Erica Sandberg's best money advice of 2010

By Erica Sandberg Features

2010 was indeed a rollicking year for personal finance. I fielded so many fascinating questions about money and credit, and answering them has been a pleasure. The sorry state of the economy seemed to have inspired a newfound desire and commitment to getting and staying out of debt across the nation.

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As expected, much of the mail concerned how to effectively -- and sometimes creatively -- delete balances. Quite a few letters were about building and rebuilding credit histories and then obtaining the best accounts once that goal was achieved. Sadly, a good number focused on the need to recover from the damage left over from when children, parents and friends co-signed for cards or used plastic without permission. I always find those letters terribly tragic. 

But it was the queries that revolved around an ethical nucleus that rose to the top of my personal "best of" list. Choosing just one proved too much of a challenge. Therefore, two letters have tied for my top title:

Question 1: The teen credit card fraudster

Dear Opening Credits,
A credit card company sent me a credit card when I was 15. I didn't sign for it, and I didn't ask for it. I opened the letter addressed to me and saw a credit card and went shopping. I received several more cards the same way and defaulted on them all in 2007, just before my 18th birthday. I'm 21 now, and I'm out on my own. Am I responsible for this debt? -- Melissa

Melissa, at the tender age of 15, knowingly signed for credit cards that weren't meant for her. When she got them, she went a-shopping. After several years of committing credit card fraud, Melissa wondered whether she had to pay for what she charged because she was just a wee lass at the time. It's true that I went off on her a bit, but you know, it really irked me. She was thoroughly cognizant of her crime, but she wanted to make sure she could shimmy out of any repercussions because the law protects minors from forming binding contracts.

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It doesn't matter how old you are, or if you are protected by law from fines or jail time -- you must always borrow in a just way.

  • When you charge and get the goods, you repay whomever lent you the money. End of story.
  • Mess up? Accept and verbalize responsibility. Own up to it like a grown-up, even if you're technically a child.
  • Never confuse what's right with your legal rights. Melissa probably got away with her crime, and if she did, it was with a tarnished honor. I can only hope she was able to shine it up by eventually making good on the debt and treating all lenders from that point forward with respect.
  • Question 2: The entrepreneurial co-signing college student 

    And then there was Seth, the inventive and industrious college kid who thought it was a brilliant idea to share his exemplary credit rating with fellow students so they, too, could get a credit card.

    Dear Opening Credits,
    I know that the new credit card law means that any student under 21 at my college will need a co-signer to get a credit card. I'm over 21, and I've been talking to some of these underclassmen who are dying to get a card, but don't want their parents to know about it. So my question is: How much should I charge to be a co-signer for them? I think this could be a sweet business. -- Seth

    Not only did his plan have holes the size of Texas in it, there was a very serious integrity issue to contend with. I received more incredulous e-mails and condemning comments from this column than all others combined.

    So what were the moral problems with Seth's plan?

  • His false altruism. This guy wasn't truly trying to be magnanimous; he was hoping to make a buck. Let's call it what it is!
  • Trying to help other kids lie to their mommies and daddies. Seth specifically said he knew the parents of his friends were opposed to them getting credit cards, yet he was willing to do it anyway. That's kind of slimy. As Rodney Dangerfield advised his son in the classic college movie "Back to School," "You don't lie to me. You lie to girls."
  • Attempting to cheat the credit rating system. While it may be imperfect and even frustrating, lenders and other businesses rely on credit reports and scores to make sensible decisions. It's just not a good idea to be a con.
  • I look forward to taking on many more credit questions, comments and issues in 2011. Something tells me it will be a highly charged year!

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