Sometimes I wonder: Have I always had personal finance conversations all the time? I don’t often initiate them, but money seems to be a constant topic, even when people are unaware that I write about it every day.

Just this morning, for example, I met with a fellow who needs some boxes to ship his woodworking products. (By day I am the sales force for my family’s small box factory.) My customer gave me a tour of his shop, showing me his doll beds and myrtlewood clocks with obvious pride. “When I retire in a few years, I want to spend my time doing this,” he said. “I love it.”

After we’d measured his products and determined what kind of boxes he needed, we began to discuss payment terms. “Now, do you guys take credit cards?” he asked.

“We don’t,” I said. “We’re not set up to handle them.”

He sighed. “I guess I can pay by check. I should be able to pull the money together. It’s probably for the best anyhow. That interest will eat you alive!”

“Oh, I know,” I said.

He took a sip of his coffee and then told me his story. “I’m an independent contractor. I do jobs all over Portland. I have my own tools, of course. Well, when I first started, about ten years ago, I bought a bunch of equipment and put it on my credit card.

“I was doing a job in Northeast, and one day all my tools were gone. I’d had them less than a week when somebody stole them from the job site. That put me in a bad spot. I hadn’t been paid for the job yet, obviously, and didn’t have any money.

“I was lucky I had that credit card! It cost me another $2500, but I was able to replace all my tools. I don’t know what I’d have done without that card.”

He paused.

“But that interest will eat you alive.”

We gathered our things to leave the shop. As he turned out the lights and locked the door he added, “You know, I’m still paying on those credit cards.”

For many people, credit cards are a convenient “safety valve”, a way to relieve pressure when money gets tight. The trouble — as my customer has come to learn — is that the interest can be oppressive, especially if you only make minimum payments.

I’ve been in a similar position myself. A decade ago, my credit cards were my emergency fund. Whenever life dealt me a blow, I relied on credit cards to cope with it. Eventually I broke the addiction to credit cards, instead relying on loans from family members. Now, at last, I’m finally building a real emergency fund, a cash reserve. There’s a reason many financial experts say that the first step to getting out of debt is saving a few hundred dollars (or even $1000) to cope with the unexpected. Without this cushion, even small emergencies can sabotage good intentions.

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