I have zero credit card debt.
That feels pretty good to say. But, I once upon a time had A LOT of credit card debt. And I didn’t pay it off with hard work and determination. I asked for help. I asked for mercy, which is what I thought I needed at the time.
I declared bankruptcy.
The court discharged my credit card debt, and I was left with my few possessions, my dogs, my sanity, my student loan debt, and a gigantic wave of relief. After months of worry and stress and anxiety and depression and angst, after a long dry spell of very little work, after depleting my savings…I felt relief.
That relief was the foundation from which I was able to rebuild my life.
I started building up a new, robust emergency fund. I let some old, lesser paying work go. I found new, higher paying work. I started paying an extra $100 a month toward my student loans. That meant making $300 payments each month. I watched the balance decrease ever so slowly – in the teeniest, tiniest increments.
Well, that’s a story you know.
The incredible true story of how I accumulated a large amount of credit card debt (a little over $30,000 when I filed) is the story of some bad choices, some earnest choices, some choices made when times were bad, and some choices made while feeling hopeful.
It took me sixteen years to accumulate the credit card debt. I spent a few years trying very, very hard to pay it all off. The lowest the balance EVER got was $9,000. But then, I lost momentum. I’d done a lot of extra work to make a big payment, and the morning that I logged onto my account to make the payment, I saw that the credit card company had changed my interest rate – by 15%. My “big payment” would only cover the minimum.
I let that setback really set me back. I decided to focus on something else for a while.
Like selling my house and moving to a different city. My house didn’t sell, but I moved. I became a landlord. I hired a management company…who tried really hard to take advantage of the blonde girl who lived out of town. For a year, I fought with them over “maintenance” they insisted on doing (that wasn’t in the contract, and also wasn’t necessary) and excess fees that came out of nowhere. All of those fees went on the credit card. As did moving expenses. And business expenses. And then some living expenses. And some medical expenses.
And then I was in over my head.
I think this is how a lot of people feel about student loan debt. There’s not a lot of mercy when it comes to student loans, though. You can’t get rid of them with a bankruptcy, except in certain instances. And, they’ve become a norm. Everyone goes to college because they’re convinced that college is a necessity, a step on the path to the American Dream. They take out loans to pay for college. Then they graduate and get one exit interview regarding their loans. There’s not always jobs in their field. Even if they’ve been told the job prospects of their majors, a lot of folks believe that if they pursue their dream and work hard enough, they’ll be an exception. There’s a suspension of disbelief at work. A type of magical thinking, too. Then they’re not the exception, and the debt needs repaid. Some people get serious about repaying it. Some let it linger. Some go into default. However people choose to deal with it, there seems to be a collective weight that we ALL feel.
And there’s not a whole lot of relief.
Relief is an underestimated emotion. When I was faced with the decision whether or not to stay on the West Coast or to move back to the Midwest, a close friend of mine, who lived in the Midwest, asked me, “How do you FEEL when you think about moving back here?” It took me a minute, but I thought about all the traveling I was doing at the holidays. I thought about being closer to my family. I thought about being closer to my oldest friends. Before I even realized I was saying it, I said, “Relief.” I let relief guide me through that decision and that transition. I remembered it when I was deciding whether or not to declare bankruptcy. Relief is powerful. I hope more people get to experience it, no matter what burden they’re carrying.
I know that by the time I declared bankruptcy, I couldn’t handle it. The burden felt too big. I couldn’t see my way out of it. I felt desperate – while looking for work, while eating ramen, while hating my whole life for all the decisions I’d made, while hating myself for being a failure…
It was not a pleasant time. I was not fun to be around, nor was I particularly productive.
Debt can do that. But, when I received help, well, that made a world of difference. It humbled me. It made me kinder, both to myself and to others. It made me see that life really is about more than money.
It also made me understand that endurance is not a virtue. Just because I could live under the weight of crushing debt and make my life look manageable, while suffering through insomnia and constant anxiety, didn’t mean that I was a better person than the girl who ultimately didn’t pay back her credit card debt. I actually think it’s the opposite. I’m a better person because I asked for mercy.
And let’s be honest, credit card companies don’t care about you. I tried to negotiate. I went to the source. I researched nonprofit debt restructuring programs. I talked to people who filed and people who didn’t. I went to Debtors Anonymous meetings. It was NOT an easy decision. My parents didn’t approve, but once they saw the effects of the relief in my life, even they’re glad that I did it.
Relief really can make a difference in your life. I chose relief over endurance, and it humbled me. It also freed me. Once I wasn’t tied up in knots and hating myself, I was able to see a pattern of under earning (and how debt can trap you in the pattern and VICE VERSA.) I was able to let go of the belief that if I can endure it, then other people should be able to endure it, too. Because you know what? We’re not all the same. We don’t all have the same capacities for certain emotional experiences. Carrying debt is an emotional experience.
But we do all have the capacity for kindness.
Of course, there are ways that declaring bankruptcy has limited me. I couldn’t buy a house for two years, but that was fine. I was still rebuilding. There was no way for me to jump back into the world of credit card debt. I learned to live without it. It was quite a learning curve, but one that made me able to face the remaining $48,000 I had to deal with. Now that I have started to deal with it, I wonder what life would have been like if I’d applied the same tenacity to paying off the credit card debt. I’m sure it would have been empowering. I just didn’t feel empowered enough to event try at the time.
I needed bankruptcy in order to feel more empowered. I needed the relief. I’m grateful for it.