Whether it’s “Gossip Girl,” “Twilight” or “The Stand,” popular works of fiction have shone a light on how we handle credit cards and debt.
Authors in all genres — from mystery to science fiction and chick lit to vampire sagas — are increasingly reaching for that extra little bit of verisimilitude to connect with readers. What better way to show a character’s true colors than by revealing how he or she does — or doesn’t — manage credit cards and debt?
Today’s fictional characters max out their cards, get turned down for credit, try to impress potential dates by pulling out the platinum American Express card, and break into an enemy’s house or locker with nothing more than a credit card. And that’s just for starters.
Here are eight novels (or series of novels) in which credit cards twist the plot, provide insight into a character’s hidden motivations, offer a bit of comic relief or teach a lesson.
- “Confessions of a Shopaholic” by Sophie Kinsella, part of her “Shopaholic” series
- “Friday” by Robert A. Heinlein
- “Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer, part of her “Twilight” series
- “The Stand” by Stephen King
- “You Know You Love Me” by Cecily von Ziegesar, part of her “Gossip Girl” series
- The Stephanie Plum Series by Janet Evanovich
- “The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” by Neal Stephenson
- “Attack of the Theater People” by Marc Acito
Book: “Confessions of a Shopaholic” (2001); the entire Shopaholic series
Author: Sophie Kinsella
Plastic moments: Though Becky Bloomwood stars in this successful British import, credit cards play a prominent co-starring role in every book in the series, starting on the first page of the first book, “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” Becky conducts a bit of mental calculation to recall all of the charges from the previous month before she opens up her Visa bill. In the middle of her number-crunching, she conjures up her juiciest fantasy: By mistake, her bill is sent to someone else — a veritable credit teetotaler in comparison — and they both pay the other’s bills off without blinking. Of course, when she finally rips open the envelope, she is so far off base with her figures that she assumes her card was stolen. In “Shopaholic Takes Manhattan,” the second book in the series, Becky pays off her credit cards by writing “check after check” before inevitably running them up again. Subsequent books in the series include “Shopaholic Ties the Knot,” “Shopaholic & Sister” and “Shopaholic & Baby” where, it’s safe to say, she continues her love-hate relationship with credit cards.
Lesson learned: As much as you’d like to, you can’t just dream away your credit card debt.
Book: “Friday” (1982)
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Plastic moments: Credit cards appear on almost every page throughout Heinlein’s story — one of the last in his long sci-fi career — about a futuristic society where it’s against the law to use cash since credit cards allow the government to track its citizens. The unnamed protagonist commits murder on the first page of the novel, and while frisking his victim’s body, he finds credit cards in the names of four different people. As the story progresses, he goes on the run, relying on the credit cards — including an American Express card issued by the Bank of Selene on the Moon — to throw off the authorities as to his whereabouts.
Lesson learned: Be careful of where you use that plastic. Someone might be watching.
Book: “Breaking Dawn” (2008)
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Plastic moments: Credit cards are prominently featured in the first few pages of the fourth installment in the best-selling “Twilight” series about the love triangle between a human girl, a werewolf and a vampire. Main character Bella Swan is embarrassed about being back in the hardscrabble working-class town of Forks, Wash., and feels painfully on display while using her ultrahigh class black credit card to fill up her flashy new car.
Lesson learned: Some people judge you by the credit you keep.
Book: “The Stand: Expanded Edition, for the First Time Complete and Uncut” (1991)
Author: Stephen King
Plastic moments: Credit cards are familiar friends in King’s worlds. In his post-apocalyptic work “The Stand,” cash is the only currency with any value. (Money quote: “… Besides that dope and the guns, we got 16 bucks and 300 credit cards we don’t dare use.”) Later on, King, who likes to drop brand names into his stories whenever he can, describes credit card promotional signs hanging over a fireplace mantel in an ironic touch: “YOUR VISA CARD WELCOME HERE. JUST SAY MASTERCARD. WE HONOR AMERICAN EXPRESS. DINER’S CLUB.” In the mid-1980s, King appeared in an American Express commercial set against a Vincent-Price era horror flick backdrop, asking viewers, “Do you know me?”
Lesson learned: With or without credit cards, the world can be a scary place.
Book: “You Know You Love Me” (2002)
Author: Cecily von Ziegesar
Plastic moments: In the wildly popular “Gossip Girl” series about a group of upper-class prep school students in Manhattan, the abuse and overuse of credit cards is a way of life. In this second book in the series, protagonist Blair Cornelia Waldorf decides to buy a pair of cashmere pajamas for her boyfriend at pricey department store Barney’s using a credit card linked to her mother’s account. The purchase, however, is declined, so she steals the pants while her friend Serena uses plastic to pay for a “bathrobe she hadn’t meant to buy.” A few chapters later, on a road trip, Blair’s new stepbrother, Aaron, uses his mother’s Shop ‘n Save card to load up on junk food.
Lessons learned: Parents should keep a watchful eye on accounts they share with their sweet little son or daughter.
Book: Stephanie Plum series (1994-present)
Author: Janet Evanovich
Plastic moments. Evanovich, the prolific author of numerous novels featuring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, is a huge fan of pop culture and what makes Americans tick. That clearly includes credit cards: Nine of her numbered Plum books include references to credit cards in the storyline. In “Fearless Fourteen,” Ranger — Stephanie’s occasional love interest and bounty-hunting colleague — hands over his corporate card to buy an outfit for a formal dinner. And, like any good detective, Stephanie often uses credit card records to analyze her suspects. “He paid his mortgage and credit cards on time,” a somewhat disappointed Stephanie observes about a suspect in “To the Nines.” After all, a clean record makes her job more difficult. And in “Foul Play,” one of Evanovich’s early books, a character discusses using a credit card to jimmy a lock.
Lessons learned: Credit cards don’t lie, and sometimes they’re useful if there’s no Swiss Army knife handy.
Book: “The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” (1995)
Author: Neal Stephenson
Plastic moment: In the first chapter, noted science fiction author Stephenson describes how the Peacock Bank, in a far-into-the-future Shanghai, issues credit cards to customers by injecting small chips under the skin. “If they accepted you, they’d shoot the credit card right into you, then and there, on the spot,” Stephenson wrote. Each “cardholder” could choose where to place the chip, which is similar to the RFID chips in some credit cards that allow transactions to be conducted without swiping the card through a reader. “These guys implanted it in the iliac crest of the pelvis, some opted for the mastoid bone in the skull, anywhere a big bone was close to the surface,” Stephenson continued. Though one character asked what would happen if he failed to make his payments in a timely manner, the banker never quite gave a straight answer. (By the way, the technology is already here. The company Advanced Digital Solutions first introduced the VeriChip back in 2003. Their main selling point was that it would reduce identity theft and be ideal for people prone to misplacing their credit cards.)
Lesson learned: Someday, that attachment you feel to your credit cards may be more than just emotional.
Book: “Attack of the Theater People” (2008)
Author: Marc Acito
Plastic moments: In this madcap sequel to “How I Paid for College,” Acito doesn’t hesitate to use credit cards as a plot device to further the story and mire his characters deeply into the mud. Protagonist Edward Zanni is working as a “party motivator” — a kind of glorified cheerleader at private events and bar mitzvahs — when he overhears a few snippets of inside information about publicly traded companies. Since he’s flat broke, he applies for a credit card to buy stock options, hoping to cash in. Instead, the information turns out to be false, rendering the stock and options worthless. Plus, he has to pay off the credit card, and he’s still broke. In one scene, Edward and a friend impersonate rabbis at a pricey restaurant so they can spy on a shady stockbroker. When it comes time to pay the check, Edward’s credit card is denied, and the pair makes a beeline for the door. They run through the streets of Manhattan, tearing off the rabbi costumes while making their getaway. The next morning, a few residents of the area find the discarded garments, leading some to believe that a “rabbi rapture” took place in their neighborhood.
Lessons learned: If it sounds too good to be true, it is. And impersonating a person of the cloth is bad karma.