By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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Tinita's buying habits might look extreme, de Graaf points out, but they're far from unusual. Only half of the personal bankruptcies in the United States (more people declared last year than graduated from college) are filed because of unanticipated problems such as illnesses; the other half, he says, "have to do with really spending above your means."
The problem underscores a need for better credit-counseling services, which advocacy groups say are in a state of crisis. A 2003 report by the Consumer Federation of America lamented cutbacks in funding for counseling groups and a rise in bogus services that charge high fees and offer bad advice. Many people with credit problems never see a counselor. Throughout her checkered financial life, Tinita says, she encountered "no suggestions for anything like that whatsoever."
Still, Tinita's paycheck could almost support her profligacy; she had inherited her grandfather's house, was living there with David rent-free, and was one of Southwestern Bell's highest-grossing sales reps, she says. In January 2002, however, her supervisors demoted her for allegedly misleading customers. She felt the charges were false -- and unfair, considering that SBC's sales tactics were designed to sell people products they didn't necessarily need. Her enthusiasm for selling waned. One day a distressed woman called asking Tinita to disconnect her Internet service because she was too poor to afford it. SBC protocol required Tinita to try to pitch her a slew of other products before transferring the call to the Internet division. Instead, she simply patched it over. For this, she claims, she was fired.
Without a job, Tinita sped toward a financial brick wall. David still wasn't working. Half her unemployment benefits simply went to servicing her credit card debts. She miscalculated her bank balance, wrote a bad check and gave up her account. Utility disconnection notices grew into a stack. So she convinced herself that maybe she should check out another payday company, find a better one and deal with it in a smarter way; she took out another $300 loan.
Two weeks later Tinita was holding a $300 unemployment check and an $800 pile of bills. Paying off a cent of the loan, even the interest, was unthinkable. A debt collector phoned every day for months and flung the same threats and insults that Tinita had once hurled at others: You're a deadbeat, you're a bad mom, you're going to jail. Ignoring the calls didn't help Tinita pay much of anything else. She fell short. And on a cold winter's night, her gas was shut off.
Debt is the slavery of the free.-- Publilius Syrus
Freedom was elusive.
Tinita owed creditors so much money by her early thirties that appeasing them seemed like it would take a lifetime. Her credit report spanned 15 years and read like a contract of indentured servitude. It mentioned the unpaid rent from her first apartment, the unpaid Hyundai note, unpaid Capital One and Foley's cards -- some 30 unpaid bills totaling more than $10,000. The payday company fortuitously went out of business and stopped bothering her. Still, the Zapper was always busy.
In 2003, Tinita took note when her friend Anastasia discovered a path to credit salvation. Anastasia had paid a credit repair service to help her quibble with the accuracy of her debt history on file with Equifax, the credit reporting agency. None of Anastasia's creditors countered the claims, and Equifax wiped her credit history clean. The UH student promptly went to a car dealer and put down a payment on a BMW.
Tinita scraped together $300 for the credit repair service and was freed of half her bills. Gone were the apartment lease and the buy-here-pay-here Jeep. The better-organized companies, such as Capital One, responded and insisted that her debts were real. Still, the modest improvement in her finances, combined with the relief of starting a new job as a Houston Independent School District substitute teacher, felt like a fresh start. She resolved to be more responsible.
In January 2005, Tinita married David in a Los Angeles rose garden and spent seven days honeymooning on a cruise ship between Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán and Cabo San Lucas. The whole affair cost more than $2,500. She financed a sliver of it by pawning her camcorder, an old model that she says she didn't need anyway. But she paid for most of the trip with savings she'd squirreled away over the course of two years. It was the first time she'd saved for anything.
Her mother didn't attend the wedding; she disliked David, who'd been born to a drug addict and held down jobs with difficulty. Tinita tried not to let the boycott faze her. She'd begun to blame her mom's criticisms -- the needling assertions that she'd end up a "welfare mama" -- for her own spendthrift habits. "I've based my life on trying to prove her wrong," she says. "I change my house around every two weeks, I can't stand dirt, I don't like clutter, I have to stay clean, everything's gotta be wiped down, it's just got to be in order. She never comes by, but it's just that thought. It's just the thought, you know, and it's crazy."