Standard sitcom plot where a character receives a credit card and proceeds to be grossly irresponsible with it, equating it to free money. Eventually the bill comes and they must then find a way to pay off the debt. In simpler stories their new stuff just gets repossessed, although in real life someone is much more likely to have a lower credit limit and accrue large amounts of interest fees. Far more common in media from the late 80s into the mid 90s due to the rising availability of credit cards to the common folk of the world and at the time acting as a necessary anvil in reaction to a real world credit crisis.
Pretty much discredited for adult characters unless they're idiots; much more common with teenage and pre-teen characters. In general, the trope is that the credit card is given for emergencies only, only for one of the characters to regard a closeout sale at the mall as an emergency.
In Real Life, people (even grown-ups) do indeed run up credit card debts, but rarely this fast. Nor does it get resolved in 22 minutes. In fact, this is said to be one of the reasons for the recent recession...
However, pre-loadedgift cards or prepaid credit cards can be bought from stores making this go into Dead Horse Trope territory nowadays, as you can pre-load cards over the Internet too.
Also see Mock Millionaire.
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One of the Free Credit Score song-ads out in 2011 has parents of a girl heading to her sophomore year of college giving her a credit card, co-signed by them, to "buy books, not beer". She proceeds to buy a whole bunch of frivolous things, ruining their credit score and resulting in a very pissed off-looking pair of parents taking the credit card away from their sheepish daughter.
Another college related one had parents give a boy a credit card, citing it "only for emergencies". He thinks nothing of it till a party where they run out of pizza which he cites as an emergency. However he quickly abuses the privilege by buying all sorts of things like clothes, stereos, etc. Not surprisingly his dad visits him as he in scuba wear and angrily shows the credit bills he's been racking up.
Magical Pokaan, second chapter: the girls are watching TV, and they run across the home shopping channel. Liru gets a tanning lamp, Pachira gets a boob enlarger, Yuuma gets an electric ab-toner, and Aiko gets a food processor. Then they get really carried away. At the end of the month, the bank calls in, and all the stuff they bought gets repossessed. One of the girls then says "at least we got to know how being rich is like!"
This is pretty much the entire plot of the Confessions of a Shopaholic. The main character spends the film running up thousands of pounds of debt, messing up her job and friendships in the process because she's obsessed with shopping.
Inverted in The Sure Thing. Gib and Alison have lost all their money and are stuck in a rainstorm, trying to break into a locked trailer for shelter, when Alison remembers a credit card her father had given her. But then she remembers something important:
Alison: Oh. My dad told me *specifically* I can only use it in case of an emergency.
Gib: Well, maybe one will come up.
In Home Alone 2, Kevin has possession of his dad's credit card and uses it to check into the Plaza Hotel. At the end of the film, it's revealed that he spent nearly $1000 on room service alone.
In Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, the protagonist constantly uses new credit cards to pay off his towering debts. Of course, they just get bigger that way.
In the previous books, his parents did the same thing, so you can blame it on them not setting a good example. Also, it's an unfortunately common case of Truth in Television.
Interestingly, in all the previous books, Adrian is shown as a self-confessed miser with a pathological fear of debt, which made this sudden transformation into a reckless overspender rather unconvincing.
The Cheetah Girls: Shop in the Name of Love; the narrator runs up a bill on her mom's card. When her mom takes the card back, she continues her spending, over the phone, using the card number she copied against the eventuality.
Not a credit card, but the sequel to Freaky Friday has Anabelle, Boris, and Ben come into possession of a TV that shows all the shows for the next day. They decide to use it to watch the next day's horse racing and win enough money to get Boris's mother new clothes, redecorate the apartment, and generally give her life a makeover. In the process, they lose the last of the money through a mistake and now have a bill of several thousand to pay. All ends well as Boris's mother was paid more than enough by Paramount to write them a movie script.
In one of The Destroyer books Chiun, the Sinandju master Master of Sinanju, received from his employer Mad Emperor Smith a golden MasterCard meant to help him accomodate in the USA. Despising both the USA and its culture deeply, Chiun naturally never bothered to learn the proper conventions of the credit card usage, and of course ignored any explanations his adopted son Remo tried to give him, and simply assumed that the card instilled great awe and veneration in the hearts of dim-witted Americans, and discarded the monthly bills as garbage.
Not that this is different from the way Chiun normally looks upon people who will (to the reader) clearly be expecting payment. Or at least people from a country less than a thousand years old.
There's no actual card but in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Pa buys lumber for a house and a new stove on credit, counting on his wheat crop to pay it off. It wouldn't sound so rash if the neighbors hadn't warned him about "grasshopper weather", which he dismisses as some strange Norwegian expression, and a swarm of locusts didn't destroy the crop right before the harvest.
In The First Four Years, Laura's calculations of Almanzo's various borrowings on credit make for very dry reading, up until her conclusion: she'd "just as soon have a mortgage on Manly."
Not a credit card per se, but one of the Sweet Valley High books has Jessica charge too much on her mother's account at Lissette's. Alice finds out and demands that Jessica get a job to pay off the account.
Live Action TV
The Bundys, of Married... with Children, go nuts with a credit card that is accidentally issued in Buck the dog's name. All the stuff gets repossessed after Steve tells Bud that what Al and Peg are doing is illegal; of course, the romantic evening Al treated Peggy to at the best hotel in town can't exactly be repossessed, so Al ends up having to work as a bellhop at the hotel to pay it back.
That episode, along with a few other examples of 'cards mailed to non-people' on this page, used the quite true fact that anything mailed to you without you ordering it is legally yours. (And the implicit fact that stuff mailed to your pets is actually mailed to you.) But as the show pointed out, the fact that the family legally possesses the physical card doesn't mean they aren't off the hook for using it fraudulently.
Married With Children was a big user of this trope, using many variations of the Credit Card Plot over its run. Another instance (and one of the few episodes where Peggy Bundy gets her comeuppance) is when Peggy becomes an Avon saleswoman, and starts buying products from herself, not understanding how sales commission works. When Al finds out about this, he explains the lapse in logic to her, then makes her work at a fast food restaurant to pay the debt back.
Done on an episode of Hannah Montana. Hilarity Ensues. Then reversed, with Miley giving Lilly her checkbook so that she won't be tempted to use it. Hilarity Ensues again.
Though it should be noted that the whole premise of the episode was, arguably, questionable, making this one of the more egregious examples of this trope. Seeing as how Miley's alter-ego is a pop sensation in the show's universe, she should have millions of dollars anyway so it shouldn't even be an issue. Even if she IS a minor, she should at least be seeing some of that money unless her dad is a COMPLETE jackass, and even then courts usually rule that child stars get some control of the money they make.
On Lizzie McGuire, Gordo gets a credit card in the mail and uses it to fund the sci-fi movie he wants to make, but runs out of credit after spending recklessly and never completes the film.
Sister Sister, "Mo Credit, Mo Problems": The girls get an emergency credit card. Their friends convince one of them that a sale at a clothing store is an emergency. Thus, when their car breaks down and they get stranded in a bad neighborhood, they don't have enough emergency credit to pay the tow truck guy.
Taken to a terrifying twist in The Twilight Zone ('80s revival) episode "The Card," where a shopaholic is given a strangely accessible credit card only to find out the consequences of not covering her purchases when the company first repossesses her pets, then children, who don't even remember who she is. She desperately tries to buy them back using her joint checking account, but her husband cancels the payment thinking she's lost her mind. With the checks bounced, the episode ends with her unable to do anything but watch helplessly as her husband, her home, her entire life and eventually she herself are repossessed from the face of the Earth, leaving not a trace save for the credit card.
J.T. on Step by Step. His father is reluctant to let him keep the card, knowing something like this will happen. But he does, and, of course, it happens. J.T. gets another card at the end of the episode, which Frank promply shreds.
The Charmings ran up a huge debt after their neighbor introduced them to credit cards. Fortunately, they had a closet full of gold bars to pay it off.
The sitcom Charles In Charge had an episode in which Charles got a credit card with a low limit, intending to use it responsibly. However, the kids get hold of it and run up a large bill, causing Charles to be embarrassed when his card is rejected during a date.
Malcolm in the Middle: After Reese is kicked out of the house for a bad prank, he rents his own apartment, and does surprisingly well... until his parents find out he didn't quite grasp the concept of a credit card.
In another episode, Malcolm's parents find out Malcolm bought Christmas presents with a credit card they didn't know he had. Hal uses a pretend hug as a pretense to steal the card, which Hal then uses to pay for a trip for the entire family without telling Malcolm that he put it on Malcolm's credit card.
Ned: Don't you know how a credit card works? You get a bill at the end of the month for all the stuff on it. How are you going to pay for that? Cookie: DUH! I'LL JUST PUT IT ON THE CARD!
This eventually came back to bite him in the ass when he wound up stranded in the desert (don't ask, it's an odd show) and when he tried to use the card, found he was over his spending limit.
In the Mamas Family episode "Zirconias Are a Girl's Best Friend," Mama discovers a shopping channel called "KRAY Teleshopper" and instantly becomes addicted, running up a huge credit card bill on such things as: matching zirconia jewelry, personal handheld fans, a bronze gavel, and a "portrait of Elvis that lights up."
In an episode of The Facts of Life, Natalie falls victim when she receives a pre-approved credit card from the bank. Though responsible at first, buying only an appointment book and a pair of bunny rabbit earmuffs, she quickly loses control, running up a $1000+ bill on a new wardrobe in an effort to have a "more professional image."
A similar example occurs in Friends when Joey runs up quite a high credit card bill on ridiculous things while he's working on Days of Our Lives. He assumes, fairly reasonably, that he'll be able to cover it, but when he gets fired, he finds himself unable to keep up with the payments and his stuff ends up being repossessed.
Unfortunately (and as many people found out in the 2008-2009 USA banking crisis), this is easily Truth in Television, even without buying explicitly ridiculous things, but rather in the purchase of things like current-model cars or houses in good neighborhoods.
Averted on Undeclared. All of the main characters get credit cards, but Lloyd and Ron only get into trouble because they use them to buy stock. They are rescued by Marshall, who has just been fooling around with it, using the card to get a wad of cash and then playing Briefcase Full of Money.
In the middle of the episode they subvert the trope, in that Ron and Lloyd start spending like crazy when they are excited about the success of their stock. But when the stock tanks, they easily return all the products, presumably for a full refund. note The source of this money is never explained. They maxed their credit cards on the stock itself, and clearly didn't cash out because they lost all the value when it tanked.
CSI: Miami had an episode where all the deaths resulted from the debt problems of college students with new credit cards (issued on campus by credit card company employees who encouraged the students to spend irresponsibly as well as purposely forget to mention all the negative effects that can come from it).
Grounded For Life: Lily is given a credit card (by Claudia against Sean's better judgement) and goes on a shopping spree only to find out she can only return the clothes for store credit.
The Steve Harvey Show: Cedric gets a platinum card and immediately runs it up by buying unnecessary items like a leather bathrobe. When the end of the month arrives, he does not have the money to pay the bill in full. He agrees to a payment plan that will pretty much take him the rest of his life to pay off.
Leave It to Beaver had Eddie Haskel using a gas station card (very early version of a credit card) to rack up debt.
In the second episode of Shake It Up, the girls open bank accounts in order to manage their income from as dancers on Shake It Up Chicago. Now wielding debit cards, they find it surprisingly easy to lose track of how much they've been spending, and find themselves holding a check they can't pay at an expensive Italian restaurant.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch: Sabrina gets a witch credit card that lets her zap in anything she wants. Though in a twist, she doesn't accumulate debt and learn a lesson in personal finances, she becomes literally spoiled rotten and has to learn to be charitable.
Done multiple times on Hey Dad..!. In one episode Nudge gets a credit card, but doesn't realize you have to pay the money back. In another, Betty gets a card and starts getting deeper and deeper into debt.
On Yakov Smirnoff's sitcom, What A Country, Yakov discovers credit cards and declares, "You give people plastic and they give you stuff."
On an episode of What's Happening!!!, Rerun gets a bunch of credit cards and goes crazy buying stuff, getting into debt. The gang sell off most of the stuff and get most of the debt paid off. The episode ends with Rerun chopping up his credit cards with a blender.
In the Smallville episode "Red", Clark Kent gets exposed to red kryptonite and becomes a selfish, irresponsible jerk. One of his dickish deeds is taking his parents' credit cards and buying enough video games, sound systems, furniture, etc to fill up the barn. His parents protest that they can't pay for all this stuff, but he says that's not his problem. When Clark goes back to normal, he dutifully returns everything he bought and pays off the debt.
Jeremy: I'm just filling the hot tub... why don't you just lie down in the hammock and relax. Dad: *sits down in the hammock* Wait a minute... we don't have a hot tub. Jeremy:Didn't have a hot tub. Dad: WE DON'T EVEN HAVE A HAMMOCK!
Get Fuzzy liked to do this from time to time by having Bucky (and sometimes Satchel) order all sorts of random stuff on Rob's card(s).
Or on Bucky's card, in one case. Rob eventually manages to get it canceled.
In Foxtrot, the idea of Paige getting a credit card is regarded with unbelievable dread, to the point that fake ones with her name on them are even used as Halloween decorations - and Roger is horrified.
In Over the Hedge the animals routinely use credit cards to order stuff, then get out of paying them back.
One arc has RJ running up a massive debt in several cards issued in Verne's name, then getting him out of trouble by paying with a Nigerian Express card.
Connie: I just bought a few things, not [the amount over her limit]. Mrs. Kendall: Connie, my guess is, if you looked through your receipts, your "few things" cost more than you thought. Connie: But... where am I going to get that kind of money when the bill comes? Mrs. Kendall: That's a very good question. I can't wait to hear your answer.
The "GURPS IOU" campaign book for GURPS, which absolutely loves tropes of all sorts, includes a sample adventure where the characters acquire a magical credit card with no limit - if you try to check the account's balance, it reads "JACKPOT". Later on - likely after they've purchased a bunch of expensive stuff - they'll find out that the card is made in Hell, and the debt is paid not with money, but in souls! The plot is played out as a parody of The Lord of the Rings with the card taking the place of the Ring.
An early Penny Arcade strip has Gabe receive a CompUSA credit card. Played with in that he gets a call the next day indicating that the card was issued accidentally and that any use of it would constitute fraud... to which Gabe only replies, "Oh." while standing in a room full of brand-new electronics. Somewhat funnier in hindsight considering CompUSA has all but gone bankrupt by now.
MegaTokyo: The reason that Piro and Largo get stranded in Japan in the first place is because both of them max out their credit cards while in Japan.
Rocko's Modern Life, "Who Gives A Buck": Rocko gets a credit card and goes out shopping for a new dog bowl for Spunky. He ends up getting more than a bit carried away... After everything gets repossessed (including many things Rocko owned before), Heifer ends up selling one of his internal organs to pay for the dog bowl they originally got the card for.
The Simpsons episode "The Canine Mutiny", where Bart gets a credit card issued to the family dog (again the dog...) and goes on a spending spree - including buying a much more impressive dog. When the repo men come, he convinces them that Santa's Little Helper is the dog they want, but eventually realizes the error of his ways.
Note that both this and the Married With Children episode are rooted in Truth in Television; there have been multiple cases of credit card companies offering/issuing cards to seemingly improbable clients such as children and, yes, pets.
In a few instances, credit card companies have mass-mailed prison inmates with offers. When asked how that happened, the company reps explained that they had a consistent address history, making them a good credit risk.
Parodied in an episode where, in an attempt to have a vacation without the kids, Homer and Marge travel across the world. Bart and Lisa pursue them using Rod Flanders' card along with Homer and Marge fleeing with Ned's. Both card owners are naturally shocked to receive their next statements.
A variant from King of the Hill: Bobby, thanks to a combination of his own terrible math and his father Hank's thrifty ways, comes to the mistaken conclusion that Hank is a rich miser. He then "borrows" Hank's emergency credit card and goes shopping, hoping that it'll convince Hank to loosen up and spend more, but he gets caught pretty quickly.
In another episode, Luanne is scolded for her high credit card bills due to trying to live beyond her means, so she and Peggy join a roller derby to help pay them off. They form their own team after breaking up with their manager over pay disputes and end up getting further into debt when they use borrowed money to try to improve their team.
Subverted in an episode of Cow and Chicken; Chicken attempts to go crazy with a credit card he won in a box of cereal, only to be (rudely) informed by the store clerk that there's only 25 cents of credit on it.
After he does make a purchase within the limit though, the Red Guy shows up as a bill collector IMMEDIATELY. The rest of the episode is Red's attempts to finagle payment from Cow and Chicken for the item, a stick of gum. He ultimately resorts to blackmail.
A bit justified in an episode of Sealab 2021 where Captain Murphy runs up massive credit card debts; he is a complete idiot, after all, and quite possibly insane. In order to pay off his debts, he assists Sparks in killing off the rest of the crew to collect the ensuing insurance money. They succeed...at least until Sparks and Murphy die as well.
In The Proud Family, Penny's mom gave her a credit card for school and clothing expenses only. Of course, she and her friends abused it to the point of running out of credit. She ends up returning all the items she bought to get back her credit. The episode is made interesting by having the credit card talk, yes.
Steve Harvey was the credit card's voice, in an obvious parody of the temptatuous Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. It was very funny.
Done over the top, like most everything else, in an episode of the cartoon seriesBeetlejuice, when someone gave Beetlejuice a line of credit and he went on a massive shopping spree. When bill collectors show to make him pay for it, he refuses, and they abduct Lydia as collateral. Reluctantly, he returns everything he bought, at which point he's shown the fine print on his contract. The card had an interest rate of 6%...per minute. He ends up working as a Mall Santa to pay off the remaining debt.
The Goofy cartoonHow to Take a Vacation has Goofy financing his vacation on a credit card, since he'd never make enough money on his current job of washing dishes. Naturally, his card runs out at a restaurant, and he has to pay it off washing dishes.
In an episode of Beavis And Butthead the duo steal Mr. Anderson's credit card and use it to buy hundreds of dollars worth of animals, meanwhile Anderson and his wife try to check into a motel only to realize that his credit card is missing.
In an episode of Birdz, Eddie Storkowitz uses his father's credit card to buy lavish gifts first for his teacher, then for his entire class.
In South Park "Margaritaville" Kyle shows everyone how easy it is to get a credit card, showing that even he was able to get one. Averted as despite Kyle using it heavily, he did so to pay off all the debts in town so the people would start shopping again. And of course all the credit goes to... Barack Obama.
Done in conjunction with a The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday plot in Archie's Weird Mysteries. A mall mysteriously shows up in Riverdale and the gang go to check it out. The owner give them free credit cards and tells them to spend to their heart's content. However when Archie, Reggie, Veronica and Betty go over their limits they suddenly disappear and are turned into mannequins for the shop's displays. Only Jughead doesn't fall for it as he prefers his old hangout, Pop's, to the mall which allows him to eventually figure out that the owner is actually a demon whose trying to capture many of the town's souls so he can pay off his debt. Destroying the cards breaks the spell over the victims and once they escape the mall crumbles to rumble with said demon inside.
Phineas and Ferb: In "Bowl-A-Rama Drama", when Candace decided to take Phineas and Ferb's giant bowling ball to their parents so she could finally bust the boys, she imagined their parents would reward her by allowing her unlimited use of Dad's credit card: "You have our permission to ruin us financially!"
Sponge Bob Square Pants once did this in "Whale of a Birthday", where he used a credit card to buy buttloads of expensive gifts for Pearl's 16th birthday. However, since the card actually belonged to her father, Mr. Krabs, he's the one who gets the gigantic bill, not SpongeBob.
Not like the old miser didn't have the money to cover it. Guy was trying to be thrifty on his own daughter's birthday by making a cake out of Krabby patties, feeding the guests stale popcorn and having Squidward be the entertainment.
In American Dragon Jake Long, while under the influence of a magical age-up, Jake buys a car using credit cards despite not having a paying job. By the end of the episode, he's back to normal and working in his grandfather's shop to pay off his credit card debt.
A not-lengthy browse through the archives of Not Always Right will find not only people who run up huge credit card debts, but people who genuinely thought it worked like a gift card, and are horrified that they have to pay it back.
Discussed in Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit by James D. Scurlock. How providing excess credit to people who would never have qualified before, can produce huge profits as they attempt to pay off the debts they cannot afford. By adding spurious and expensive charges to the extortionate interest, you can lend say £1000, receive maybe £2000 and then write off £5000 when selling the debt on to people who will hound the debtor. After seven years a debt slides off your credit score, but if you are convinced to pay back a single penny, the clock is set to 0 again.
This is one of the reasons why many people prefer debit cards, where you can only spend the money actually in your account, to credit cards.