Thursday, September 17, 2009

I Still Have a LONG Way to Go!

I got together with a class of housewives (roughly my own age) on Wednesday for an English lesson and we got on the subject of establishing a credit rating. I was citing my son's case in the states as an example of how the need to develop your own credit history is often how young people become dependent on using credit cards.

I am not a total stranger to the concept myself. I use credit cards to utilize my "speed pass" at the self-service gas station, to charge orders from a certain food co-op in Kobe, Japan, and to pay for my ETC charges. I use a debit card for ordering clothing online, although I am always nervous of potential identity theft, so keep a tight rein on how much I buy.

By nature I am as far opposite to a gambler as you can get; I am not willing to risk A SINGLE PENNY or ONE YEN COIN!!! So I tend to only go for "sure things" and "dyed-in-the-wool authenticity" for everything in my life. Typically I assumed most everyone was like me in that class of housewives, too. But I had a real surprise in store that day.

When I first came to Japan 27 1/2 years ago, EVERYONE used cash for EVERYTHING. There wasn't any checking system here (still isn't, except for traveler's checks), and people were suspicious and wary of impulsive shopping with credit cards. Then department stores began offering store cards (that incorporated a 5% discount to all purchases) to encourage sales, and many affluent housewives I knew began using such cards automatically. The 5% discount was inconsequential, in my opinion, because prices in dept. stores are marked way up to begin with, but anyway, the custom became less repugnant to the average consumer. Gradually credit card companies began their seductive campaigns to get people to use them, offering free memberships, and other perks for joining. My husband got many cards, despite my lack of interest in using them, and it wasn't until a couple of years later that we discovered some charged as much as 25,000 yen for a year's membership to continue using them. To me, even now, it's like throwing good money after bad, but my husband sees things differently and we continue on using three or four major cards at his insistence. (Oh, brother!)

When I assumed that these housewives would also be loathe to use credit in their daily lifestyles, I was shocked to find that one uses her cell phone to "beep in" the bar code of what she wants to buy at convenience stores, another uses store cards exclusively for grocery shopping and trips to the AEON-related stores, all of them were very aware of the point collecting systems (still a mystery to me) and conscientiously chose to pay bills via credit card in order to collect as many points as possible. The accrued points allowed them to buy train passes, or beer coupons, among other useful things.

Huh? What did you say??

I was flabbergasted and suddenly the odd man out. I knew young people were lulled into living on credit by the "don't bother to think it through" mentality of credit shopping, but these were women who were very industriously thinking things through!! And I hadn't even begun to learn about what had become second nature to them. It certainly gave me pause and forced me to realize I still have a lot to learn in the world of penny-pinching and beating the system at its own game.