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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

After 9/11 Creditors Told Me, "There's Nothing We Can Do"

My husband worked on the 81st floor of Tower One in the World Trade Center for a company called Network Plus. On September 11th his entire office managed to climb down all 81 flights of stairs and escape just minutes before the buildings started to collapse. His boss guided the entire team of salespeople down and encouraged my husband to continue when he felt tired. At one point my husband’s boss even left the team in order to help carry a woman in a wheelchair down the stairs to safety. Miraculously, she survived as did everyone in my husband’s company. As the highest office to have every member survive, Oprah Winfrey even had them appear on her show.


The ordeal was stressful enough for us to deal with, and after a few weeks passed the company he worked for went out of business. They tried to survive by relocating but the entire city was in such turmoil that the company simply couldn’t make it work. I realized that my husband was the bread winner and I had no idea how we were going to pay for our bills. We had managed to accrue quite a lot of credit card debt and now had only my small teacher’s salary to pay for it all. As the bills continued to pile up I started to make phone calls to the credit card companies with the hopes of working out a payment plan. What ended up happening instead was my filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.


Before September 11th I had a credit score of about 650 and had over $10,000 in credit card debt. My payments were always on time and I rarely had any problems. Most of my debt was due to department store credit cards such as Macy’s, Ikea, Express and Spiegel. I also had an electric bill that I couldn’t pay and a cell phone bill which piled up. The interest rates were sky high, over twenty percent for each card and I knew if I didn’t work something out I was going to sink fast. Paired with the late fees I knew it would happen quickly if I didn’t do something fast. The largest amount I owed was to American Express and since they require payment within thirty days they were the first company I called.


To say that American Express is cold-hearted would be a nice way of describing them. I explained to the representatives over numerous phone calls that I wasn’t looking to get out of paying the $2,000 I owed them but that I needed more time than the thirty days. They could care less. They didn’t even sound sympathetic when I spoke to them nor did they seem to care about my situation. As if programmed like a robot, each representative I spoke with said the same thing to me, “there’s nothing we can do”. They would take nothing less than the full amount owed and as long as I didn’t pay it the late fees would continue. The late fees started to add up into the hundreds as November rolled around.


The other department stores sometimes sounded sympathetic when I told them about my situation but could do little to nothing to help me. The representative I spoke to at Spiegel was distraught to hear about my situation and immediately put her manager on the phone. He explained that there was little he could for me except to lower my interest rate from a 22% to a 12%. He waived one late fee for me but gave me no extension.


I found that no one really wanted to do me any favors at all. I explained to each one that I simply needed a two month period during which no late fees or other charges would be given to me. Even when I explained that I would be forced to file for bankruptcy they still gave me the same line – “there’s nothing we can do”.


The only company that helped me out was the bank that issued my student loans. Citibank immediately issued me forbearance for my student loans and gave me no problems whatsoever. They were nice and understanding and were actually the only company that did anything to help me during the difficult time.


My credit score began to plummet as did my credit history. After I filed for bankruptcy in December my score dropped to the low 500’s and stayed there for years. I couldn’t rent an apartment and I had a hard time getting utilities without paying a deposit. The funny thing was that my husband found a new job within months and our income was back where it was before, but none of that mattered when companies looked at my credit report.


Today my credit is back up to a 620 but is still marked with the bankruptcy. If the credit card companies had taken the time to work with me they would’ve had their money and I would’ve kept a clean credit report.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Can You Get a Good Job With Bad Debt?

People generally go to college to get the tools they need to get a great job. A degree gives you the credentials you need for professional employment. However, the job hunt doesn’t start after graduation. One of the benefits of the college experience is the opportunity to attain internships and student positions that are designed to lead to permanent placement. They’re the diamonds in the rough that lead to the very job security people attend college to obtain. My best friend landed such a job, and despite how much her employers liked her and how qualified she was for the position, she was still very uneasy about her future.

It turns out that you need more than a great resume and an education to get a good job these days.

My friend applied for a student position with the U.S. Army as a civilian working on base. She would be hired as a technical writer, which was right up her alley. As an English major and a freelance résumé writer, my friend could create instruction manuals for equipment usage or artillery assembly in her sleep. Technical writing takes a skilled pen and an analytical mind, and she has both. So, from the moment my friend saw the listing, she got excited because she knew she had a real shot. The salary was nice and they offered tuition reimbursement. She knew that this was her job. Since she is a skilled résumé writer, she has never applied for a job and not received an interview (her résumés are that good), and she knew her résumé would also serve as a preliminary writing sample. She could kill two birds with one stone!

And that’s exactly what she did.

She got a callback and an interview. In fact, there were two interviews. In both of the panel interviews that she had to undergo, she absolutely shined. She’s just one of those people who knows how and when to turn on the charm, you know? I never did as well as she does in the standard, run of the mill, one-on-one interviews most people get from potential employers; yet in two separate panel interviews, she was able to handle the pressure and even impress them. If that scrutiny weren’t enough, there was the extreme background check; she had to fill out a form that was between 40 and 50 pages long, recounting almost every significant aspect of her life. It was so detailed that she had to give the names, addresses, and contact information of every person whom she had lived with for seven days or longer over the last ten years! How can you ask a college student who has had various roommates to give you that kind of information? It was a nightmare just gathering all of the information that they required. They looked into every job she ever had and anyone who she ever called a friend. It caused me to be a bit paranoid, being her best friend since childhood. I felt like I was under the microscope, too. Yet, despite it all, she passed the very extensive background check. She told me about how much her interviewers liked her. It was an exciting time for her.

That is, until she found out that they would also be checking her credit.

We both panicked - at the time she had a little over $10,000 in unsecured debt besides her student loans. It was also bad debt - as a full time college student she wasn’t making enough to may her bills, so those accounts were in collections. If the credit check was a part of the hiring process, my friend knew she was toast. We tried to remain optimistic about it, thinking that maybe they would let it slide or somehow the results would slip through the cracks. For a moment, there was a small ray of hope; she received an acceptance letter saying that she had been hired and received clearance to begin working. Then, the dreaded reminder at the end of the letter - she would start after her pending credit check was completed.

Of course, the credit check caused a problem.

My friend was called in and her would-be manager explained that her bad credit history posed a unique security risk that would prevent her from being employed by the Armed Forces. Because she would have access to extremely sensitive information, her financial woes could very well serve as a bargaining chip for terrorists seeking information. In a nutshell, they could not afford to have people who may be desperate for money walking around an army base with access to classified information and areas. They did, however, tell her that if she paid the debt off she could reapply. Without the job, she couldn’t afford to pay off the debt. So, a great opportunity was lost because of previous financial irresponsibility. Soon after this experience, my friend, an older student at the time, filed for bankruptcy.

Ironically enough, she was later hired by the IRS!

Go figure…

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"Aspire" For Good Credit, Not Fast Cash

The credit card industry has some of the most effective marketing I have ever seen. Albeit sleazy most of the time and misleading at best, people actually apply for the cards that are advertised with little to no caution or due diligence. The marketing messages grab them and compel them to act – that’s what “good” marketing does.

One of the best examples of this that I have ever seen was the Aspire VISA card. I even remember the first time I saw the commercial. The spokesperson is an average looking woman with a child in an urban area. She calmly describes how hard she works and what not, letting the viewer know that she is a salt-of-the-earth, working class American, just like them. After she convinces you that she is non-threatening and sympathetic to you, she begins to convey the heart of the marketing message – she tells you how you “deserve” to have a credit card.

I was instantly turned off and angered.

I know that I said this was “good” marketing, and technically, it is. It achieves all of the goals of a “good” marketing campaign. My problem with it was that it was an absolute lie.

Most people with bad credit have it because they were (and oftentimes still are) irresponsible and or ignorant concerning proper credit usage and the importance of creditworthiness. If you spend more than you make and you do not absolutely have to (some individuals do have extenuating circumstances), you don’t “deserve” a credit card until you clean up the mess you’ve made, period. If someone gives you a second chance, then it’s a blessing, not something you’re entitled to. Unfortunately, however, most people are so self absorbed that they don’t stop to think about the predatory nature of advertisers who appeal to their vanity instead of their rationale. As I watched the commercial, unable myself to get a credit card at that time because my credit was bad, I was still offended at how this company was obviously trying to take advantage of me and my situation.

Soon after I first saw this commercial, I got into a conversation about credit with a good friend of mine. We usually call each other to rant and rave, so I was sure that I would get a chance to tell her about this horrible commercial I had seen so that we could laugh at how obvious their ploy was. She, however, got the head start, going on about how she had just gotten the screws put to her with a credit card she had. She was on the phone with customer service all day for the second day in a row, trying to resolve issues concerning her credit limit. She was promised a limit of about $500, and when she tried to make a purchase over $300, her card was declined. It turned out that because the card she had acquired was a “bad credit” credit card, there were fees tacked on right at the very beginning, totaling about $250. She owed them $250 before she had spent a dime! What a rip-off! She had gotten the card because she wanted to rebuild her credit, and she was prepared to pay more than the minimum balance each month and everything, but now she was steamed and ready to pop. I was appalled. Because I had recently seen the horrible Aspire commercial, I asked, with more than a hint of sarcasm, “It isn’t that Aspire card, is it?”

She gasped and replied, “How did you know?”

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Life Lessons: How Will Your Children Learn About Credit?

I remember my first credit card - it was a store card for a popular fashion outlet. I recall how nervous I was as I completed the application; I didn't think that I would be approved. Despite my financial advisor's assurance that I would easily attain this line of credit, I found myself anxious, uncertain if they would trust me that much. And why should they? I was an eighteen-year-old college freshman who's financial advice came from a nineteen-year-old.

My best friend was one year older and that much wiser, but she was my role model 500 miles away from our home in a brand new environment. She told me that I should have this card for emergency party clothes and other such dire necessities, and since I could also use it in their sister company's catalogue, it was an absolute must-have.

Who could argue with that?

A well educated, financially literate young adult could. My parents had no idea that I needed to be taught about the proper use of credit because they did not anticipate it even being an issue so soon. I was supposed to be a mature adult before anyone would even approve me for a line of credit. By then, I should have had the wisdom to know what to do.

Needless to say, I waltzed down a slippery slope that quickly led to bad credit. I am still recovering. Years later, I still have the same best friend, whom I still tease, accusing her of single handedly ruining my credit with her bad advice. However, it wasn't her poor advice that sealed my fate, but the lack of good advice from the proper sources.

Bottom line: I am not going to let my kids go down the same road I did. I am going to teach them about money and credit. If I don't, who's going to teach them? Predatory lenders, and teenaged peers who really have no idea what they are doing, that's who.

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