Women and the credit card myth: how pop culture plays into the damaging idea that women are “bad with money”

In 2022, it’s time to ditch the “ditz with a credit card” narrative. 

In Stylist’s new digital series In the Red, we investigate how debt is really impacting young women in 2022 – from our connection with credit cards and shopping to examining how debt informs our relationships, our beauty regimes and the way we operate in the world. 

When it comes to how we spend our money, “putting it on plastic” seems to be more commonplace than ever. In 2020 alone, people in the UK spent over £17.3 billion on credit cards, yet they remain a tool women, in particular, have come to feel guilty about.

Despite their positive power, credit cards have long held a reputation for being slippery slopes toward debt. And there’s some good reason. As of November 2020, UK residents owed a whopping £59.4 billion in credit card debt, with those aged 25 and 34 years accounting for the largest chunk.

“When used responsibly, credit cards can be a useful tool to manage your spending and come with a whole host of other benefits such as reward points and cashback,” says Florence Codjoe, personal finance editor at money.co.uk.

“It’s true that when misused, credit cards can cause a lot of financial trouble, however, there’s no need to be afraid of using them as long as you spend within your means of repayment.”

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Warnings against “spending what we don’t have” do seem skewed towards one gender, even though data points to the stereotypes being untrue.

Researchers at the American University found that men actually carry more debt than women across nearly all categories, and while women do have more open credit card accounts than men, they are also less likely to say it’s OK to use a credit card for luxury purchases.

The findings are backed up by research from credit reporters Experian that shows women’s and men’s average FICO® credit scores are nearly identical, despite the fact that their incomes haven’t reached parity.

But rather than feeling empowered by utilising credit cards to build our ratings and benefit from lucrative rewards programs, they’re often seen as women’s shameful secrets – a small plastic reminder of our frivolity, fickleness and insatiable need for just one more pair of shoes.

A Barclaycard advert from 1973
A Barclaycard advert from 1973

Women being able to access their own line of credit is also a somewhat recent event. Before the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, lenders could legally require women to have male cosigners on loans or make larger down payments on homes than men with similar credit profiles.

“There was still this mindset that women got certain rights through the relevant man in her life,” Professor Lucy Delap from Cambridge University told the BBC. “Women had long been in charge of household budgets, but it was the husband who gave his wife the housekeeping money and held the financial power.”

But while “credit card sexism” may seem a thing of the past, in 2019 a US financial regulator opened an investigation into claims Apple’s credit card offered different credit limits for men and women. The probe came after tech entrepreneur David Heinemeier Hansson had complained the Apple Card gave him 20 times the credit limit that his wife got.

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But in 2022, to find where the “ditz with a credit card” narrative is being upheld, we need only look to our favourite female characters within pop culture.

In the most memorable scene of 2009’s Confessions of A Shopaholic, protagonist Becky Bloomwood freezes a credit card in ice to stop her from using it and then hacks away at it with a stiletto heel after a Barney’s sale proves all too tempting.

The story is the same for Rachel Green, Lorelai Gilmore, Hannah Horvath and even How I Met Your Mother’s Lily Aldrin, whose credit card debts only come to light when she tries to buy a property with her husband, Marshall.

A special mention must of course go to Carrie Bradshaw, the self-proclaimed queen of the AmEx is one of TV’s most financially irresponsible characters, with a $40,000 shoe collection and dismal credit rating that makes her unable to get a bank loan.

As early as season one of Sex and The City, we watch how Bradshaw’s credit card is literally cut into pieces by staff at Dolce & Gabbana for being declined too many times, which acts as the beginning of a multitude of poor budgetary decisions. 

Becky Bloomwood, the protagonist of 2009’s Confessions Of A Shopaholic
Becky Bloomwood, the protagonist of 2009’s Confessions Of A Shopaholic

These pervasive and reductive tropes don’t just make for annoying viewing, they have real-life consequences too, particularly amid a cost of living crisis that has lead to a surge in credit card borrowing.

Rather than informing and empowering women to utilise credit in a responsible way, it’s dismissed their right to spend their money how they choose and ramped up the fear-mongering among those who do choose to spend on credit cards. In fact, an American survey from 2017 found that millennials are scared more by the thought of credit card debt than they are of death.

So how can we reclaim the narrative around credit cards and focus more on using them for our benefit?

Carrie Bradshaw is TV’s queen of financial irresponsibility
Carrie Bradshaw is TV’s queen of financial irresponsibility

“When you get your first credit card, the first thing you need to remember is that the cash you spend isn’t really yours – it’s a loan from your credit card provider, meaning that you have to pay it back,” Codjoe tells Stylist.

“If you want to use a credit card responsibly, avoid treating the card as just ‘extra’ cash in your wallet, but as a tool to spread payments over time, make the money you do have go further, and build up your credit score in the process.

“If you’re in the market for a new credit card, the first thing to consider is what type of card is right for you. Some are good for managing larger purchases and will offer deals like 0% interest on purchases for 24 months, while some are good for racking up reward points.

“It’s vital that you decide what kind of card you need before you start your search. Many people just go with the same provider as their debit card, but unless the credit card comes with great introductory offers, there’s no real benefit to this.

“Figure out what your requirements are, and whether you could afford the monthly repayments, then pick the best deal for you. If you’re unsure how different cards measure up, compare the best deals from all the top providers, using money.co.uk’s credit card comparison tool.”

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Images: Getty/HBO/Warner Brothers