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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Money and happiness ... illusory correlation?

love and money
Some might argue that the correlations between love and happiness are illusory. Ask a poor loved person what they could use more of and chances are they will say money. Ask a rich single person what they lack and chances are they will say love. How do we rank our human necessities and our mental necessities? In doing this, one would also be taking into consideration that our own struggles have fixated our minds on the needs of life, as we see them. If survival is our basic human instinct, does that make love our basic human necessity? I can't say for sure money can't buy me happiness, but I'm positive love has never written a check for my bills.

I was a teen mother and the only true description I can give you on our lives at that time is that we were broke, I mean broke to the brokest of broken! Yes, I said brokest. That’s how broke we were. I had to expand my vocabulary in order to describe it because Webster couldn’t even help me with that. I was eight months pregnant sleeping on the floor, and every morning when I woke up although my body felt like I got hit by a 40,000 lb truck moving at 75 mph. I was young and in love. There were times when comfort was by no means within a three hundred mile radius of my life, but I can’t recall ever being really and truly unhappy.

My impecunious status not just throughout the times of my pregnancy with my first born, but through life in general was the fuel my mind needed to climb out of the struggle. By the time I was 21, I was a licensed real estate agent. Three children and a career later, I thought for certain my life was coming together. I mingled amongst the rich, and it was smashing! I sipped wine that made my lips cringe and ate cheese that made my nose curl. My swallows were shallow and my breaths were deep when I found out that caviar was processed salted roe, and not just a “seasoning”. I had to talk my body into keeping it down. The thought of puking all over the marble floor was mortifying. I explored my vocabulary to the very depths of my being to validate the house on the corners price tag and its empty lot next door. My first commission check was like winning the lottery, only better. I had done this, I was making money! Things were definitely at their high point because with money came happiness. Right? Wasn’t happiness moneys right hand man?

“Money makes the world go ‘round” was what I had heard so many times. Real estate meant money, and in my life lacked money so it didn't take a college education for my mind to convolute the two. Three years into my real estate career, I was divorcing. I by no means blame myself because I know there were so many other issues that came between us, but it's one of those things that isn't supposed to happen when you have life figured out. Through hours of soul searching and chicken souping my hit-by-a-train soul I came to the realization that I had lost all the passion I once knew. Life became strictly business, the laughs and good times were scarce. What I did had to benefit me in one way or another. If it didn’t make me money, I wouldn’t do it. I knew this wasn’t what my HEART wanted to do, but my WALLET loved it. If I didn't have to spend another day sleeping on the floor or worrying about groceries for the next week, I was ok. Wasn’t I? I wasn't ok, this wasn't ok. I lost my grip.

I can honestly say only up until recently have I realized what I want to be when I grow up. I revisited my heart and took into account my feelings and my ambitions for life and not the balance in my checking account. Although you can’t let money drive you, it’s important to remain aware that love alone cannot sustain you. Take all your life’s lessons, unique ideas and yes, even some of those so regretted mistakes and mush them together. Then sift through them patiently until you find that yummy goodness. Find that middle ground in life, and ride life until the wheels fall off! I have yet to meet someone who can honestly tell me they want to struggle for money, but I’ve met all too many who have said the money wasn’t worth the life they lost. I've seen the money, now where is the love?

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

When A Family Member Commits Identity Theft

I applied for and received my first credit card in college. I had no credit history, so I had a clean slate to start with. Soon after, pre-approved credit card offers started arriving at my apartment and my parent's house. The temptation was too much for my mom. She applied for and received two credit cards in my name. I first suspected that something was up when an envelope addressed to me arrived in the mail, but she refused to let me see it. Even though I had a nagging suspicion and a bad feeling, I chose to ignore them. She was my mom, after all. I didn't think she would ever do anything malicious to me.

After I graduated, I noticed statements arriving at the house for credit cards I didn't have. I opened one and discovered it had a $6000 balance. I didn't want to say anything, and I didn't. I still wanted to believe that my mom would never do anything to hurt me, but eventually, I did ask when the balance continued rising. She told me she was building my credit for me. I was young and had no practical knowledge about finances, so I accepted her excuse, even though the idea still felt wrong.

About five years later, my mom quit her job to open an antique store. She needed money to purchase inventory, rent a building and pay start-up fees. She borrowed against her retirement fund, and when that was tapped out, she cashed checks from credit card companies. I should rephrase that: she cashed checks from my credit card companies. I remained blissfully unaware until I noticed my statements no longer arrived in the mail, and when I called the bank, my balance had doubled. My mom tearfully admitted she had made charges on my card. She promised to pay me back and never do it again. I believed her until my balanced tripled and then finally maxed out. My mother never gave me any money towards her charges, even when confronted. I paid off the balance over the course of five years, totally unaware of the total impact my mom had made on my credit.

Those credit cards she had taken out when I was in college returned to haunt me, and still haunt me, long after I thought they had been cancelled. After maxing out the credit limits, she defaulted on them. They were sent to collection agencies, and the collection agencies came after me.

I had become much more financially savvy, and after my mom had stolen checks and statements from me, I switched my mail to a post office box so she no longer had access to them. The first letter from a collection agency arrived at my box announcing I had 30 days to pay a balance of $7000 or I would be prosecuted. I pulled my credit report and did some research. Then I wrote a carefully worded letter based on ones I'd seen on the ID Theft Center website. That collection agency never contacted me again, and the collection account and all things associated with it were removed from my credit report. According to my credit report, another default card was still out, and I took action to get it removed as well. I wrote letters and disputed the account on the credit report. I wasn't so lucky this time.

Since I lived with my parents, the majority of my mail arrived there, including letters related to that other card. It had a massive balance, and with interest and past due charges, the bank wanted almost $30,000. I knew about the card, and I took as much action as I could without filing a police report.

I never saw letters from the creditors. My mom accepted the summons to appear in court. I never saw that either. I knew nothing about the extensive court proceedings, or my mom's involvement, until I stumbled upon some court records at work. I could only stare in disbelief, not really certain what to do. The court had tried and failed to contact me, and they were about to garnish my wages. I chose not to confront my mother. Instead, I called a legal assistance program offered by my employer. They put me in touch with an attorney who agreed to take on the case and find out what had happened. I was left with the unpleasant task of talking to my mother.

She couldn't understand how I had found out. She had gone to great lengths to keep me in the dark about the whole mess. She had intercepted all letters she could. She had spoken to the sheriff when he came to the house, assuring him I had nothing of value. She had appeared in court in my name, but the day the judgment was rendered she had been unable to appear because of a doctor's appointment. She tried to call the court, but they refused to cancel or move the court date. She swore she never thought the case would result in a judgment. She hired an attorney to try to clear up the situation. The best the attorney could offer was to have me sign over all of my assets and accounts to my mom so I truly owned nothing. At this point, I knew more about finances, and I had no intention of signing anything over to the woman who had created the entire mess. Instead, I took the case back to court.

My attorney gave me copies of the court records where my mom had signed my name. He recommended I find a new place to live, and he advised against signing anything over to my mother. I had never filed a police report, because I didn't want to send my mom to jail. The rest of my family urged me to settle the whole situation out of court, set up a payment plan and just pay off the balance. I had already paid off one balance, and I didn't intend to pay this one. My attorney wanted my mom to sign an affidavit admitting her guilt, but when I asked her she informed me that she did not want to be saddled with the $30,000 worth of debt. I let the case go to trial.

Part of the process involved filing a fraud report with the creditor. I listed my mom as the thief who stole my identity. The creditor withdrew the case and the judgment was thrown out, but it remains on my credit report. It will be there for another five years. It affects everything I try to do. When I bought my house, I had to provide copies of court records. I cannot get new credit cards, and any loans automatically have a higher interest rate. Even though the nightmare has passed, its effects have not.

Financial ghosts of the mess will probably stick around to haunt me for years to come. I have developed phobias related to debt and money. I feel guilty for spending money and worry constantly about debt, even though my monthly income is more than enough to live comfortably. I cannot trust my family's advice related to financial matters. When I look at my mom, I have a slow, seething anger towards her that I'm not sure will ever go away. I feel obligated to love her, when in reality I want nothing to do with her. I resisted turning the theft over to the police, but if this same situation were to happen again, I wouldn't hesitate. I wouldn't let family ties stand in the way of justice.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

My Mom Can Be Such A Comedian...

A few days ago I was having a conversation with my mother, and, as usual, she asked how I'm doing financially. I told my mother what I tell everyone who asks: I have no complaints. Of course, I understand why my mom asks all the time. She's known me my whole life, and for a relatively large percentage of my time on this planet, I've had plenty to complain about, including massive credit card debt, a student loan-related judgment against me, and various creditors calling me incessantly trying to collect. I'm not rich, but I am pleased with my financial circumstances, especially when I consider my irresponsible past. I've learned a lot over the years, and one key thing I've noticed is that you can live quite well and be happy while earning a lot less than the Donald Trumps of the world, but only if you have no debt, or your debt is at a very manageable level. In other words: you'll be surprised how little money you can live on when you're not servicing mountains of debt. Yep.

So this conversation with my mother took an interesting turn this time around, as she asked me if I was aware of my brother's problems with credit card debt. I told her that I wasn't, and she proceeded to enlighten me about my older (by 3 years) brother's credit card debt, which is currently at a whopping $45,000, and rising. When she told me, I did not believe her. I thought she was pulling my leg. You see, when I was growing up, my brother always seemed to have his act together when it came to matters of money. He always had savings, when I had none. He always had a job during the summer breaks, whereas my summer work history was...well...spotty. I asked her why he had so much credit card debt, and she told me that he just wasn't doing well. I still didn't believe her.

The reason for my incredulity was simple: my brother and his family are all healthy (so no big medical bills), he has a steady job working with computers and -- OK, this is the big one -- he doesn't pay rent and he doesn't have a mortgage. Yes, being the oldest boy has it's privileges, and one key benefit that he, his wife and his daughter have been enjoying for about a decade now is living in my mother's house for free (and no: my mom doesn't live with them.) Don't get the wrong idea here: I am not, and never have been, bitter about my brother's free accommodations. I think it's great. The way I see it, if you can take advantage of a good thing, then do it. Besides, I really wouldn't want to live in the same house where I grew up (my sister feels the same way.)

The only housing-related bills my brother (I'll refer to him as Phil from now on) has to pay for are the utilities and property taxes. I know that old, stone and stucco house can be expensive to heat, but I'm still not feeling any sympathy. I also know that when things aren't going well between a man and a women (his marriage isn't the happiest), money tends to drain away, for all kinds of reasons. Still, $45,000?

So, my mother eventually laid this Godzilla of a question on me. She asked, "Why don't you and your sister put some money together and help your brother out?"

I didn't answer my mom. I sat silent for about 10 seconds, and she understood what that meant: sorry, but no. She quickly changed the conversation at that point.

Once again, I am sorry, but I'm almost ready for my midlife crisis, and I've only just started building a serious savings account. Why should I help Phil? I took some serious risks, used up all my 401K savings and worked hard to get where I am today. Phil should work hard too, get a second job if he has to. I had the same problems with credit cards not too long ago, and I did the right thing and paid them off. It took a while, and it was quite painful at times, but I did it, because it had to be done. Bottom line: I know that Phil has the inner fortitude to get disciplined and get serious about fixing his finances, so I'm not going to be a crutch for him. If we were talking about a medical emergency, I would happily open my wallet. But credit card debt? I don't think so.

It's just like the current situation with all the bad mortgage debt dragging down the American and global economies. Helping those speculators and investors out would create a moral hazard. People should be willing to bear the pain and take their lumps. Besides, if we get a recession, it will help to purge the ill-considered speculating, bad debts and bad investments that have created bubbles in markets all across the globe. Market players will eventually rise from the ashes stronger, wiser and more mature.

And so will my brother Phil, just as soon as he tames all that ugly debt.

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