The United States of Debt

The Trouble With Credit Cards

In this preview of the United States of Debt, a look at America’s love affair with plastic. 

Credit cards
Are we fully to blame for our credit card bills?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by BernardaSv/Thinkstock.

This article supplements the United States of Debt, our third Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Helaine Olen as she explores the reality of owing money in America. To learn more and to enroll, visit

Whether you’re struggling to get by on $30,000 a year or living off of a comfortable six-figure income, credit cards have become an inevitable part of American life.

In this second episode of the United States of Debt, a Slate Academy, host Helaine Olen explores why so many of us run up more charges than we can easily pay off. What factors have allowed credit card companies to lend us money so indiscriminately, and could a 1978 Supreme Court decision have something to do with it? How has racial inequality played a role in ensuring that some minorities hold more credit card debt than whites? And are we fully to blame for our credit card bills?


Also tune in to hear Olen give advice about how to get out of credit card debt—including her thoughts on get-out-of-debt organizations, financial coaches, and bankruptcy.

In this special free preview of The United States of Debt, Episode 2: The Trouble With Credit Cards, you’ll hear Chapter 1: “I use credit cards to have a life.”

To get access to the rest of the episode, plus other supplemental articles and bonus segments, visit

Meet our subjects from Episode 2:

  • Yannerys, 26, is from Brooklyn, New York. She is a single mother to an 8-year-old daughter. She currently works at a nonprofit organization where she helps low-income New Yorkers receive social services. She is a first-generation college student with about $30,000 in debt from student loans and credit card debt.
  • Kirk, 48, lives in a condo in Miami with his husband of eight years. Together, they have almost $500,000 in mortgage debt, credit card debt, student loans, and car loans.
  • Louis, 50, is an academic on tenure track. At one point, he held over $90,000 in credit card debt and student loans. He has a teenage daughter and lives in New Jersey.


Our guest experts on Episode 2 include former CNBC On the Money host Carmen Rita Wong, Arkansas State University visiting associate professor Dr. Rebecca Barrett-Fox, and Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, president of Global Policy Solutions, a Washington, D.C.–based policy firm and nonprofit. 

Read the complete transcript of Episode 2 here.

Also, we’re hoping that you’ll share your stories of debt with us. Do you remember what it was like to get your first credit card? What was your first big purchase? What was your highest balance ever—and how did you pay it down? Send us a voice memo at and we might run some of your responses in a bonus segment or upcoming episode. You can also dial (929) 279-3328 and leave a message for us there. Feel free to remain anonymous.

To join this Slate Academy and hear future episodes, chat in our private Facebook group, and read supplemental materials, visit