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Poor Single Mother With Lots Of Credit Cards. (It's Not What You Think.)

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Poor Single Mother With Lots Of Credit Cards. (It's Not What You Think.)

Planet Money

Poor Single Mother With Lots Of Credit Cards. (It's Not What You Think.)

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We've all heard stories of low-income Americans already buried in debt, being trapped by high fees hidden in the fine print of their credit card statements. Well, this is not one of those stories.

Planet Money's Alex Blumberg introduces us to a woman who is barely scratching out a living. And yes, she has plenty of debt. But she's also managed to beat the credit card companies at their own game.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I first met Edith Calzado at a financial empowerment center, a New York City program where low-income people can get free financial counseling. And when Edith first sat to down to talk to her counselor, Michelle Morillo(ph), she seemed to be in pretty bad shape.

She was a single mother of a young son. She had a restraining order against her husband who'd abused her. And she was earning very little money.

Ms. EDITH CALZADO: And this year, I make like 11,000.

Ms. MICHELLE MORILLO (Financial Counselor): And how much do you spend money on groceries per month? How much do you spend? You know?

Ms. CALZADO: I don't understand.

Ms. MORILLO: Would you guess...

Ms. CALZADO: I guess we spend on most of it is full pantry.

Ms. MORILLO: Okay. And your debt - the stuff that you think you owe out there - what do you think it is about?

Ms. CALZADO: Like 2,300.

BLUMBERG: Edith later said that she made a little bit more, cleaning offices and selling baked goods around her neighborhood on the side. But even with this, she only brought in about $16,000 a year.

But as Michelle, the counselor, asked more questions, the picture for Edith began to brighten. All that debt, it turns out, it's all interest-free. You know how banks offer those teaser rates, zero percent interest until January, 2001, Edith milks those for all they're worth.

She's also good at signing up for those store credit cards where they give you 10 percent off your purchase, then pays off the balance and closes the card.

Michelle pulled Edith's credit report. She wouldn't say Edith's score on tape, but it was excellent.

Ms. MORILLO: That's your credit score, excellent, okay? So let's go over what you've got going on here.

You have a Sears card that has been closed by you, zero balance, right? Chase, Toys-R-Us, closed, zero. Gap, closed, zero.

BLUMBERG: In other words, Edith uses the card to get the discounts and then closes it before the issuing company can make a cent off of her. She's taking their money, not the other way around.

Ms. MORILLO: Old Navy, zero. P.C. Richards, zero. Wal-Mart, closed, zero.

BLUMBERG: So have you ever paid an interest rate on a credit card?

Ms. CALZADO: No, no way.

BLUMBERG: And how much money have you borrowed interest-free, do you think, over the course of your life, in total, yeah?

Ms. CALZADO: In total, everything? Yeah, it's like $13,000.

BLUMBERG: So you've borrowed $13,000 from...

Ms. CALZADO: Citibank.

BLUMBERG: For free.

Ms. CALZADO: Yeah, for free.

BLUMBERG: Now, Edith does pay a balance transfer fee of three percent, but still, Edith, a Dominican immigrant on food stamps, is borrowing money more cheaply than the average highly rated U.S. corporation. And just recently, one of those interest-free loans enabled Edith to treat her son Sammy(ph) to something he'd never experienced before: a vacation at a resort in the Dominican Republic.

Ms. CALZADO: I pay $103 for my son and I, everything included, from Friday to Saturday. And you are allowed to enjoy the six hotels in the resort. This was awesome, my son say awesome.

Mr. SAMMY CALZADO: Everything was awesome.

BLUMBERG: Here's Edith's son, Sammy, who's 10.

Mr. CALZADO: There was also like this little train that would pick you up, and it would take you to any of the hotels you wanted. And then we also went to Ocean World, yeah, and I got to dance with a dolphin.

BLUMBERG: And the cost of dancing with that dolphin, thanks to Citigroup, Edith can now spread out over the next year in interest-free monthly installments.

Now, it's a special kind of thrifty person who can pull this off. Edith wears the same pair of shoes she wore when she arrived in this country in 1997. Even though she lives at the poverty level, she puts money into a savings account every month, and every week, she gives 10 percent of her wages to her church as a tithing. Citigroup, though, doesn't see a cent.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.

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