Research and Statistics

The short, unhappy life of a credit card


On average, a card lasts must three years before delamination, degaussing or (ulp!) scissors, so asked one credit card to reminisce about its short unhappy life.

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Hey, it’s me. Your go-to credit card.

Sure, we do a lot of shopping together but it’s always just swipe, swipe, swipe. We never spend any quality time together.

Here's my baby photo: Look how cute I am at 0 percent!Come grab a latte while I tell you about my life. I’ll buy.

You wouldn’t know it to look at us but we actually have a lot in common: you’re 80 percent salt water; I’m 57 percent salt mixed with oil, or polyvinyl chloride. Next life, I’m coming back as a margarita!

I hail from sturdy stock: A PVC substrate gave me my form, my colorful silk-screened graphics layers gave me a name and personality, the magnetic “mag” stripe across my backside gave me a steady job, and my snappy holographic soul patch gave me authenticity. And a little bling.

But I gotta tell you, I never want to see that embossing machine again! I can still feel every one of those 16 account numbers pressing through my back and rising out of my front like that creature in “Alien.” You don’t know from back pain, my friend. No wonder we credit cards spend most of our lives horizontal.

What makes it worse is, those permanent kinks in my sacroiliac are all but unnecessary, a holdover from my grandfather’s day when they used the old “zipzap” knuckle-cruncher machines to make a carbon imprint of us. They’re all but worthless today unless you’re stuck for cash somewhere west of nowhere.

Here I am in my shopping prime. Sure, my peacock colors have faded a bit, but my mag stripe is strong as ever!

Frankly, I didn’t know the special purpose of my mag stripe until you came along. I still remember the day I was singled out and electronically encoded with your personal account information. Finally, I was somebody!

I earned my (magnetic) stripe
Our card company won’t reveal exactly what data is swimming around in those magnetic iron oxide particles, but it’s not likely to include your address, phone number, account limit or employer, since they don’t issue a new card when those things change.

On the other hand, it probably does include my expiration date, because ATM machines will swallow me when I’ve expired. Let’s not let that happen, OK?

Over the years, scientists have experimented with replacing my PVC with polyester, polycarbon and even Mazin, a biodegradable polymer made of good old Nebraska corn. But PVC remains the most popular because it’s durable, inexpensive and self-extinguishes when lit. Try that with a polyester card and you’ll have a miniature Mount Vesuvius in your hand.

I’m one in a billion
Remember the day we met? I was a cute, cuddly zero-percenter, just one of an estimated 984 million Visa and MasterCard credit and debit cards issued in the United States in 2006. Even though I’m just one in nearly a billion, you were so happy to see me. Back then, anyway.

I'm melting! I'm melting! I mean, I'm scratched and really need a shine-up.

We bonded from the moment you signed me. After all, my signature panel has a special layer that disappears or reads “void” if your signature is erased or altered. The security feature on my mag stripe also shields it from accidental erasure (or “degaussing”) when it comes in contact with your magnetic money clip and other magnetic fields.

What a honeymoon we had with my teaser rate! Remember that little cafe in Paris? What was the waiter’s name? Jean-Luc? I forget. But I’ll never forget the look on your face when my first statement arrived. Who knew the euro could beat our almighty dollar like Roger Federer on Red Bull?

Affection turns to ice
That’s when we began to drift apart. First, you started carrying a balance. Then making minimum payments. Then came the late fees. You started seeing other payment systems.

On the rare occasion you did pull me from your wallet, it wasn’t to swipe; it was to fight. How would you like being threatened with scissors? Or frozen solid in ice; remember your cooling-off kick? Thank goodness for blow dryers!

But together we made it through when my teaser rate popped to 13.46 percent — you saving, me not spending. Pressure makes diamonds. And credit cards, come to think of it. We both breathed a lot easier when we saw my balance due return to zero. I could face the light of day and some sharp objects again.

Cracked. Degaussed. Delaminated. And to think -- I'm only 3 years old! We both know my days are numbered. The card issuer gives me three good years on average before my mag stripe degausses or I start to delaminate and they send you a replacement card.

My replacement will probably have a whole host of new features like “contactless” radio frequency ID and maybe even a smart chip.

Please take my advice and don’t let all the high-tech gadgetry lure you into overspending again. Remember, where credit cards are concerned, sometimes bells and whistles signal the approach of an ambulance.

Thanks for listening. Shall we shop?

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See related: “Reuse and recycle those old credit cards

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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