Credit in the Paper Chase: A Coed Consumer First Experiences the World of Transaction Cards

Article excerpt

LINDA BELTZ WAS A 20-year-old freshman at James Madison University when she experienced a rite of passage into adulthood.

It came when she used her spanking new MasterCard in a restaurant on the college campus in Harrisonburg, Va. After watching others flash the card around for years, it was her turn. She was at a point where having her own charge card was both a status symbol and a financial necessity.

Mostly, though, it was a symbol of a time in her life when she was no longer a teenage kid but certainly not yet an established adult.

"The first time I used it, I felt very adult-like," she said recently. "But I was a little nervous. I didn't know where to sign it. I hadn't even signed the back of the card."

today, Ms. Beltz, who transferred after her freshman year to George Mason University in Fairvax, Va., is a more worldly 23-year-old senior.

Hardly a budding "yuppie," Ms. Beltz is not the typical customer you'd expect to see after watching MasterCard International Inc.'s television commercials. When t he 5-ft., 2-in. brunette sighs, "MasterCard, I'm bored," she is likely to quench her thirst for life by using her card to buy a good novel or a meal at a local Chinese restaurant.

A native of Philadelphia, Ms. Beltz now lives in Arlington, Va., and has a short commute to the Fairvax campus in the suburb of Washington, D.C. Since she doesn't own a car, she relies on car pools or an 80-cent bus ride to get her there and back home.

Why did she decide to own a MasterCard, instead of one of its competitors? Was her decision the product of long research on teh virtues of each charge card? Was she won over by the New York-based credit card company's multitude of services?

Not guite. She selected MasterCard for the most practical reason: It was the only company that offered her a card.

During her first year of college, MasterCard, throught the Sovran Bank NA based in Richmond, Va., invited Ms. Beltz and many of her college classmates to have a MasterCard. The bank's branch on the James Madison campus gave Ms. Beltz a $500 credit line, and she never exceeded it.

More Than a Status Symbol

While Ms. Beltz has stopped thinking of the card as a fancy status symbol, it comes in handy, particularly when she ventures into nearby Washington for a movie or a night on the town.

"I use it whenever I can instead of cash," she notes. "I feel more vulnerable to theft when I'm carrying around money."

Theft is no idle worry. Six years ago, Ms. Beltz had her pocket picked in Washingtom; the thief robbed her of $25 and her passport.

Even though she is now an old hand at charging items on her card, she has not been a perfect MasterCard customer. Last spring, when a payroll check didn't clear on schedule, she inadvertently bounced five checks, including one for $130.68 to MasterCard.

She was chagrined but not mortified. In fact, the incident provided some humorous irony.

"The month I bounced the check was the same one when they raised my credit limit to $1,000," she recalls. "I was very amused. It was great timing -- right on time for my summer vacation this year."

That trip -- a four-week jaunt to London, Paris, and Israel -- represented Ms. Beltz's largest set of charges to MasterCard: $1,000.

She used foreign currencies to cover most of the meals, but MasterCard covered the cost of the airfare and many gifts.

Such elaborate spending is unusual. Ms. Beltz figures that she has charged about $3,000 to MasterCard in the past 12 months.

"I charged about $250 on school books at the university book store and lots of meals, mostly at Chinese restaurants in Arlington," she says. "I eat at restaurants an average of twice a week."

Once it may have been uncommon to see college students using credit cards, but no more.

"Most of my friends have credit Cards," she observes. …