Adrift in sea of debt

I was living large, on the verge of financial shipwreck.

Whenever a Visa credit-card company called to say my payment was late, I always had to ask, “Which one are you: NationsBank? Compuserve? Union Planters? Capitol One?”

I had almost as many Mastercards, too — not to mention the Discover card, a Pier 1 Imports account, and, lord, don’t even mention Sears. Like a magician, I could hold them all in my hand, fan them out and tell friends, “Pick a card — any card.”

From time to time, I had the nagging sense that I should have paid more attention to Polonius, the guy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who said, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

Me, I was definitely on the borrower end, with the growing certainty that my ship was about to run aground: I kept my cards maxed to their limits — paying a little each month, but charging a bit more when ever I got the balance down a tad. On my other bills, I shuffled better than Mr. Bojangles, assessing which companies tend to send nasty letters when you get behind, and which ones will let you slide (like Sears).

But I couldn’t tell anyone about it. I was too embarrassed.

Instead, I kept living on credit, moving into a new, more expensive apartment, redecorating (with a Pier 1 look, of course), buying a nifty camcorder when Sears upped my limit (the way they always do), and getting cash advances on whichever credit card wasn’t maxed at the moment — so I could go to movies, eat out with friends, and buy more CDs.

Should even the slightest unexpected disaster have struck, I knew I’d be hitting the iceberg that sank the Titantic. The doomed always know when something’s coming.

Sure enough, the axle on my car broke, 40 miles from home, during a post-Christmas trip. The tow job cost me $100, and the repairs nearly $150. Less than a month later, the rear brakes and wheel bearings went — to the tune of more than $200.

This was not in my budget (as if I had one), and Ed McMahon was not returning my phone calls. Come to think of it, I wasn’t returning my creditors’ phone calls, either.

So I put all the car repairs on American Express (my newest card), revived my efforts to finish a free-lance article to pay that bill and, in the meantime, begged a big advance at work. To relieve the stress, naturally, I went shopping at Pier 1, then out to dinner, thanks to Capitol One — or was it Union Planters, that week?

Denial comes in all forms.

And I still avoided asking for help: After all, I’m a grown woman, educated, and a nationally ranked athlete in karate competitions. But I was having trouble avoiding my growing stack of unpaid bills, and I was paying far too much attention to billboards around town whose siren song urged me to borrow more money, using my car as collateral.

Send out the lifeboat

Desperate, I finally made the call for help. I rang the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a nationwide nonprofit agency that helps people with debt management, budgeting and setting long-range financial goals, such as planning to buy your first home. CCCS also helps in emergency situations, such as working with landlords to keep clients from getting evicted during hard times.

CCCS doesn’t charge for these services, relying on United Way funding and donations to serve the nearly 1,800 people who walk through the door of its Asheville office each year. That office serves residents of Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Macon, Transylvania and Yancey counties.

“We help people who want to pay their bills,” the CCCS phone message begins.

I made an appointment, feeling like a little kid called into the principal’s office for cutting up in class. In turn, CCCS sent me a form to fill out: I had to list every company I owed money to, and I had to write down how much I spend each month on rent, groceries, gasoline, washing clothes, eating out — the works.

When I arrived for my appointment, financial counselor Wyatt Martin looked at my nearly $27,000 in debts and said, “That’s not bad.”

I thought: What? Not bad? It exceeds my annual income!

Seeing my debts in black and white, listed all together on one page … it was scary. Feeling full of gloom and despair, I didn’t trust my voice to stay steady, so I said nothing and just nodded.

To put me at ease, Martin chatted amiably about his love of motorcycles. We compared his days as an attorney in court to my battles in karate. Through it all, he mixed in some blunt advice: “You’ll have to cut up these cards,” he said, tapping his pencil down my list.

I was afraid he’d say that. But I couldn’t help feeling that I had earned those cards by cleaning up post-divorce, post-graduate-school debts several years ago — as if carrying credit cards were a sign of success, of being a grown-up. The thought of giving them up made me squirm in my seat.

Martin quickly set me at ease again: Excluding home mortgages, debts of $25,000 to $30,000 are pretty typical for CCCS clients. My debt was average, then, even if it seemed overwhelming to me. “You’ve already achieved one goal: recognizing that you have a problem. You’d be surprised how many people don’t recognize that,” Martin remarked. He assured me that my debts were manageable, and that I could take part in the CCCS debt-repayment plan.

Martin explained that CCCS would write a letter to each creditor, proposing reductions in both my payments and the interest charged. Most companies cooperate, he said. Discover, for instance, normally knocks their interest rate to zero. Others shave off a few percentage points; some might go down to 9 percent. “But Sears,” said Martin, laughing and tapping, “They won’t budge one bit.”

That’s the highest-interest card I have — and it was my first, generously granted to me before I even finished college. Ah, the memories: I probably bought my first set of tires for my first car at Sears.

Yeah, but at 21 percent interest — and with minimal payments each month — it would take me decades to pay off my Sears debt alone, Martin pointed out, clicking a quick estimate on his calculator.

So, back to the plan: Each month, I would give CCCS a lump-sum check of nearly $500, to cover the debts they agreed to help me with. My initial payment would also include a $25 donation to CCCS to defray mailing and other costs — if I were able to come up with it.

We’d wait to see which companies accepted the proposals, Martin continued. In the meantime, I’d come back for a budget-setting session in a few weeks.

He suggested that I keep receipts for everything I buy, from coffee at Old Europe to a birthday card for Mom. I’d go down CCCS’ handy budget checklist, too, listing regular monthly expenses, such as telephone, gas heat, cable and rent. I’d also have to figure in periodic expenses, like those $100 running shoes I’d need before summer’s end, oil changes for my car, and treks to competitions around the country this spring and summer.

I was used to charging all that, and worrying about it later — much later. I didn’t have a clue about budgets. We didn’t cover that in college.

But I’ve been covering Asheville City Council meetings for a few years, and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard City Manager Jim Westbrook caution Council members to “live within [the city’s] means” — well, I wouldn’t be in this fine pickle, as my grandmother used to say.

Martin steered my reverie back to reality: I’d have to cut up all those cards, he reminded me. Snip-snip.

I nodded.

But in the back of my mind, I thought: Couldn’t I sneak in one last trip to Pier 1 before cut-day? And maybe I could get one more little cash advance from one of my Visa cards?

Lord, I was going to need hypnosis to get through this. Just like a 12-pack-a-day smoker.

Stay tuned for future installments. And, if you need to contact CCCS counselors yourself, don’t be shy. You can reach their local offices at (800) 737-5485 or (704) 255-5166. Their fax number is 244-5129, and they’re located at 50 S. French Broad Ave., in the United Way Building.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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