Lasting Lessons From A CD Club in 1991

Poking out of a discarded pile of junk mail, there was wait, what? It couldn’t be. 8 CDs For One Penny?!!?!

When I was 13 years old, my “big” Christmas present was a CD player. But not just any CD player, a CD player boombox, more of a stereo system, really.


My mom is a very thoughtful gift-giver, so later in the morning I also opened two CDs—(so I didn’t have to wait until the next day to go to Sam Goody’s to use my new present!)—Boyz II Men Cooleyhighharmony and Wilson Phillips. Obviously.

Columbia House CD's

Junior high was the first time (although, certainly not the last!), that I realized I wasn’t “cool” when it came to music. And overnight, being “cool” had entered my consciousness, taken over, and sucked all the air out of the room. I had very little to work with, but the lowest hanging fruit seemed to be small talk about 90210 or Nirvana, neither of which I was allowed to watch/listen to. It wasn’t looking good.

But my new CD-player-boombox-stereo-system represented a ray of hope—new possibilities—opening doors, breaking down barriers, making me cool.

I struck a deal with my mom about 90210. I could watch it, as long as we watched it together and talked about it afterward. It was as embarrassing and awkward as it sounds, but ultimately, I deemed, worth it, for the social armor it provided me the next day at school.

Now I just had to overcome the fact that I hated most of the music my peers were obsessed with, well, either I hated it, or I wasn’t allowed to listen to it, so either way…

One night, sitting at the desk in the kitchen, talking on the phone (because we didn’t have a cordless phone and my dad wouldn’t get me my own line—ugh!), something caught my eye. Poking out of a discarded pile of junk mail, there was wait, what? It couldn’t be. 8 CDs For One Penny?!!?!

Columbia House Ad

I looked over my shoulder to be sure no one was watching, and then tucked it in my back pocket and made my way upstairs to put in my sponge curlers.

As soon as I was sure everyone had retired to their own rooms, I closed my door, and laid on my bed to learn more about this magical place called Columbia House where CDs rain down like manna from tween heaven!

It seemed to good to be true. All I had to do was pick the CDs that I thought everyone at my school thought were awesome wanted from a perforated sheet of tiny album covers, pop it in the mail and anxiously wait for the goods to arrive? ONE PENNY?! NO PARENTS?!

I hesitated—but not for very long. This was my ticket. It was just me, and my CD-player-boombox-stereo-system and 8 CDs of my choosing, against the world.

Neurosis set-in about three days later: What if my mom saw the package before I did? What if she opened it? What if she saw the cover of the Nirvana CD or looked at the Warrant lyrics? What had I done?  

I checked the mailbox about seven times a day. In fact, I dusted off my rollerblades, to appear to have a more legitimate reason to be loitering in the front yard. Finally, weeks and weeks later, a package arrived—with my name on it!—full of contraband CDs.

I opened the one and only CD that I genuinely wanted to listen to—Mariah Carey—and felt incredibly grown up.

Time passed, and inside of a month, my whole life was different—as can happen when you are 13. The discovery that in the drama club, it was cool to love Newsies more than Nirvana, was a watershed moment. It was the beginning of owning my own place in the world, alongside my people, ones I’d really chosen. I had completely forgotten about the whole affair, until a letter arrived.

Well, I was 13, so I thought it was a letter, but it was a bill.

I opened it up in my room, immediately stuffed it back in the envelope and shoved it under my bed. How had this happened? What would I do? How would I ever pay them back? How long could I keep this from my Dad?

I had no answers, so I just pretended it didn’t exist. If I didn’t think about it or look at it, maybe they would forget? Or somehow it would just go away?

But the letters, er, bills, kept coming, more threatening, cryptic, and expensive every time—interest upon interest times hidden fees. I felt duped and embarrassed and scared. I didn’t even like the CDs that were probably going to land me in jail!

Months and months, maybe a year, of bills and fine print, compounding interest and sweaty panic—and I just kept shoving them under the bed. Eventually, my mom stumbled (or snooped) her way into my under-the-bed-stash of shame. And it was a Dad-will-talk-to-you-when-he-gets-home situation. The worst kind.

And today—I don’t remember every punishment or crucial conversation, but boy, do I remember that one. Turns out my Dad knew what he was talking about and these are lessons I hope that I can pass on without creditors getting involved.

Sound Too Good To Be True? It Probably Is

When you are desperate or overwhelmed, the quick fix is so appealing. It is tempting to lie to yourself, “I deserve this,” or “I’ll figure it out later,” or “I’m sure it will be fine.” But the quick fix, the shortcut, the too-good-to-be-true, always has a catch. Spending money is very quick and easy—saving it, paying it back, and making more? Not so much.

My dad told me hard work was the only way. And that I would learn a lot about it paying him back.

Ignoring The Problem Makes For A Bigger Problem

If I had just fessed up, when that first bill came, I’m sure I wouldn’t remember the conversation my Dad and I had afterward. So much less debt, deception, and epic discipline would have been involved.

It sounds so ridiculous to hide bills under the bed, but it isn’t much different than how a lot of full-fledged adults treat their finances. If I don’t open the bill, if I don’t know the details, if I close my eyes and scream, “La, La, La!” maybe my money problems will go away.

The longer you wait to get control of your money the more debt and regret.

Asking Makes The Difference

I had to sit next to my Dad while he called Columbia House to ask to speak to managers and negotiate and what not. He paid off a significantly reduced balance, and I spent the rest of the year paying him back. But sometimes if you ask, you can set up a payment plan, or an interest rate reduction, or a waived late-fee. You will never know, if you don’t ask. I never forgot that and it still pays off.

Only You Can Decide What Is Right For You

My Dad knew I was trying to be something I wasn’t, and that never leads to anything good. I think this happens a lot with money. If you are spending your money on what is important to other people, it will never end well. If your top priority is paying off debt, you might have to say “no” sometimes. Own it. You’re getting control. You’re moving toward your goals. Chances are, your friends and family and coworkers will relate. And if they don’t, they aren’t right for you.

The Unknown Is Always Worse

The anticipation of what might happen is more stressful and scary than facing reality and moving forward. Sure, the first step is hard, but you are in the driver’s seat and the subsequent steps will get easier and easier and easier. By deciding to pull your head out from under the proverbial bed, you can look at all the information and start making better decisions and taking control of your money. Facing your financial reality—whatever it is—will be less stressful than just living in the dark, anxious and guessing when the money will run out.

So, thanks, Dad, for pulling off a Full House moment that made a lasting impression.

The Columbia House Episode, as it came to by known in our house, changed me. Sure, “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips remains my go-to karaoke song, I will forevermore abhor junk mail, and I still struggle to understand what the big deal was with Nirvana, but I don’t hide from my mistakes. I live (and spend) with my eyes wide open, fully aware of what matters to me. And I’m most content when my money is focused solidly in that direction, and I am in total control.

Now if only my driving lessons had made a similar, lasting impact…