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LITTLE PLASTIC CARDS PRESENT A DANGEROUS ALLURE: CREDIT

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I grew up in a family that despised those slim pieces of encoded plastic, better known as credit cards. In fact, my dad, who was unemployed and almost lost his house during the Depression, remained distrustful of banks the rest of his life.

He always preferred paying bills in person with cash.As his son, I lost my family tradition and unwittingly became a credit card convert.

I have two types of Visa-MasterCards, several oil company credit cards, an airline credit card, a telephone calling card - and a bank guarantee card that doubles as a credit card - and even takes the place of a checkbook.

I also carry a host of I.D. cards from the newspaper, the university, my health insurance and several libraries. I even carry what looks like a credit card to get into the newspaper office.

Besides, I get four or five offers every week to carry more plastic. They come from banks that tell me I'm a desirable credit risk.

In the interim, the banks I already deal with keep increasing my credit line.

"You may now charge as much as $10 million dollars if you wish. If you don't want to pay it back immediately, we don't care. You won't see our noses get twisted out of joint. We trust you, man."

MY LIFE IS PLASTIC.

And they want my kids, too. My two sons at college get dangerous letters from banks, promising that a credit card will "make life a bit less stressful. It's sort of like signing your own Declaration of Independence."

Independence from what?

The only thing that comforts me is that everyone else gets the same letters. There are 1.15 billion credit cards in circulation - nearly 10 for every American cardholder.

Hey, at that rate, I'm conservative!

This year, collectively, Americans will charge about $700 billion of goods and $325 billion of debt on them. And that tendency increases every year. In 1970, the average balance on credit cards was $649. By 1986, it was $1,472. This year, it will reach $3,000.

If you ever need a credit rating, plastic is a must. If you make a major purchase, you've got to have a credit history.

Nonetheless, economists tell us that a great many Americans actually hate the plastic they carry - or at least it makes them uncomfortable. Maybe that's because they grew up, as I did, hearing about the dangers.

"If you don't have credit cards," my dad used to say, "you won't get over your head in debt."

He was right, of course.

It is so easy to run up those charges by pulling out the little piece of plastic. The fact is that the banks found a way to make money from both merchants and cardholders.

Wright Patman of Texas, who was chairman of the House Banking Committee in the 1960s, said, "I think the banks, ever since the money changers were driven out of the temple of God, have been trying to perfect some plan whereby they can collect from both sides."

When the bank credit card was born in 1958, there were many who said it would have only limited use - "to take advantage of sales - to buy your skis in the summer and your barbecue grill in the winter."

Not quite. Economists say most consumers pay with a credit card rather than with either cash or checks. It's just easy.

The bank's best customers are those who allow themselves to get in debt, stay in debt - and then pay the minimum balance on time.

Pretty soon, we'll all pull out our Burger King or KFC credit cards - or maybe just carry one universal one that is accepted everywhere.

Why didn't I listen to my dad?