Credit has been helping people buy things they need but can’t afford up front, for centuries. Small metal plates and coins served as official I.O.U.s for some major department stores as early as 1865. Certain hotels, gas companies and restaurants offered credit that could only be used at their own locations, but the first proper plastic was an invention born of a very uncomfortable predicament.
Imagine you’re in New York City in 1949. Three men are eating dinner at Major’s Cabin Grill, right next door to the Empire State Building. Now, these three amigos aren’t examples of the “everyman” – they’re heavy hitters: Frank McNamara, the head of Hamilton Credit Corporation, Alfred Bloomingdale, whose name means what you think it means, and Ralph Schneider, Frank McNamara’s attorney.
Frank is talking with his friends about a problem customer who had borrowed money and couldn’t pay it back. At the end of the meal, in a moment of purest irony, McNamara intends to pay the bill and realizes his wallet full of cash is not in his pocket. This dinner was his idea, his invitation, and despite his embarrassment he calls his wife to bring him some cash.
But Frank’s discomfort led to an important shift in the credit industry. What if, instead of a different card for every restaurant you frequent, you had ONE credit card that you could use everywhere you eat? McNamara, Bloomingdale, and Schneider talked it over, pooled some money, and invented the Diner’s Club.
The concept paid off. Within its first year, Diner’s Club had over 20,000 customers, and the idea spread. At that point, American Express had been around since 1850 delivering mail and money orders, but the Diner’s Club inspired them to make a change in 1959. Their first purple plastic card was for travel and entertainment expenses only. In 1966, Bank of America followed suit with the Bank Americard (later called Visa), and Mastercard joined the fray that same year.
Today, the average adult wallet contains about 8-10 credit cards, and the average family lives with about $8,000 in credit card debt. That figure has been holding steady for the last decade. In total, American consumers owe almost $12 trillion in credit card debt, and only student loans and mortgage debt eclipse it.
You’d be hard pressed to find an American who doesn’t have a credit card, but according to the NASDAQ, 85% of us are unwilling to discuss it. We are even less likely to talk about our plastic than we are about religion, politics, and love. Credit is a beautiful thing. It allows businesses to grow, households to update and expand, and keeps the economy in full form. Well-managed credit gives us the certainty to be bold. What’s not to like?