Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

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

Alone, Yet Not Alone

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Total Black: -$304.86
Total Red: $228,252.66

As I predicted in yesterday’s post, Doing That Hustle, Bank of America has walloped me once again with multiple insufficient funds fees.  Some are clearly my fault.  Others are not.  But . . . I say, “Oh well.”  I get paid tomorrow, so once they’ve been “reimbursed” I’ll call the bank to get some reimbursement myself and fight a few of their fees.  One example: I transferred $40 from my checking account to my savings account.  Bank of America charged me a fee for that transaction because, once they rearranged subsequent transactions, it brought my balance further under.  Clearly I had the money in the account or I couldn’t have transferred it, so I don’t understand how a bank gets to charge you a $35 fee for moving $40 of your own funds.  They’ll hear from me on that one for sure.  

At the contract attorney position today we experienced multiple delays due to internet and server complications.  During one of the down times I came across an article on MSNBC.com profiling a family that paid off all their debt.  Karen Kroll penned the article titled: “How One Family Eliminated $106,000 of Debt.”  It’s the same genre as the CNN article I referenced in Debt Most Physical.  In this story an upright family, who lived a bit beyond their means, submitted themselves to credit counseling and now they’re happily-ever-after debt free.  In fact the Hildebrandts received an award from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling for “the hard work and commitment they demonstrated in repaying their debts, and their willingness to become effective managers of their money and change their lifestyle.”  Sounds fairly patronizing to me.  The CNN article fell within the same category of adults acting like adults.  Doesn’t really seem that newsworthy.

I don’t begrudge those families their successes.  It’s just that after seeing two such stories in a row, I question a bit the motives of the news agencies.  Other than accomplishing their financial goals, there’s nothing remarkable about these families’ successes.  Managing your debt is not something you should be awarded for.  It’s just what you’re supposed to do as a responsible adult.  In fact, what is perhaps the remarkable angle to the MSNBC story is that Mrs. Hildebrandt remained a housewife and home-schooling mother while Mr. Hildebrandt took on a second job that netted him approximately five hours of sleep a day, broken up between jobs.  They remained committed to donating ten percent of their income in tithes to their church.  Not surprising that it took them five years to pay off their debt through the credit counseling plan.  Maybe she should’ve gotten a job.  Wouldn’t God have been ok with 9.5 percent for a year or two?  Seems that five years isn’t much to brag about.  It also means that long before “tough times” hit, the Hildebrandts were already ahead of the curve.  So too with the woman CNN profiled.  Their stories aren’t really the stuff the Great Recession is made of, so I wonder what CNN and MSNBC are pitching.  Yes You Can?  Cloaked marketing for credit counseling services?  Or are they just pumping out more debt porn?

In Debt For Sale: A Social History of the Credit Trap, Professor Brett Williams explained how she collected stories of people’s experiences with debt, what she referred to as “debt porn.”  The only other substantive reference to that term that I could find is a 1999 New York Times Magazine article by Margaret Talbot, titled “Debt Voyeurs” in which Ms. Talbot details the typical storyline debt porn takes:  “The best debt porn relies on a first-person voice — ‘Credit Cards Ruined My Life’ (Teen magazine) or ‘Confessions of a Credit Card Queen’ (Essence) — and a familiar narrative arc: temptation leads to excess leads to a downward spiral of spending, evoked for our disapproving pleasure.  Then — wham — rock bottom: she breaks down while forging a credit-card application; he realizes he has never opened half his purchases.  The language of addiction and recovery kicks in: they must acknowledge they have a problem, then submit to counseling, prayer and support groups.”  Yeah . . . true.  Somewhat.  But not exactly.  See, Talbot was writing in the 1990s, something even she acknowledged in her article.  And even at the cusp of the bursting of the Dot-Com Bubble, people weren’t hurting as badly as they are ten years later, or even as they would be three years later.  So, perhaps the debt voyeur got off a little too . . . prematurely? . . .  on the pimping of others.  Today, people are truly in pain.  It wouldn’t be right to chalk their experiences and struggles up as more “debt porn” narratives.

I suppose it’s slightly comforting, knowing that I’m not the only one out there to confess my debt and own that truth.  But dubbing our stories “porn” undermines and belittles them.  It also fetishizes them, titillating you with expectations of intimate glimpses at someone’s deep inner parts.  When I came across the phrase in Williams’ book I winced because I didn’t want my struggles depicted as another in such a sticky string of smut.  So I’m happy as well that I am alone in how I’m approaching my “credit confessional,” as Talbot quipped.  Plus, accomplishing debt freedom in one year will be an accomplishment.  And I hope my style and writing will elevate my porn to art, thus speaking for itself.

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