Friday, March 5, 2010

A Debtor's Deadly Denial

This month's Macy's account statement arrived in yesterday's mail. Conforming to the law recently passed and enacted this month, the invoice contains the requisite payment information, i.e., "if you make the minimum payment, you will pay off the balance in X amount of time."

Up until a few years ago, I lived the life of a fiscally irresponsible fool. A Scarlett O'Hara wannabe, I embraced the mantra, "Fiddle-dee-dee. I'll think about it tomorrow!" with regard the handling of my finances. If I wanted something material, damnit--I deserved it! and I purchased it on credit. I perceived a bank card's credit limit as cash in my greedy little pocket.

This eventually had me drowning in an abyss of despair and led me to the denial-smashing realization that I would never be able to pay off the sum of my debt in my lifetime. With a great amount of shame, I filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2003, concurrent with being laid off from a well-paying hi-tech job. ("Concurrent" meaning that I had begun the filing process before losing my job.)

What happens after one is granted a bankruptcy is criminal. The credit card companies begin an onslaught of offers for a new line of credit. The credit limit being offered is low and the interest rate astronomical. For someone as sick with Scarlett fever as I was, I jumped at the chance to continue the greedy game of instant gratification. I did not in any way change my lifestyle after I lost my job, by the way. I didn't move from the too-large, too-costly condo I was renting. I didn't stop going to lunch and dinner with friends. Instead, for almost three years after that layoff, I lived on sold stock, cashed out 401K funds, unemployment payments, and credit.

When all of that ran out, I hit a brick wall so hard it almost led me to picking up a drink after 18 years of sobriety. There was no one to blame but myself. Miraculously, I didn't drink, and a chain of events occurred that led me to Consumer Credit Counseling Services (now Surepath), and to a book entitled, "Money Drunk, Money Sober." Right around the same time, I was rehired by the hi-tech firm that had laid me off all those years before. (The Universe always cooperates when we take that first step toward taking responsibility for our problems.)

I turned over the six--count 'em: SIX!--bank cards to CCCS (debt totalling $18K after bankruptcy). They negoiated with the credit card companies to get the interest rate down (and some aren't very liberal about lowering the percentages). I began paying CCCS $509 per month via electronic fund transfer from my checking account. I moved into an apartment so small that it necessitated storing my dining room furniture and other items not needed day-to-day, and I began working the program outlined in the book, "Money Drunk..." My journey on the road to fiscal accountability was on.

This month, I made my last $509 payment to Surepath, having paid a total of $24K over their four-year program (yes, there are fees, but who cares? I was able to clear the debt in four years!). In those same four years, I've been tracking every cent I spend, daily, then, at the end of four weeks, I map out those expenditures by category. I now know exactly where I'm spending money, and where I need to pull back (one month, I discovered that I had spent $450 eating in restaurants!).

My Scarlett fever isn't cured completely. I kept two department store credit cards off the bankruptcy and the debt-consolidation lists. I decided that I wouldn't be too prudent about those purchases, and I'd pay a standing $150 a month toward the ongoing balances, budgeting the $300 paid monthly as a "clothing" expense.

Back to this month's Macy's statement: My balance is $1170. If I make the minimum payment of $39, the balance would be paid off in 17 years! If I pay $46 a month, the balance would be paid off in 3 years. I am grateful beyond words that those six bank cards have been paid in full, and the requests to close the accounts were mailed just this past Monday! Now that the $506 monthly payment to CCCS/Surepath are done, I'll have those two department store balances cleared in no time.

My concern is for other debtors as sick as me (past and present). I know that many suicides are motivated by financial woes. I keep envisioning someone with a family to support, who is unemployed and up to their ears in debt, opening their credit card statements this month and feeling utter despair and hopelessness. What of them?

Included below the payment information box, the credit card company this note: If you are experiencing financial difficulty and would like information about credit counseling or debt management services, you may call 1-877-337-8187. Curious, I dialed the number. There was a recording listing names of debt counseling and debt management agencies that offer help. How many will call that number? How many will jump off the Golden Gate Bridge?

What I know for sure is this: The disclosure of payment information is going to yank debtors out of deadly denial, and the game that's been played by these legitimate loan-sharks called credit card companies is going to change. Drastically. Mark my words.


  1. Responsible is good, Linnie! It's a good thing. I know the credit card companies are greedy bastards, but we still have to learn to say NO. Like vampires, they can only come in in if WE INVITE THEM in. Keep those windows and doors shut tight! Just cut up the damned Macy's card too. And don't leave the open bottle of Jack Daniels on the kitchen table. Same damned thing.

  2. Well done my friend, freedom from debt will surely help you breathe, not to mention sleep a lot better. I enjoy reading your blog; this particular experience is more common than ever with this economy and I am so happy you “slayed this dragon” without taking a drink.

  3. Wow! I had no idea what you were going through until I read your blog. I, too, spent a couple of years spending irresponsibly and feeling "entitled." I used credit to my advantage, sweeping up those offers in the mail and switching cards to the lowest interest rates offered - always with the philosophy - "I'll only charge in an emergency."

    Before I knew it, emergencies included new outfits or not feeling like cooking that night, and before I knew it my debt became worrisome. Not so much that I actually worried about it though, as I was living in the future - absolutely convinced that I would be able to pay it off within a few months. I was cocky and sure of myself. My credit card companies and bank oved me. I could always just pick up the phone, refinance my house. and get whatever I wanted at what interest rate I negotiated. Life was good. I felt invincible.....

    Then... BOOM! The recession hit. The bills could not be paid. The value of the house plummeted. The deal we were 99.9% sure that was coming through and would make us rich was now 100% NOT happening. (Damn that 00.1%)

    Talk about a sick, nauseous, gut-wrenching feeling. It lasted all of 2009. We watched as families in our neighborhood lost their homes and jobs..... Still we hung on clinging to what we held dear. At times all we had to hold onto was each other, promising that if we lost everything we'd still have that.

    It was times like these, that I felt Nana close to me. "Waste not, want not" I could hear her voice say, as I clipped coupons and grocery shopped at Wal-Mart instead of Whole Foods.

    This whole experience has been very humbling for all of us, and I'm grateful that we went though it. I realized that I was a self-entitled brat who didn't appreciate what was in front of me. Maybe we all were. That's why we had to go through it collectively.

    Hang in there and thanks for sharing. Let's all go green, pare down, and reevaluate what is really important in our lives!

    You are such an inspiration to me - no matter where you live or what your Macy's balance is. I look forward to reading ur next blog entry!

    Thanks for sharing!


  4. hi linda,i just sent you an email. i just called up my friend margot and left her the phone number to pass on to her little sis, who is 50K in credit card debt. thanks. luv, annie