I was listening to this story on the Obama Administration's new standards for credit card companies on NPR, and got to thinking about this whole credit card mess I just got myself out of.
What have I learned?
First, I still don't think credit cards are an inherent evil that should be avoided. While I do plan to close the 0% account I'd opened and transferred my debt to most recently to avoid paying interest on it, I will still have two open credit card accounts, which I plan to keep and use. Credit cards are a financial tool. I misused this tool. But I don't think cutting myself off from it is the way to keep that from happening again. I used credit cards responsibly for years before I got into this debt, and I plan to go back to that pattern.
Secondly, I don't feel like I was abused or misled by credit card companies. I have no doubt that people are, but I wasn't. I knew what I was doing when I ran up my debt, and I was very lucky to have been able to move it from 0% card to 0% card while I was paying it off to minimize the amount that having it cost me. (Note that I did pay a transfer fee every time I transferred it, so it wasn't free, but it was much cheaper than it would have been at 18% or whatever.) During this process, I've dealt with several major credit card companies and a couple of minor ones, and while none of them made any effort to help me, none of them sabotaged me either. I feel that I was treated fairly as someone who had entered into a contract and was holding up my end of that bargain.
However, I think my situation is somewhat different than a lot of people's. I ran up my debt by spending stupidly, not due to any catastrophe (beyond the initial vet bills for Chance, but that ended up being less than 1/4 of my total debt). I was employed at a decent salary the whole time. Making mimimum payments was always within my capabilities, and making more than mimimum payments was usually possible. I have no idea how the credit card companies' treatment of me would have changed had that not been the case, but I can't imagine the change would have been positive.
Someone asked me recently what this experience has done to my credit score. The answer, as far as I know, is not much. My credit score right now is 867 on TransUnion's 925 scale, which is considered excellent (freecreditreport.com). That doesn't yet reflect the last two payments I've made, either. I can only assume my continued good score is due to making all of my payments on time. My credit report shows one 30 days past due charge in the last 24 months, from when I missed a gasoline bill and carried a $37 balance for 2 months. That's it. Everything else is gold star paid on time. So, apparently, you can carry at least some debt without hurting your credit. I was worried that the number of new cards I'd opened in the last 18 months to keep transferring my balance would hurt my score, but it doesn't seem to have. Still, in the interest of keeping it up or boosting it further, I plan to close all but my two oldest cards (one of which has been open since 1997) and use them for small expenses and pay them off each month. I also plan to call and ask to have my credit limit on those cards lowered.
Basically, then, for me, the reprecussions of my stupidity seem to have been pretty mild. The only major one was spending the last 16 months feeling like a complete moron for having gotten into this situation for no good reason. And it is that I want to avoid in the future. Unfortunately for me, since I had to do both of these things, that means budgeting and saving.