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Living with credit

Confess your credit woes to put them behind you

Erica Sandberg

After two decades in the money and credit management world, I’ve heard more debt sins than you can possibly imagine. So much anger and self-loathing. “What have I done; what’s wrong with me?”

Years ago, I was a credit counselor. I sat with up to seven individuals and couples per day, listening to their troubles, asking questions, and then providing recommendations for debt relief.

Today, as a credit advice columnist, countless more people share with me their intimate problems. Some calls for help arrive anonymously via email, but close friends and even strangers sometimes will open up.

Often, it starts with, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but…”

Chances are high you’ve got some money or credit troubles to get off your chest. According to the American Psychological Association, money is the top source of stress in the U.S.

And trust me, sometimes people are in a credit squeeze or digging out of debt because of sad or strange circumstances. Want examples? Of course you do. Comparing and contrasting war stories can make you feel better.

OK, here are just a few, names and other identifying details withheld of course.

  • How about the immigrant mother who opened at least 30 credit cards, then passed the plastic around to her 12 children as if the cards were cheap candy. By the time she sought my help, she owed over a quarter of a million dollars — and her kids had abandoned her.
  • Or the young man who regularly withdrew cash advances to support his methamphetamine habit and desperately wanted help financing future dental work. He tied a bandana around his mouth because he was ashamed of smell that came from his rotting teeth.
  • I’ll never forget a certain newly married couple. The wife openly berated her husband, calling him a worthless pig, a loser, disgusting and idiotic because of their credit card balances. “This is all your fault!” she hissed, as I watched him shrink into his seat, virtually disappearing before my eyes.
  • And then there was the fashionisto who was charging upward of $2,000 a month on designer clothes, on a $50,000 annual salary. He couldn’t conceive of scaling back, yet he hadn’t paid his rent in months and was facing eviction. “I’m sick, aren’t I?,” he asked.

Now, even if your troubles do blow these out of the water, don’t worry. Reach out for help. Dealing with your mounting debt, credit woes or other financial stress is essential, but you’ve got to be candid the right way and to the correct person. Here’s a three-step plan to get you back on financial track:

1. Go pro. Friends and relatives may be sympathetic (or not), but they may not be able to help. For this reason, book an appointment at a nonprofit credit counseling agency to go over your budget and debt. Soon you’ll be chatting with someone (for free!) who will not be shocked by anything you say. Other options include going to a financial therapist or attending a 12-step meeting for spending and charging issues.

2. Weigh good advice. After you’ve purged your fiscal woes, listen for sound suggestions. The fact is, not every recommendation will resonate or be appropriate, but avoid saying, “No, I can’t” or “That won’t work” without truly considering the suggestion.

3. Recognize what you’ve done wrong, and get ready to do right. You have made some mistakes, so stop making excuses or blaming others. It’s up to you to use money and credit advantageously. It’s not an innate skill; it’s something you learn over time. If you’re not great at it yet, no problem. You can start today.

To be adventurous, you must be open. Am I implying that discussing your difficult financial matters is easy? No. It doesn’t come naturally to me, either. In many ways I’m private and would prefer to paint a rosy picture rather than admit any financial faults.

However, if I know that I can safely confess my financial wrongs and gain from the process, I’ll talk. And so should you.

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