Image: Woman using calculator on desk full of bills and statements © Sheer Photo, Inc, Photodisc, Getty Images

For as long as I can remember, my father warned me about the dangers of credit cards.

After I got my first job the summer after my senior year in high school, it became clear just how irresponsible I was with even that minimal income. The second I got paid, I would spend my whole paycheck.

It's not as though I was buying anything I needed, because at the time, I was living at home. However, that didn't stop me from figuring out ways to burn through my funds.

As a result, my parents suggested I never ever get a credit card, because it was guaranteed to lead to trouble. "Not only is math not your strong suit," my dad warned, "but you also have zero concept of the worth of a dollar."

He was right.

I was only a few weeks into my first semester of college when a credit card company in the Student Union Building lured me in with promises of building credit, learning responsibility, and, most importantly to me, access to invisible funds that were not mine. I was sold. I listed my parents' combined income on the application (since I was a student, after all), and received my first credit card a few weeks later. I didn't tell my parents because I was 18 years old, mature and ready to prove them wrong.

Me and my card

Being a grown-up means starting a credit history. And so I made my first purchase: shoes.

That was fun and easy, I thought.

I waited until I got my first paycheck from my work-study job, paid off the shoes in their entirety, and then bought some more shoes. With a minimum payment of $15, I decided I could buy lots of things. I also bought clothes. And treated my friends to lunch if they didn't have the money.

Once the local pizza place started taking credit cards, I ordered pies for my roommate and me almost every night instead of going to the dining hall. (Have you found yourself in a similar spending spiral? Learn how to stop it here.)

By the time sophomore year rolled around, I had two credit cards and a couple of thousand dollars in debt. But I had just gotten a part-time job at the Gap, which paid a whopping $8.50 an hour; in other words, I was about to hit the big time. However, working at Gap meant wearing my employer's clothes. Before my first day, I bought several "key" pieces in preparation for my fancy new job.

Retail comes with some major perks, especially if you're a college student who firmly believes you can never have too many clothes. I felt it was my responsibility to take advantage of my employee discount -- 50% off regular-priced items and 20% off sale stuff.

Enter: credit card No. 3

I got a third card because I had hit my limits on the two others. But I still had things to buy and a gorgeous new boyfriend who was an art student in Boston. Someone had to pay for things!

Once again, I put down my parents' combined income and "padded" it a bit with what I assumed I would eventually be making when I graduated -- with a degree in English. Voilà!

A few weeks later, I received a sturdy envelope in the mail that could only mean a new credit card. My guy and I were going to Bella Luna, a great little restaurant downtown that we college kids could usually go to only when our parents were in town. Just the two of us.

My monthly minimums on the three credit cards were only around $150. No problem! I had a job, and if I couldn't swing it, I'd call Mom and Dad for grocery money. Problem solved.

. . . And then a fourth

In my senior year of college, I broke up with that boyfriend, and I was in need of retail therapy that could only be accomplished with a fourth (and final) credit card. But with my existing credit-card balances pushing $18,000, I was given only a $1,000 spending limit on the newest card.

Considering my previous lifestyle, $1,000 wasn't going to cut it. I bought myself some shoes, Grey Goose vodka and pizza, and went home to drown my sorrows.

When I graduated from college, I was somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000 in debt, thanks not only to my own irresponsibility (which also led to late fees) , but also to ridiculously high interest rates.

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