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America's debt culture is a complicated journey for some immigrants

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Each time you swipe your credit card, you're technically taking out a small loan from your bank. Now, what if you were taught to never be in debt? For people new to this country, America's debt culture is often a Catch-22. NPR's Tirzah Christopher and Alina Selyukh share their story.

TIRZAH CHRISTOPHER, BYLINE: So I'm in the application. They're asking for my personal info, my first and last...

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Should we say what we're doing, Tirzah?

CHRISTOPHER: I am applying for my very first credit card. And Alina, you're my support crew.

SELYUKH: As a fellow immigrant who's honestly still kind of weirded out paying, like, for groceries with a microloan from my credit card.

CHRISTOPHER: Okay. Submit. OK, I'm clicking.

SELYUKH: What if they just approve you on the spot?

CHRISTOPHER: It says, thanks for your request. Unfortunately, we couldn't approve your application. We'll provide more detailed information explaining our decision by U.S. mail in seven to 10 days.

SELYUKH: They just instantly rejected you?

CHRISTOPHER: Oh, no.

SELYUKH: Why?

ADINA APPELBAUM: Yeah, I see that all the time.

CHRISTOPHER: Adina Appelbaum is a financial counselor and lawyer who works with immigrants.

APPELBAUM: A lot of folks are facing similar issues.

CHRISTOPHER: Well, at least I'm not the only one, Alina.

SELYUKH: I did not want to scare you, but the same thing happened to me 10 years ago. I had a debit card, regular paychecks, and my bank denied my credit card application because I had no credit history in the U.S.

CHRISTOPHER: And I'm not even sure I really want a credit card, which Appelbaum says is also common.

APPELBAUM: It's such a cultural shift because in many countries they don't have this culture of debt and things are paid for in cash, and there can actually be shame around having debt or a credit card, whereas here it can be pretty difficult to go throughout life without a credit card.

CHRISTOPHER: So America kind of runs on credit.

SELYUKH: Not just credit cards, but mortgages, car loans, student loans. Put together, American household debt is $17 trillion.

CHRISTOPHER: And I looked this up - to compare, the European Union has more households, but less than half that amount of debt. Or compared to India where I was born, the U.S. only has a quarter of the population but nearly 40 times more debt.

SELYUKH: The U.S. economy counts on you to borrow money. It's the main thing that feeds your credit score.

BARBARA KIVIAT: There's sort of this new rendering of what is financially responsible, which is borrow and repay.

CHRISTOPHER: Barbara Kiviat is an economic sociologist at Stanford.

KIVIAT: But another way to be really financially responsible is just don't borrow in the first place.

SELYUKH: This was a huge culture shock for me. Somehow being on top of my debt is now better than not having debt at all, because my credit score is shorthand for how financially trustworthy people think I am.

CHRISTOPHER: It's really scary. Well, because growing up for me, we were always cautioned, the one thing you don't do is borrow money. And it's not even money, just in general. If you borrowed something, you always immediately return it back. So I came into the U.S. and I was like, I have my debit card, I have my money and you know, I don't need credit. The first time I'm in D.C., I'm working full time, and I need to get an apartment and everyone's denying me. And I'm like...

SELYUKH: No.

CHRISTOPHER: ...What did I do? And then it was either denials, or they were saying, you got to pay, like, three months' rent, you know, like $3,000.

SELYUKH: But so - and the reason they were doing this is because...

CHRISTOPHER: I have no credit history.

YAZMIN LOPEZ: When I had my second baby, we had a problem with not being able to secure an apartment.

SELYUKH: That's Yazmin Lopez from Wisconsin, who also had trouble renting without a good credit score. She grew up in Mexico, moved to the U.S. as a teenager, and she remembers one day at Goodwill, she found a personal finance book by Suze Orman.

LOPEZ: She was talking about how you can have a credit card when you're in college and how your parents can sign you up. But I was like, well, my parents don't have a credit card, so that's not going to work. Like, my dad - he has all his money under the mattress.

CHRISTOPHER: Under the mattress seems like a safe place, honestly.

SELYUKH: She, like me, also used to assume that you have to have a Social Security number to apply for a credit card, but actually you can apply with a tax ID. Long story short, after many years, Yazmin Lopez is finally that very parent she'd read about. She's building credit histories for her kids. They're 8 and 14, both on her credit card.

LOPEZ: I'm glad that I can teach my kids that, hey, you can learn how to play the game (laughter).

CHRISTOPHER: All right. This is my second letter of rejection. It says we unfortunately could not approve your request due to the following - no opened bank revolving trades.

SELYUKH: So no credit history - and they don't want to be the first ones to take a risk on you.

CHRISTOPHER: Honestly, all I want to do is just be able to rent an apartment or maybe buy a car one day. But I've learned that everyone checks your credit score now - landlords, car dealerships, even some employers.

SELYUKH: And the surprising thing is that all of this is pretty new. Modern credit cards are just about 50 years old, and it's only in the last 20 years or so that people have been able to know their own credit scores. Now, the score has become such a focus that credit card debt can feel like it serves a higher purpose.

CHRISTOPHER: Kiviat also called out wages. They stagnated for decades, even though prices kept growing, and so credit cards became an easy way to afford stuff between paychecks.

SELYUKH: And there's a big ideological backdrop - America as a land of individual responsibility. So instead of big government subsidies or social benefits, we have personal borrowing.

CHRISTOPHER: And for people with no credit histories, some banks are starting to go after them with new types of credit cards.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER CRINKLING)

CHRISTOPHER: I'm going to open it. Oh, my God. The credit card. Oh, my gosh. OK.

SELYUKH: You finally qualified.

CHRISTOPHER: I did. I finally applied for this card called a secured credit card. Basically, I had to deposit $200 of my own money.

I'm in debt with myself.

But if I pay my bills on time for seven months, I graduate to a regular credit card.

SELYUKH: I think let's go build you some credit history.

CHRISTOPHER: Nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC BEEP)

AUTOMATED VOICE: Your total is seven...

CHRISTOPHER: Credit.

SELYUKH: Congrats.

CHRISTOPHER: Oh, my God. Yes. It worked (laughter).

SELYUKH: You're so surprised.

CHRISTOPHER: My first credit purchase...

(SOUNDBITE OF MECHANICAL SQUEAK)

CHRISTOPHER: My first thought is I have to go back to the office and pay for that.

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTOPHER: It is my first payment. I don't want to be in debt (laughter).

SELYUKH: That's the whole point.

CHRISTOPHER: With my new credit line, I'm Tirzah Christopher.

SELYUKH: And I'm Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
Tirzah Christopher
Tirzah Christopher is the 2023 Roy W. Howard fellow at NPR. An international investigative reporter, she graduated in December 2022 with a master's degree in investigative journalism from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.