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1:30pm on Monday, 29th December, 2008:

Watching the Credit Crunch Crunch


My younger daughter wanted to go to Colchester today, so on the way back I popped into ASDA to buy some bread and stuff, rather than the usual Sainsbury's. [For those QBlog readers unfamiliar with UK supermarket trends, ASDA is our version of Walmart — indeed, it's owned by Walmart.]

The first checkout queue I joined had one person in front of me, who was in turn waiting for the couple before her to pay up and go. However, after half a minute or so, it became apparent that the couple were having some difficulties. They seemed to believe that their credit card had more money on it than it actually did, and were attempting to persuade the checkout woman that her computer was lying to her in claiming that it didn't. When this failed, they pulled out several other credit cards to try make up the difference between what their first card had on it and what the bill required them to pay. At this point, I left for a different queue...

This queue went much faster, until it came to the point when the man in front of me had to pay. I was less than enthusiastic to hear him say "there should be enough on there" as he handed his credit card to the bloke on the till. Indeed there was: his bill came to around £50, but he had some £68 on the card before it reached his credit limit. Things weren't quite that simple, though: in the belief that the bill would come to more than what the card could provide, the customer had said, "take it all off", meaning he'd make up the rest in cash. The checkout guy, not realising this, figured he meant to take all £68 off it anyway, but in attempting to do so somehow managed to add £68 to it instead. He couldn't take this extra off, so called over a supervisor with a special override key. She could take it off, but didn't know how to do it (!), so in turn had to call over someone else who didn't have the authority to take the money off but did have the requisite knowledge (you run it up as a gift token, apparently).

OK, incompetent checkout operators/supervisors aside, all this did open my eyes somewhat to the way that some people live their lives almost entirely on credit. I know that Christmas is the time of year when people make most credit card purchases, but quite how much of their credit limit they use, and how many of them seem to be doing it — well, it turns mere facts and figures into individual stories. Seeing real people struggling to pay their bills gives the credit crunch an emotional impact that you simply don't get from watching the news or reading the papers — it really brings it home. You just can't help feel sorry for them.

Or so you'd think, anyway. The (first) couple had several cards, all of which were spent out: basically, they're thousands of pounds in debt. They really needed to have sorted themselves out after their first card filled up, not to have acquired another half a dozen to delay the (consequently worse) inevitable. It's one thing to hit a credit card limit because you lost your job, but another thing entirely to live beyond your means until you've filled up several of them. Poverty, I can sympathise with (been there, done that); sustained irresponsibility, well, sorry, I can't.

The (second) guy wound up with £18 to go before he hit his limit, so unless he had a stack of maxed-out cards in his wallet he wasn't being irresponsible. However, his purchases weren't exactly essentials: the bulk of his £50 bill was accounted for by about six bottles of regular wine plus another two of green ginger wine, whatever the heck that is. I don't know what his credit limit is, but it's going to be £1,000 minimum; yet if I were £932 in debt, would I be spending another £50 on stuff I don't really need? Maybe he gets paid at the end of the month or something, so it'll be all fine. Either way, I don't feel all that sympathetic towards his situation.

I'm uncertain as to whether I was seeing the global credit crisis played out in miniature here, or whether the global credit crisis itself is merely an agglomeration of millions of these small-scale molecules of imprudence. It certainly gave me cause to think when I left the store.

This is my excuse as to how come it was that I drove up to the wrong side of the petrol pump to fill up my car, then paid and drove off without putting the fuel cap back on.

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).