately, we don’t realize that’s essentially what we have done when we keep a monthly balance. We have to take ownership of our actions. It doesn’t mean we’re bad because we made mistakes. We just have to learn from them. Credit cards can be a great tool when used properly or incredibly dangerous when abused. We just need to know the difference and use them properly.

    • John says:

      You bring up an excellent point Shannon! I would never consider taking a loan out to go buy a TV, clothes or anything like that. Yet, when we use our cards to finance them that’s exactly what we’re doing and likely at MUCH higher rates. That said, taking ownership of our actions is vital, yet something that’s so easy to shift to others.

  • Kali @ Common Sense Millennial says:

    I haven’t been in debt, but I completely understand that no one particularly enjoys taking personal responsibility about a bad situation. For me, I played the victim card for the LONGEST time over my job. That it wasn’t my fault I had a crappy job, that my boss was sexist so he wasn’t paying me what I was worth – well, that last one is completely true but it’s not like that boss was holding a gun to my head forbidding me to do something better with my career! I’m so, so happy I finally took responsibility for my own situation last year and started up my own side business. It’s tough, and sometimes there are things that happen outside your control.. but even then, it ultimately comes down to how you react to those things. Are you going to take charge of your own problems, your own challenges, and your own life? Or are you going to take the easy way out and sit back, mope, and blame everyone else for your problems?

    Awesome post, John. Thanks for writing & sharing.

    • John says:

      That’s a great correlation Kali! How you react to things is so key when you are tempted to deflect ownership and just sit there in a situation. The easy way is called that for a reason and while I’d love for things to always be easy, we all know that is simply not the case. I’ve found that taking ownership can be incredibly empowering and when you do it in one area in can help in other areas of your life.

  • Josh @ says:

    I spent a few years working as a credit card debt specialist with Growth Financial. We advised on everything from interest rate negotiations to balance transfers, consolidation programs, financial hardships and more. One thing that I always understood is that we create our own debts. No one else is to blame for debt but ourselves. Unfortunately, working in debt management, I’ve come to realize that the overall idea is that big lenders are evil and they did this to debtors. I’m glad to see so many PF blogs coming out and saying take the blame, fix the problem, and move on!

    • John says:

      Thanks for sharing that Josh! That’s interesting to hear, but not too terribly surprising at all. I understand, on one level, the desire to blame shift, but that will get you nowhere if you take that on as a mentality.

  • Sam @ says:


    You’ve inspired me to write an article on this debate. Thanks for an awesome post!


  • Jon Maroni says:

    I’m all for personal responsibility, so I couldn’t agree more with this post. I signed up for a credit card in college and quickly got into 2 grand worth of debt. While I don’t think it was responsible for my university to allow someone to sign up college kids for credit cards on campus, I spent the money. I knew full well that it wasn’t free money, even if I treated it like it was. Credit card fees and interest rates are well known, no one is tricked when they sign up. Even though their practices may be shady we have to own our part. I will say that we shouldn’t be held responsible for not utilizing credit cards and suffering on our credit score. That is a situation where societal change needs to happen. People should be rewarded for staying out of debt and not utilizing credit.

    • John says:

      I agree Jon. That’s how I got sucked in, by the reps being allowed on campus. Why they gave me access to so much credit, I don’t know…well I do, because I made them money but it made no sense. But, I’m the one who used them and spent the money which I did not have.

  • Kassandra says:

    I am willing to bet that the vast majority of people when they apply for their credit card and receive the card along with the miniature bible of credit card regulations, that they don’t read the regulations manual. IF they did, then they would learn 99% of what would happen when the credit card is not used responsibly. Yes, credit card issuers sometimes use tactics that are less than respectable but the consumer needs to take the time to read the fine print.

    • John says:

      I could not agree more Kassandra. They have so many T & C’s that most are not willing to read them and thus enable themselves to possibly get into trouble.

  • Tonya@Budget and the Beach says:

    “The credit cards I was using didn’t all of a sudden sprout legs and forcibly remove themselves from my wallet and swipe at the cash register” Hee I totally visualized that…like they are the villain in a disney movie. 🙂 All of the responsibly lies completely with me…all of it. This weekend? Exercise and working. Super exciting! 🙂

  • Carlos @ TheFrugalWeds says:

    I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but I would have to agree that we are to blame. Yes credit card companies take advantage of us but we are ultimately in control of how we handle the cards. I blame myself for the terrible way I handled my first few cards.

    You could make the argument that our education system is partially to blame too and I wouldn’t argue with that. It seems like many people were burned by cards and learned their lessons in their 20’s. If we were better informed ten years earlier it seems like much of the negative experiences could have been avoided.

    • John says:

      That’s an excellent point Carlos! I think learning about credit and how it works is a key part that we’re missing. In terms of financial literacy, it definitely ranks up there in terms of importance.

  • Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter says:

    While I do think that credit card companies take advantage of struggling people by charging all of those fees and with the high interest rates, I also think that individuals need to take responsibility for their poor spending habits and abusing their cards. I don’t believe they are evil; they build credit and can come with some awesome rewards, but they have to be used right.

    • John says:

      I don’t believe issuing banks are innocent by any means, though I think the ultimate responsibility falls to us to make informed decisions, not to mention keeping our spending under control.

  • Jason says:

    I remember when I first got a credit card.
    Oooh how scared I was of the piece of plastic, it seldom came out of my wallet. This was a good thing. Through other bad spending mistakes, and having debt in student loans and lines of credit, it was easy to survive on money I didn’t have. Yet that little plastic fella hanging out in my wallet just stayed there, without a balance. Once I started realizing okay, my financial habits must change; I crushed that debt, then I became friends with my credit card. We hangout often and play catch at the park. To this day I use it for almost every purchase. I blame myself for all the other debts I created, credit is available for the taking, but it’s up to us to think fiscally wiser about how we use it.
    Cooool post man

    • John says:

      Thanks for stopping by Jason! We use ours for nearly every purchase as well. With the rewards we make, it just makes sense.

  • Mortgage Free Mike says:

    I also wrote about this topic in an article titled “Credit Cards: They’re Like Red Wine.” I believe using credit is good in moderation. It’s when people develop a dependency that there is an issue. Of course credit card companies may have some poor practices, but if you are a responsible cardholder and pay off your balance every month you will NOT have a problem.

  • Queen Bee says:

    I completely agree! The problem is not with the method of payment – the problem is that you’re making a payment. Mindlessly spending money is the true problem. Credit cards can provide a lot of benefit and convenience when used responsibly.

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