Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Getting There From Here

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Total Black: $527.71
Total Red: $228,464.16

Total black is up because unemployment check came through.  That cash infusion occurs every Wednesday, as long as I remember to register for it by the preceding Sunday.  PayPal money from eBay laptop sale was released, so I’ll have access to that soon.  Now to decide whether to pay the rent, the utility bill, the cell phone bill, the credit card bills, or the student loan bills.  Or buy food.  That’s running pretty low.

The downside to all this transparency is that you really leave yourself open to scrutiny and criticism.  When dealing with debt, everyone is an expert.  They all have sterling credit.  They’ve never made any mistakes.  They’ve never missed a payment.  The only other areas that come to mind where people just take it upon themselves to advise you without request are smoking and diet.  You’re forced to listen to people’s advice on those two topics as well.  And in all these areas, it’s only you who’ve been reckless and irresponsible and really, truth be told, it’s your own fault how you got here.  If you would just listen to their advice, you’ll do fine from here on out.  Sorry, but I’m not that naive.

Yes, there is some truth to be told here.  Obesity is often due to excessive calorie intake, but it’s not that simple.  If you’ve read The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable America Appetite by David Kessler, you’d see that.  It’s not so much that our eating habits have changed, they have, but coupled with it is that our food has changed.  When the smallest size at your favorite fast-food chain is now a medium, it’s not wholly your fault if that meal exceeds your estimated caloric needs for the day.  In a sense, debt is the reverse scenario.  What’s going out exceeds what’s coming in.  So, yes, it is true that debt is due in large part to spending more than you have.  But it too is not that simple.  When credit card companies can charge over-the-limit fees and late payment fees and jack-up your interest rate because of one missed or late payment and refuse to bring it back down, well then too it’s not wholly your fault if your efforts at getting your debt under control isn’t working.  In a sense, it’s like you’re trying to lose weight but the credit card companies keep shoving food in your mouth.  It’s not helpful to tell someone to run faster to lose more weight and then to blame them because they’ve gained it.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I thought I’d post a credit card statement (redacted, of course) from a year ago.  This time last year, to set the scene, I was still working at a large law firm in the city.  I had to move apartments because the place I had in Brooklyn was a sublet and the renter was giving up his apartment after twenty years or so.  That happened in October.  My last day at the law firm was October 17, 2008.  Credit card statements are typically a bit behind, so the data below is a good snapshot of a day in the life of a debtor, so to speak.

8/29/08      PAYMENT – THANK YOU   +324.00
9/13/08      ONLINE PAYMENT FROM CHECKING   +475.00
9/17/08      ONLINE PAYMENT FROM CHECKING   +1047.18
9/22/08      Finance Charge Assessed   -222.58
9/24/08      PAYPAL *ALLISONRBRO   -502.25
9/27/08      ASSN. OF AMER. LAW SCHOOLS   -35.00
10/08/08    ONLINE PAYMENT FROM CHECKING   +200.00
10/14/08    BARNES&NOBLE.COM   -18.60
10/14/08    BARNES & NOBLE / BOOKQUEST   -22.47
10/17/08    APPLE ITUNES    11.96
10/20/08    SISTER’S COMMUNITY HARDWARE   -64.94
10/20/08    DUANE READE   -9.42
10/20/08    COSMIC DINER   -22.90
10/20/08    RITE AID   -14.92
10/20/08    MCDONALD’S   -6.38
10/20/08    PETLAND DISCOUNTS   -47.63
10/21/08    EL AZTECA MEXICAN REST   -21.60
10/22/08    FULTON DELI   -11.50
10/22/08    ATM TRANSACTION FEE   -10.00
10/22/08    YES CLEANERS   -42.10
10/22/08    SISTER’S COMMUNITY HARDWARE   -50.81
10/23/08    OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD/928 FULTON DELI   -41.50
10/23/08    ATM TRANSACTION FEE   -10.00
10/23/08    OVERLIMIT FEE ON BALANCE   -39.00
10/23/08    Finance Charge Assessed   -214.27

A few details.  The PayPal charge was a one-off payment to a judicial clerkship advising organization.  They proofread your documents and conduct mock interviews and such.  So that was a one-off business-related expense.  Association of American Law Schools is the clearing house for lawyers looking to move into academia.  That organization collects your documents and circulates them to law schools.  Pretty much no other way to get hired than through that group, so that was also a one-off business-related expense.  Both were made before getting laid-off.  We were told on a Tuesday and had to be out by Friday, so it’s not that I had much time to plan.  Last year was election season, so I donated $100 to Scranton’s Congressman’s re-election campaign.  Hardware store purchases were last-minute cleaning supplies, paint, etc., stuff you need to clean up your apartment and ensure you do get your security deposit back.  Yes Cleaners is for dry cleaning.  The deli transactions are ATM withdrawals.  The farthest back I could go online was September 2008.  If I had only posted that statement though, it would have been pretty skewed.  So I included October 2008 as well because it sheds a bit less-favorable light.

I don’t know why I made multiple payments in September.  I was probably trying to bring the balance down.  Yes, it’s never smart to use a credit card for cash withdrawals, but I probably used up much of my available cash trying to make room on my credit card to rent a moving truck—hence the overdraft protection.  That’s the best I can extrapolate.  Overdraft protection happened automatically.  And too much was pulled so I sent back $99 soon thereafter.  But you’ll see that with the exception of Barnes & Noble book purchases, and maybe some music or a movie on iTunes, the other charges were business-related, everyday expenses (pharmacy), or meals.  But notice that one payment in September was for $475.  The finance charges for both September and October are roughly equal to that amount.  So, even though I brought the balance down by $475, it went back up again by 436.85—even without any purchases.

See, one piece of advice I often receive is to stop making frivolous purchases or to scale back my cost of living.  Clearly the problem is with budgeting.  Not with spending.  It’s managing the flow of money, not simply scaling it back.  But somehow family, friends, and acquaintances have the impression of me as this irresponsible, careless spender frittering away my money on needless goods.  Perhaps it’s because, like most people, we only mention, or brag about, or share new or fun or exciting purchases like an iPhone or a good book or perhaps a nice dinner.  No one rushes to their friends to say, “Hey!  Did I tell you?  I sent in my minimum payment on my credit card the other day.”  So, most of your self-appointed “experts” have a very skewed picture of your finances.  They only hear about your purchases.  They don’t hear about your payments, that is until your payments get behind, like after getting laid off when you share your situation with them.  Then they think back on all the purchases you told them about and shake their finger at you like you’re an irresponsible thirteen-year old who’s just run up the phone bill.  Sure, not everyone does that.  But many do.  And it’s not helpful.  Really.  It’s like with addicts.  They’re not going to get well until they’re ready.  And once they do start getting their life back together, pointing out all the mistakes they’ve made isn’t going to help.  It’s not the time for those discussions.

I’ve spoken with quite a few friends and acquaintances over the past few weeks to share this blog and my goal.  A few were helpful.  They listened, helped me sort through my thoughts (and feelings).  Some pointed out an area or two where I could trim my debt waistline a bit more.  Definitely welcome and needed.  But some were patronizing enough that I thought I’d take the time to blog about it.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience?


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