The dangers of store credit cards (and how I got suckered into opening a store credit card)

The dangers of store credit cards (and how I got suckered into opening a store credit card)

When I was a freshman in college, I did two very bad things (ahem — two bad things related to personal finance).

Bad Thing #1

First, I opened a VISA credit card. There was a guy at a booth on campus, and being too naive and timid to tell him to buzz off, I stopped and listened to his pitch. Next thing I knew I was filling out an application. At 18 years old, with no job, steady income, or credit history, I now had a $1,000 credit line. I maxed it out in less than three months and was shocked when the bill arrived.

Luckily, I was about to start a part-time job, so I was comforted in knowing I could handle this predicament myself. I paid down the balance — but then charged it up again. This cycle went on for years. I always paid more than the minimum, but never fully paid off the debt.

Bad Thing #2

The second very bad thing I did was open a store credit card with a major retailer. I was about to pay for my purchase (with the aforementioned VISA, of course), and the salesperson told me I could save money and receive special offers and free items just for signing up for a card. I demurred, but she was persistent. “You can pay it off as soon as you get home and still get the coupons and discounts,” she said. “That's what I do.”

Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way for me. I forgot I'd opened the card, somehow missed the first bill, and then was late with my payment. I was almost three months delinquent before I paid off the card, and I got a mark on my credit report, all for a small balance I could have easily covered with money in my bank account.

The Cost of Store Credit Cards

Cashiers are often required to ask customers to sign up for store credit, and some stores require them to meet a quota for new card sign-ups. But these days, I politely tell the cashier, “I don't carry store credit cards.” If they persist, I repeat myself. “Don't you want to save 10%?” No thank you, I'd rather not.

A recent study from New York Representative Anthony Weiner's office provides even more reason to avoid store branded cards. The study found that 35 major New York City stores had an average interest rate of 23.83% on store cards (the national average APR for a regular credit card is 14.78%). Which stores offered the worst rates?

  • Radio Shack was the highest with a 28.99% APR.
  • Best Buy and Staples both charge 27.99% interest rates.
  • Home Depot charged 25.99%.
  • Sears came in at a hefty 25.24%.

In addition, the report found that store cards use a series of “teaser” deals to entice shoppers to take the bait, such as offering 0% interest, but neglecting to mention you have pay off the balance within a certain time period or else the interest rate is applied retroactively on the initial purchase price.

How I Got Suckered into Opening a Store Credit Card

Well, despite knowing all this, here's the story of how I got suckered into opening a store credit card and what I learned from it.

It was the best of experiences, it was the worst of experiences…
Last week, I ventured into Neiman Marcus for the first time. It was the only in-person store that carried the Stuff I wanted, so I drove out of my way to go there. The salesperson who helped me was probably one of the best I've ever encountered. She knew I wasn't spending much — about $60 — but she spent a considerable about of time helping me. She was friendly, extremely knowledgeable, and showed me other products she thought I'd like without pushing me to buy more. Instead, she offered to send me home with samples of her additional recommendations. As she put everything into a bag, the second salesperson helped to start the check-out process, which went something like this:

Salesperson #2: Do you want to put this on your Neiman's charge card?

Me: No, I don't carry store credit cards. (I hand her my MasterCard.)

Salesperson #2: We don't take MasterCard, but it takes just a few minutes to open a store account.

Me: No thanks, I don't open store cards. Can I put it on a Visa debit card?

Salesperson #2: We don't take Visa, either.

Me: If you don't take Visa or MasterCard, what do you take?

Salesperson #2: We take the Neiman's card, American Express, cash, and checks.

I didn't have enough cash on me, I don't carry checks, and I don't have an American Express card. The first salesperson seemed too uncomfortable to push me into opening an account, so salesperson #2 continued with the pitch, telling me most of what I knew already — that I won't have to pay interest if I pay my balance each month and that the card comes with all kinds of “fabulous” rewards. She also told me that Neiman's will never sell my personal information (this, of course, turns out to be false).

The Lowdown on Neiman's

I found out later that Neiman's does take Visa and MasterCard, but only for online purchases. It's even willing to temporarily relax its rules during Super Bowl XLV “to make it easier for customers visiting from out of town…or from cities that don't have a Neiman Marcus store.” Gee, how thoughtful!

According to Slate, the private-label credit card corner was one one of the most desired parts of the business when it sold during a 2005 auction (HSBC purchased the credit card portfolio in mid-2005 for $640 million.) At the time, there were 562,000 active users paying 15% APR — generating about $550 million in receivables for the company.

I knew store credit was big business, but I'd never encountered a store that doesn't accept major credit cards to push customers into opening a store credit line.

Under Pressure

Back to my in-store experience: I was feeling cornered and conned. My first thought was to walk away. Now that I knew exactly what I needed, I could purchase the item from another retailer online.

But here's the thing: I wouldn't know what to buy if it hadn't been for salesperson #1, the person who spent a lot of time helping me even though she knew I wasn't spending much money. She more than earned her commission, and I felt bad about walking out. There weren't any ATMs nearby, and I had an appointment in about 15 minutes. I was feeling pressured. On the other hand, I was mad and felt as though I'd walked into a trap.

I caved, and I opened the account to make the purchase. But I'm calling Neiman Marcus to pay the balance and cancel the card.

I know Neiman's won't miss my business — I'm hardly their target customer. For example, one of the benefits of “Circle Two” membership (for the busiest of Neiman's charge card users) is fur storage, which made me giggle. I'm the kind of gal who worries that someone might mistake her faux fur coat for the real thing. The cover of the InCircle member brochure asks, “Are you a member of the in crowd?” Uh, no. Not usually.

Lessons Learned

In retrospect (and sarcasm aside), there were better ways to handle the situation that would have given the salesperson credit for the sale and would have avoided me opening a store card I absolutely do not want.

When I told my husband what had happened, he had the perfect solution: “You could've asked the salesperson for her name and told her you'd come back to pay in cash.”

Yes, that is exactly what I should have done. But when I was in the situation, I wasn't thinking clearly. I felt pressured, irritated, and that I had to make a choice right then and there, when I really didn't.

(Also, I was reminded that I should carry at least one paper check with me. I used to do this, but fell out of the habit because it was so rare that I ever needed one. Now I've tucked one into my wallet again to have one more payment option.)

I never, ever thought I'd open a store card. I'm disappointed that I let it happen, but at least I can amend the situation. I certainly now understand, from firsthand experience, how tricky retailers can be when it comes to pressuring consumers into opening store credit cards.

Are All Store Credit Cards Bad?

The mark on my credit report is long gone, but it was a sobering lesson about the dangers of credit, especially for someone with little personal finance education (or income). When I graduated from high school, I could easily find the limit of a function as x approaches a constant, yet I didn't know about compound interest. My personal finance education began years later when I started lurking here at GRS.

I haven't carried a credit card balance in years, and I consider myself a reformed and responsible consumer. I'm also not completely opposed to store credit. If I were remodeling a house, for example, maybe I'd consider a Home Depot card for the initial discount. Then I'd cut up the card and pay the balance immediately (as in the minute I got home) with cash I'd saved in a “home remodel” savings account.

I realize most GRS readers are savvy with their credit, but as stores ramp up their high-pressure holiday pitches, it's important to be on guard. By and large, these cards aren't worth the hassle or the risk. Credit is serious business, not something to sign up for on the spur of the moment without reading the fine print.

More about...Credit

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Paul
Paul
9 years ago

For me, along with all the other downsides of store cards, is that they rarely have the customer support, or communication channels that regular cards have. I have two cards with Egg (a UK offshoot of Citigroup), who are a pure online/phone operation. One card is my personal card for my discretionary spend, the other is a joint card with my girlfriend for shared expenses (going out, vets bills etc). Both cards are paid off in full automatically by Direct Debit so I never pay interest. Because they are online I can check my balance and transactions every day (and… Read more »

LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

I experienced a similar journey, but I signed up for a credit card at a Detroit Tiger game. All for a free T-shirt.

Since marrying my wife, we both decided to get rid of our credit cards and now we live solely on the income we bring in, while paying down our school loans.

We’re getting close! We’ve paid off $9,000 this year and will be debt free in about 6 months! You can find my journey by clicking on my name above.

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago

What do you think of store DEBIT cards? I’d never heard of them until I was at Target the other day. They offer a DEBIT card that links directly to your checking account, and it let’s you save 5% on every single purchase. AND once you get the card, you can designate a school to receive 1% of the price of everything you purchase! It sounded too good to be true, but sure enough, after reading all the literature and talking to a manager to make sure I understood, that’s exactly what it is! I signed up immediately! Might I… Read more »

Andrea
Andrea
9 years ago

Store credit cards (and email lists/catalogs for that matter) also have a sneaky way of getting you to want to buy more stuff. The store sends you something saying there’s a sale, and suddenly you think you can save some money, when in reality you will end up spending money you hadn’t intended on spending in the first place.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

I had an acquaintance in college who bought so much at Macy’s and had so much Macy’s debt that she got a part-time job at Macy’s. With the Macy’s employee discount, she got into even more Macy’s debt.

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

I completely agree with this. We only have a Macy’s card in addition to our one visa card and use it responsibly. The rate is just too high to carry a balance.

Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom
Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom
9 years ago

I got into trouble with store and regular credit cards many years ago. I think it’s best that if you are going to have any kind of credit debt that it’s not spread around among multiple cards. It’s a slippery slope towards spending more money that you don’t actually have. In the last couple of years, I’ve signed up for two store cards – Macy’s and Home Depot. At the Macy’s, I made my purchase, got my 10% off and another 15% and paid the whole thing off right at the till with the cash I was going to use… Read more »

Bill
Bill
9 years ago

A cautionary tale from long ago (meaning things may have changed). Back in the early ’70s, my wife had her purse stolen from her workplace. We immediately began calling credit card companies to cancel the cards. Everyone was easy to work with EXCEPT two store cards — Sears and J.C. Penney — neither of which had a current balance at that time. Both companies’ “customer service” departments were rude and accusatory, as if we were trying to scam them over our cards. In fact, both were willing to help us ONLY after confirming that we had no balance we were… Read more »

First Gen American
First Gen American
9 years ago

How about another negative…another bill to have to deal with and manage at the end of the month. I only have one personal credit card, because I want to minimize the amount of physical bills I have to keep up with.

The simpler my life is, the better.

Leeora
Leeora
9 years ago

I have one store credit card at a store that has fantastic sales in the spring and fall. 75% off then another 20% when I use my store cc. I shop these sales each year and buy our clothes for the next year. I buy only what I have money for, and then when the bill comes I pay it. I also get sales flyers that I would not normally get. I save a lot of money this way. I have gotten things cheaper at these big sales, than I could have at the thrift store. It works for me.

TBonesmind
TBonesmind
9 years ago

I personally use credit cards, but I hate store cards. The worst part about them is it is easy to forget to pay them if you do not use them often. I admit I did get a Macy’s card when I got married since we registered there. In that case we were able to get points from folks who bought things off our registry, which then turned into a couple hundred dollars in gift cards. We were able to get the benefit without spending a dime. Needless to say once we used the gift card, the Macy’s card got put… Read more »

Alex D
Alex D
9 years ago

Target actually gives you a pretty good deal with their cards, if you can manage it. Target does 5% of every purchase. The interest rate is pretty high on the card though, 22% or so. The easy way to avoid paying interest is just to log onto their website and set it up so the new balance for the card is just charged to your bank account every month. You will never be charged an interest fee because you are paying it off every month. Of course the easier way to do this is just to get the debit card.… Read more »

Mom of Five
Mom of Five
9 years ago

@Lindsay #5 Target is the only store credit card I currently hold and I just recently got it for the 5% discount. I went with the credit over the debit because I prefer not to give Target (or anyone really) access to our checking account. Groceries account for the bulk of my Target purchases. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother as my rewards credit cards often can compete pretty well with the Target discount and for the 2 or 3 other non-grocery purchases a year that I make at Target, it would just be silly to keep the additional credit line. By… Read more »

Brett
Brett
9 years ago

I agree that store credit is one of the worst ways to buy stuff. I signed up for a Macy’s card when I moved into my new apartment a few months ago, and just reading through the fine print briefly showed lots of fun language weaseled in there. I do the same thing of paying off the balance as soon as I get home, but it often makes me wonder why I even bother getting it in the first place.

smirktastic
smirktastic
9 years ago

#11 is a great example of using a store credit card to your advantage. My favorite is Kohls becuase they send lots of special coupons throughout the year. However, I also have the willpower to not spend more on credit than I would with cash in hand. We never carry a balance on it.

KC
KC
9 years ago

You also end up with a wallet of credit cards. If you don’t carry them around you won’t use them and get any benefits they might offer. If you do carry them they take up space in your wallet and you run some risk of having them stolen.

Andy
Andy
9 years ago

I forget the name of the book, but it is by the same authors who wrote the Two-Income Trap, and there are quite a few disturbing stories about store credit cards. For example, the contract for the Sears card is written so that you don’t own the product you purchase until the card is paid off. They have a very aggressive repo department. So a grandfather buys his grand-daughter a present on the sears card. The grandfather then dies with a balance on the card. Sears would call and harrass the grieving daughter threatening to come and take the item… Read more »

me in millions
me in millions
9 years ago

One thing that I’ve noticed about store credit cards is that the more you use them, the more coupons they send you in the mail enticing you to spend even more. I do like having my store credit cards (Banana Republic and Ann Taylor) so that I never wind up paying full price for merchandise, but I have to check myself ALL THE TIME so I don’t let my spending get out of control. Coupons are so tempting!

Susan in CO
Susan in CO
9 years ago

My husband and I do have a JC Penney card, but we use it very strategically and I pay it off online within a day or two of making a purchase. We got it mostly to help build our credit back up – years of bad credit had finally dropped off our credit reports and we had discovered that having NO credit rating was almost as difficult as having a bad one. This might not be strictly on topic, but I did want to chime with this comment: I remember working at a Mervyn’s right out of high school (I… Read more »

David W
David W
9 years ago

I usually tell the cashier that I already have one(I don’t). This allows them to stop bothering me for the most part.

Adam
Adam
9 years ago

I can’t say enough good things about my REI Visa card. However REI is organized as a consumer’s co-op, so you have to pay a small one time fee to become a member.

I buy quite a bit of consumable items there, along with clothing, socks and camping gear and getting up to 15% back from my purchases there once a year is really nice.

I didn’t get the card because of a special deal or offer, when you shop at REI often, the rewards are fantastic.

Gena
Gena
9 years ago

Sales folks may be required to ask, but boy, I’ve gotten good at “No.” And the wording just gets me! “Would you like to save 10% today?” Who wants to answer that in the negative? I just say “Thanks, but I have enough credit.” Any other push gets a simple “NO.” It’s a complete sentence.

Diane
Diane
9 years ago

Back in the Old Days, I mean 30 years ago, you had to prove that you deserved a VISA or MasterCard, and the way to do that was to get a department store or gasoline credit card and pay them off for a few months before you could apply for a major card and hope to get approved. How things have changed.

Kelly
Kelly
9 years ago

I have to admit that I have a Best Buy card that my husband and I have used for purchases like computers and appliances. On any purchase over $500.00 we have 18 months to pay it off. I simply divide the amount by 17 months, make that payment every month, and generally will pay down the rest early somewhere around 15 months so it has been a real help to us when we needed it the most. The trick is to make sure you are monitoring the payments and have everything paid up before the 18 months is up.

Steve
Steve
9 years ago

This may be a naive question, but I’m not sure of the answer… I have a BestBuy store card that I used a couple years ago to purchase a new TV. It has long been paid off, but was not sure if keeping it open (with no balance) had a positive effect on my credit score. I know that having unused/open credit on your record is good, but am not sure if a Capital One credit card is viewed the same as a BestBuy(or other store) card. I’m still working to pay off the cards I do have balances on,… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

I had two store credits and never had a problem — but I canceled them anyways. I seldom used them, and I hated that I couldn’t track them online.

I ended up canceling them to protect my privacy. All the extra junk mail could end up in the wrong hands, and the cards could get lost or stolen. I like to keep things simple.

Jennifer
Jennifer
9 years ago

Awesome post. Exemplifies why I insisted my daughter, a high school junior, take the Personal Finance course offered as an elective. You don’t need to know the square root of anything to survive in this world, but you do need to know what APR is. Calc and Trig should be electives, Personal Finance should be mandatory for a high school diploma!

Jennifer
Jennifer
9 years ago

One more note to add: The last time I was at Gap, the clerk asked the girl in front of me if she’d like to save 10% by signing up for their credit card. She declined, but the thing that really irked me is that the girl looked no more than 15.

Shari
Shari
9 years ago

for #25–Steve: you might want to check and see if your account has already been closed. Some stores will close accounts for being inactive and not even let you know they have done it. Target did that to me(I hadn’t used my card for over a year) and the only way I found out was when I pulled my credit report and it showed that one as closed. When I called them to confirm it, they said that they generally don’t notify people when an account it closed for non-use. I can’t see that keeping it open would have a… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
9 years ago

The 10 (or 15) % off deals are so tempting, especially for something you were going to buy anyways, but the more cards you have to keep tabs on, the easier it is to overlook something and get socked with fees. I bought a dress and opened a store card to get a discount. I only used it that once, paid it off, and the local store closed. But many years later, the card kept showing up on credit pulls. When I tried to cancel the card the national store kept saying I didn’t have a card with them and… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
9 years ago

Same story as Shari – I had an Express card that was closed without notice for inactivity. A bit annoying when I finally pulled it out to use again. But it still shows up on my credit report as open. Which is also annoying.

I’m at the decluttering, simplifying stage of PF. Having multiple credit cards is just an invitation to spend too much and it complicates my life. So my three store cards, all unused for over a year, are about to be cancelled.

Jenny_Dee
Jenny_Dee
9 years ago

I have two store cards. I signed up for Old Navy to get the immediate discount last year, but never used the card. The other is a Firestone card, that gives me three months no interest. It’s great when I have a minor repair of about $150, instead of just the oil change.

I’m down to two credit cards with a balance, but will pay off one by the end of the year. The other will be paid off next year, and then it’s student loan time. I

Bradley
Bradley
9 years ago

Plastic in general is bad news for me. I had a similar college experience with credit card sign ups. Made the mistake to get a few store cards too.

Took lots of years to get them paid off and change my habits. Now, the only plastic I have is my debit card.

Refusing a store card is much easier than dealing with high interest rates!

KM
KM
9 years ago

Store credit cards are a good way to build your credit rating. I did that, in the 1980’s. I think I only spend a total of maybe $25 on 5 cards during that time–and paid it off immediately. But I did get a great credit rating out of it that I still have!

Credit cards aren’t inherently dangerous–you just have to remember who you really are when you get them. ie a person who doesn’t have enough money to shop like Paris Hilton(or your older, more financially secure, parents).

KarenJ
KarenJ
9 years ago

Yes, you do have to be careful, as it’s easy to get sucked into applying for these cards to receive special offers, discounts and coupons. Recently I was asked to apply for a Firestone card when I purchased new tires, an expense I was planning on paying for within the month. They got me at $35 discount! When I received the bill, I set up automatic bill-pay to pay $55 a month for 6 months so the card is paid in full during the 0% promotional period. If you’re not careful, you can really get burned!

erika
erika
9 years ago

Back in the days before I found GRS and started getting smart about money management, I had several store cards and used them, too. The interest rates are terrible, but I wasn’t worried about it then. Now that I am responsible with my finances, I consciously chose to have 2 store cards – Kohls and Home Depot. Kohls because I have a family of 4 to house and clothe and their cardholder discounts are excellent. Home Depot because we own a rental property and a home we’re remodeling and the 0% interest for 12 months is fabulous. The caveat of… Read more »

Mike
Mike
9 years ago

I like using store cards, responsibly. We saved a lot on a piece of furniture at Pottery Barn. We had 12 months to pay off the balance (their payment plan would have been in 15 months), but I set auto-pay to clear it in 8 months to make sure I had a few statements of 0 balance.

Mark
Mark
9 years ago

This article should be renamed “The Dangers of Irresponsibility”. You can’t blame a store credit card for not psying your balance off each month. You can’t blame a store credit card because you “forgot” you applied for one. Your only semi-legitimate gripe is the high APR’s they usually have – but even this is clear on the documents. Don’t sing up for things that you don’t understand.

brooklyn money
brooklyn money
9 years ago

If you are making a $5,000 or even just a $1500 purchase, I find that it’s well worth it to get the store card. Just like Mike #37, I bought furniture (mine was Crate & Barrel) and had 6 months interest free to pay it off. Who doesn’t want that? Of course if you can’t handle credit or you pay interest on your balance, then you probably shouldn’t have any credit at all.

hardworking single ma
hardworking single ma
9 years ago

I’m all for the simplicity and no debt, but I like savings, too. So, since NOBODY has mentioned it in the first 37 or so comments, here is my trick. Listen up. Whenever a store clerk says I can get XYZ off my bill if I sign up for their store card, I ask if I can pay it off on the spot. In most places the answer is “yes”. You sign up, get approved, charged the amount minus XYZ, then you can pay it off right there, at the cash register with your debit card. Then you can come… Read more »

Chris
Chris
9 years ago

If you want to get snarky with cashier who pushes you with “Don’t you want to save 10%?” just say “I don’t want to pay 25.99% interest to only save 10%”. I fell for the whole “get the card and the discount now, then pay it off when you get home” argument. The problem is you don’t get a account number or mailing address for the payment for 4-6 weeks, and by then an emergency, or want parading as an emergency, is bound to come up and get that money.

RitaKS
RitaKS
9 years ago

I’m with #40. I often use my Macy’s card for the discount you get for using the card. But, right afer I make my purchase, I whip out my checkbook (yes, I am a dinosaur) and pay the charge in full. The big problem for me is resisting all those 15-20% percent off coupon cards they endlessly send you. But I am in my 60s and am not a heavy duty shopper anymore.

Strick
Strick
9 years ago

This brings back memories. The silliest “reward” I ever got from signing up for a credit card in college was a medium pepperoni pizza.

…the things we agree to in college

Corina
Corina
9 years ago

Thank You so much for this post.

I own a Sears credit card myself which I was forced into getting by a sales associate. Luckily I never activated it and this gives me more reason not to do so in the future.

Albie D @ TalkingCentsBlog
Albie D @ TalkingCentsBlog
9 years ago

Did you at least get a free t-shirt from the campus rep?

I never realized you could pay them off on the spot like hard working single mama said (#40). Good to know. I have no store cards, and don’t really shop at any places too consistently, but now I’m actually interested, seeing as I have no credit card debt. It’s certainly another story for those who already have debt, or couldn’t pay off the balance right away. As others have said, they can be beneficial if used responsibly.

Leslie
Leslie
9 years ago

I worked full-time for a major department store for a little less than a year after I finished grad school. I definitely agree that store credit cards can carry some real benefits for those who use them responsibly 100% of the time. And depending on how much you spend on the card, you might qualify for free shipping, store gift cards, or other perks that can save you even more money in the long run. However, I really abhorred that part of my job. Not only did we have to ask all customers if they wanted to save money by… Read more »

Briana @ GBR
Briana @ GBR
9 years ago

I have a Kohls store card that I use for the discount and pay off immediately. I think if you have that state of mind, it’s fine. But if you don’t have the money to pay for it, the interest will kill you!

Petunia
Petunia
9 years ago

I don’t think this blog post demonstrated that store cards are dangerous. Rather, I think it demonstrated how being disorganized with your finances is dangerous. Ignoring your major credit card statements for 3 consecutive months will have the same result (a ding to your credit rating and late fees).

I, too, am a fan of all those coupons Kohl’s mails to its cardholders.

Jaime B
Jaime B
9 years ago

I have one store card for the coupons. I’m overweight and have to shop at plus size stores. Plus size stores are not as numerous as regular stores and even more rare are ones whose styles I like that fit well too. 🙂 So, I have a card at one of my favorites and they give out pretty great coupons. So I charge $20-50 occassionally to keep the coupons coming and pay it off immediately.

But agree – something so little can really get you in trouble if you don’t have a lot of control or don’t pay attention.

Cat
Cat
9 years ago

I got my first credit card when I was 12 and was traveling with an international student ambassador program without my parents. I racked up a good 4 grand, and managed to pay it almost all the way off babysitting and fund raising with candles and tupperware and can and bottle drives. Then I went to europe the following year and racked up another 5 grand, and luckily managed to pay that pretty much off too with tag sales, bake sales, more tupperware, fifty fiftys, candles, and donations. Then I went to college. College was the biggest mistake for my… Read more »

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