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The Tragedy of Our Credit Card Culture

Date:  11th March, 2004prevnext

The Daily Mail's front page headline today, "Credit 'Kills' A Family Man," will strike a chord with most of us.

The story describes the tragic suicide of 37 year-old Stephen Lewis, a father of two who hanged himself apparently to escape debts of almost £72,000.

Naturally the paper blames the major banks, credit card companies and building societies for Lewis' death...

Is it fair, or even accurate to blame these financial institutions though? There is no doubt that they have acted irresponsibly, but should they feel any guilt for Lewis' death? I don't think they should.

The tabloid's argument seems, at first glance, to be reasonable enough: Lewis earned just £22,000 per annum yet, at the time of his death, he legitimately possessed no fewer than 19 credit cards with authorised credit of £50,000.

This, I'm sure you'll agree, is totally mind boggling. How on earth can any of Lewis' creditors have justified their lending? Aren't credit cards supposed to be cleared every month? Clearly Mr. Lewis couldn't have cleared his debt in two years, even if his full salary had been allocated to the repayments, so how on earth he was expected to be able to handle these cards is beyond me.

It gets even more incredible - according to the Daily Mail, around £50,000 of Lewis' debt was generated, not through irrational spending, but by accumulated interest, bank charges and card protection insurance plans!

The newspaper dedicates more than three whole pages to a scathing attack of the financial institutions. There is the usual call to arms and the obligatory, blustering MP - in the form of Labour's John Mann - promising to take up the tragedy with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Which, of course, will achieve exactly nothing - Brown has his own problems.

There are many tragedies here: It's always tragic when a human being feels so hopeless that he will take his own life. It's tragic that two children have lost their father and a wife, her husband. It is certainly tragic that Lewis could end up in such a financial state in the first place.

But there is only one person upon whom the blame for these tragedies can be laid and that person is the late Stephen Lewis. It was Lewis who borrowed £22,000 that he had no means of repaying. It was Lewis who voluntarily applied for 19 credit cards. It was Lewis who withdrew cash from one credit card to make a repayment on another - surely the most stupid form of borrowing. It was Lewis who apparently buried his head in the sand rather than negotiate with his creditors.

It is a sad indictment of our society that we all are so willing to spend someone else's money. Just a few generations ago, it was almost unthinkable to borrow money for, what can only be described as decadent, greedy consumerism. Today it is unthinkable not to. It seems there is no longer any shame associated with having debt.

But the biggest tragedy of all is that people refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions. People know no shame and feel no guilt. Because of this our society is crumbling around us. There is no longer any sense of community, only a state of competition.

As Britain's consumer debt hovers just below the trillion-pound mark, the suicide of Stephen Lewis should serve as a wake up call for us all.

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