How a Free Subway Sandwich Led to a Decade of Credit Card Debt

Why banks love financially ignorant college students

Steven Ma
May 23 · 7 min read

College students like cheap food. Free food is even better.

On a warm, sunny, Southern California afternoon, I walked out of class feeling hungry. I was a few months into my freshman year of college at a private university.

I was feeling pretty good and carefree, despite having taken out about $15,000 in student loans — just for that first year. And this was back in 2003. But I was blissfully clueless about those consequences until several years later.

Yet I digress, this story is about a different kind of debt.

Instead of opting for the typical cup of ramen noodles or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I decided to splurge myself with some fast food. So I drove to the local Subway near campus.

I had recently started a part-time job as a janitor, my first real job in college, so with some money in the bank, I could afford luxuries like this.

As I walked up, I saw two people in polo shirts behind a cloth table in front of the Subway entrance. College gets you acquainted with these scenarios.

Something free for my email address? Sure! Maybe free pens, a stress ball, or even a USB drive?

“Sir, would you like a free Subway sandwich?”

“Um… YES!”

“Do you have a credit card?”

“No, I have a debit card.”

They went on to explain how I could sign up for a credit card to make bigger purchases if I needed to, like a laptop, and then just pay it off monthly, something like $30 a month. It was also a good way to build my credit, whatever the hell that is.

If I filled out a simple form now, I could get my credit card in a few days, and get a free Subway sandwich.

It sounded like a win-win to me.

I was entering the “adult” world with a credit card. I could now “afford” to buy more things if my bank account didn’t have enough money. I would be building this magical thing called credit that I would use for something sometime in life. And let’s not forget the free sandwich.

So I signed up, got my free sandwich, and went on my merry way, feeling pretty damn good about myself and my mature decision-making abilities.


A few days later…

I got my credit card in the mail.

That shiny, teal and silver Capital One card with my name on it. My very first credit card.

I went and bought something that very day. I don’t remember what it was, probably more fast food.

In the coming weeks and months, I didn’t really go crazy with my credit card. I just used it for mostly food and movies and clothes.

With a part-time job, I could easily make the monthly payments, but it didn’t mean I could afford the things I was buying.

There was a slowly growing balance on my credit card. But hey, eventually I would pay that off, so it was fine. I saw the interest every month, but it was only a few bucks, so no big deal. Somehow in the mix, I had heard or read somewhere that it was good to always have a balance on my credit card, you know, for the whole credit building thing. So I diligently made my minimum monthly payments thinking I was crushing this whole adult finance thing.


A few years later…

I had a lifestyle normalized by debt.

I graduated college with a little over a thousand dollars of credit card debt. Not horrible. But that thousand-something dollars was always there every month throughout college.

Again, I didn’t see it as a problem. I had a mix of multiple part-time jobs throughout college to make my minimum monthly payments.

Yet somehow along the way, I saw credit cards as this financial stash, and decided more was good. I had accumulated 2–3 more credit cards during college, each with a few hundred dollars on them.

I just liked the idea of having this huge line of credit. Even if I didn’t max out my credit cards, the thought of being able to was enticing. If I ever needed to, for an emergency of course, I had thousands of dollars at my disposal to spend.

During my last year of college, I had a paid internship at City Hall, which turned into a full-time job right when I graduated. So with more money at my disposal, surely I could pay off my debt now.

But you know where this story is going. It’s the same as most other people.

I started to spend more.


A decade later…

I realized how much I had wasted in debt.

I had multiple credit cards. I had actually opened some new credit cards to pay off other credit cards when I didn’t have enough money in the bank to make the minimum monthly payments.

Granted, my career wasn’t always rock steady either. The economic collapse of 2008 left me jobless for about a year. Eventually I started working 3 part-time jobs and side gigs here and there, making a fraction of what I did when I first graduated college.

Yet through it all, my spending levels stayed the same, and therefore my credit card debt skyrocketed.

Towards my late 20’s when I switched from freelancing back into a normal, full-time job, I had about $12,000 of credit card debt. Compared to others, it wasn’t horrible, but still pretty bad.

I have no idea how much interest I had paid during that time, but I know my rates were around 18%.

It wasn’t until I met my girlfriend (and now wife) that I got serious about my debt and paid it down.


I don’t blame the sandwich…

But I do blame the whole system around it.

First, I need to obviously admit that the blame falls on me. I didn’t educate myself, despite having access to that information. I didn’t control my spending habits. I chose to ignore the debt side of my finances.

But, I didn’t get the best start either.

Throughout high school, nothing was ever taught about finances. I find this ironic given the emphasis on memorizing a lot of other stuff in math and economics classes. Yet the inevitability of personal finance in a high school graduate’s life is never addressed.

Of course, it wasn’t addressed in college either. Not in classes nor in workshops nor through counselors. Well, college financial advisors do get you to sign on to tens of thousands of dollars in debt without explaining the consequences, so what can you expect?

The Capital One representatives didn’t explain anything either. They were just there to get college students who knew nothing about finance to sign up for their first credit card. And they knew that a free Subway sandwich would do it.

Here’s the problem:

High school students are entering the adult world with no preparation or framework for managing finances. There’s no system of financial education in place, despite an established system of easily funneling young adults into financial contracts. College students are expected and encouraged to participate in the financial world without any knowledge of it, and arguably that’s preferred.

It’s way too easy to get a credit card or take out a student loan. It’s deliberately easy. It’s predatory.

Banks that give out the loans depend on financial ignorance and apathy for profit. They need people to accumulate debt and pay it back slowly with interest. They want financially uneducated people.

And the easiest target is college students.

So many of us have been initiated into this financial system through the same path that we’ve collectively created a culture of normalized debt. It’s normal to have multiple credit cards. It’s normal to have student loans and car loans and whatever other type of loan. It’s normal to have a rolling balance of credit card debt. That’s just life.

It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I got a better understanding of debt and interest and budgeting. And it wasn’t until even recently now in my 30’s that I’m starting to understand investing. Take a look at my other article, What I’m Learning About Money in My 30’s That I Should’ve Known in My 20's.

No one ever taught me. I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

So maybe in the midst of all those classes having us memorize algebra and geometry equations for a test, only to forget them afterwards because we don’t ever use them in life, we could have just one class dedicated to personal finance. Or maybe instead of solving the speed and distance of trains as hypothetical math problems, we could use practice solving loan repayments and interest rates.

And maybe instead of giving a free Subway sandwich for a credit card, maybe we could give a free Subway sandwich to watch a short educational video on credit cards, then a free drink to take a little quiz on your comprehension of credit cards, then if you pass, you can have your credit card.

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Steven Ma

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Steven Ma

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The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +469K people. Follow to join our community.