Fighting Predatory Banks

I remember my first year at SUNY Cortland – so awkward being a transfer student who had taken some semesters off to travel and follow my heart down bad avenues…older than most juniors,  knew no one, clothes were all thrift shop/old whatever kinds of clothes.  The kids I went to school with CARED about fashion, and I so didn’t.  I still really don’t, honestly.  I wear what I want, and no crazy designer is going to tell me what not to wear.  They can kiss it.  Yeah, so that’s an issue I guess.  Whatev.  My husband says I have a problem with people telling me what to do.

Anyway – this girl in my class, she tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around.  I see it in my mind’s eye as slow motion – this was a pivotal moment in my life, one where I wish my decision had been different.  She said, “Hey, I have these credit card applications, and pretty much everyone is accepted, and if you fill it out I get $25, and I need to buy my books for this class, so it would really help me out, if you’d just fill it out – you can always just cancel the card when it comes in the mail.”  This girl, her face, I still remember it.  She was a mole, sent in by predatory banks, looking for naive people like me who had never had a credit card in their lives, had no idea what they were all about.  I was trying to work, I got a bartending job, but was told I needed to get a new wardrobe, “club clothes” they said – the clientele was all sorority and frat kids…not my scene…then I had a job at a restaurant nearby for awhile but one of the waitresses there was some kind of schizo psycho chick that used to throw things at me and not tell me my tables had been sat so that I’d get in trouble and instead of throwing down in the parking lot, I bailed, but not before she almost ran me over with her car on purpose.

Money was scarce.  I got that credit card in the mail, and it had a $1000 credit limit.  I decided that I’d use it only for necessities and do my best to get a 4.0 that semester, since none of my jobs were panning out.  I did, I got that 4.0 (a lot of good it did me), and I maxed that card out by the end of the semester.  They sent me a credit increase.  I accepted it.  Bad idea, bad pattern, I was hooked and I was 24.

After that I had plenty of other credit card offers, I transfered the first one to another with a lower interest rate, I consolidated here, paid off there,  but I continued to dig a hole.  There’d be a concert I’d want to go to, so I’d put tickets for myself and whatever accompanying individual I chose at the time.  I wanted to fit in better, so I bought the “in” clothes (girls were actually talking about my wardrobe in classes, right behind me, I could hear every word – they’d say things like, “Where did she get that outfit, her Mom’s closet?”)

I’d buy dinner or drinks for friends and they’d give me cash.  I’d plan to send that cash in as a payment, but anyone who has fallen prey to the banks knows that it doesn’t happen – cash gets spent on things like toilet paper and stuff – things that you hate to present a credit card for.

I had a loser liar boyfriend whom I almost married.  He basically stole from me every chance he got – “Oh, hey can you get this on your credit card and I’ll pay for xy and z, blah blah blah.”  I figured it would all come out in the wash, but there never was a rinse cycle.  Spent 7 years of my life trying to figure out that I was worth more than that guy.  Seven freakin’ years.  Found out el post facto that when he was unemployed he was spending his unemployment insurance money on drugs, while I worked two jobs and went to school, paying all the bills.

By graduate school, I had a good job making good money in Ithaca – I was a waitress and we opened the restaurant – there’s something special about opening a brand new restaurant – one becomes so invested – and the people I worked with (well most of them) were like family – some I still love to pieces like siblings and we keep in contact on Facebook.  I was also with a different boyfriend, one who wasn’t a loser or a liar, but who thought he was my Dad.  I was able to pay more than my minimum payments on my credit cards, and wasn’t using them anymore.  I started to see balances decrease slightly, and I thought, “I got this.”

Then, I got my first teaching job.  I figured my ship had finally come in, I could now pay my bills with no worries.  Riigghhhtt.  I was told I had to quit my waitressing job (by my bossy boyfriend), so all I had was my salary – which, even with a graduate degree, was barely enough for my bills and groceries.  I broke up with him and moved out on my own – lived close to the school to save on gas, and still only made enough for my bills.  I was paying $10 more than my minimum payment on my credit cards, and I was using them again, to buy groceries or supplies in between paychecks.  I met my husband, and after 3 years of teaching in NY, moved to OH where I have been unsuccessful in finding full time employment as a teacher or anything else that has panned out financially in any way, shape or form.  I went to college for no less than 8 years all told – have a stack of degrees, and I babysit for a living.  Obviously, I used credit cards at times during these 5 years in Ohio.  I consolidated, I closed accounts, I transferred to lower rates, I played the games.

For 15 years, I’ve been a slave to the banks who ensnared me in college.  My balances remained the same for what seemed like at least half of those years, and my interest rates have steadily increased.  It became so bad at times that I was borrowing money from relatives to pay my minimum payments.  My husband and I probably paid thousands in overdraft charges throughout our 5 year marriage due to these payments.  Meanwhile these same banks got bailed out by the government (whatever the hell that means), and many of their practices were ended through legislation and media coverage.  The economy pretty much tanked, the whole country belongs to China and I’m still paying WHO?  WHAT?  WHY?  Then came the moment when I stopped.  I stopped, and I called one of those companies that dickers with them and reduces balances.  I knew I’d take a hit on my credit score, but I just can’t pay for the bankers’ bonuses and vacations anymore.  My family will not suffer so that the fat cats can get fatter.

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The company that I found, first had me nervous, because they were taking a set amount out of my paycheck every week and I was still getting calls (at all hours, and many times per day) from the banks.  I was advised not to answer their calls.  Finally, the banks gave up and they sold off my debt to collection agencies – some banks even told me they were going to “write it off as bad debt” some offered to match my payments dollar for dollar (via mail).  I was advised to bide my time still, so I did – I really didn’t have a choice actually, as the weekly amount the company was taking to build up a savings account to dicker with was all I could afford with my car payment, gas and groceries.  I felt exonerated, but fearful at the same time.

Last week, I got my first settlement offer.  The credit card balance was $5500, and they agreed to take $2100 and call it good.  $3400 wiped away, just like that.  Evidence that I was throwing my money in the trash every month.  The company takes $600 in fees for a settlement like this, and the payments come out gradually.

My purpose for writing this is to provide a cautionary tale to younger people, avoid credit cards at all costs!!!!  My other purpose is to offer hope for people like me that have spent tens of thousands of dollars in interest on purchases made a decade ago, due to stupidity, naivety, and wishful thinking.  The company I go through is Freedom Debt Relief.  www.freedomdebtrelief.com.  They are very respectful, the operators are always American, and you have access to the savings account they establish for you, should you need it.  But the bottom line is, pay cash for things.  If you can’t afford it, you can’t have it, make due with what you can afford, or save for what you want.  In the 1990s somehow that sound principle got masked by the corporations and the banks.  Wise people knew better, but I wasn’t wise.

Honestly, I never thought I’d be unemployed, which is why I went to school for as long as I did, worked as hard as I did, graduated Summa Cum Laude and made Dean’s List every semester.  It is the reason I always had a job while in college (except that one semester), I always had this vision – 2 great kids, a great husband, a nice house, a secure job, write books in the summer – sunshine daydream – vacation every year – and although I have the great husband and the two great kids, the other stuff didn’t pan out real well.  As I approach middle age I wonder if it ever will.  I am trying to open a business with my friend but my credit issues (and hers) and my lack of income are hindering our fund finding efforts.  I’ve been applying for jobs, but I don’t even get interviewed.  The only thing I can find is babysitting.

At this point my struggle is to stay out of the fetal position, and keep the faith.  Onward and upward.

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