Sunday, March 1, 2009
You may have noticed that I haven't blogged
much at all lately for nearly a month and a half.
You might say that I've been . . . . . distracted.
Yes . . . distracted . . . . . . .I think that's the right word.
One of the distractions was the preparation of a life-changing 65-page document.
But before I get into the nitty-gritty of that oh-so-distracting document, let's begin with this, shall we?
You see, the 65-page (as opposed to two-page) document that I was working up is called -- "Voluntarily Petition for Bankruptcy".
In truth, that's only three pages (the "voluntarily petition" part) -- the attendant forms and provision of detailed personal information comprised the other 62 pages.
Before we go any further, let me make a couple of things perfectly clear:
- The primary reason that I'm blogging about my bankruptcy is in the hope that recounting my experience might be helpful or supportive to someone else.
- I'm posting this after I've progressed through the hearings portion of the process, although I've been working on this post for some time.
- I'm surprisingly un-traumatized about the whole thing.
I took my first real job at 17, and was employed by someone else until I was 32, when I started my first business. For the past 20 years, I've been self-employed, and that was a good choice for me.
I've never remotely approached being "rich" by status quo/cultural standards (but that's never been my goal in life anyway, and I think that I'm "rich" by my own standards).
I was raised by hard-working school-teacher parents (one, the child of Kansas farmers who lost pretty much everything during the Dust Bowl, and the other, the child of an Arizona widower who managed to survive tough times in the mining industry during the Depression pretty well).
For most of my formative years, my parents were only separated from "working class" status by virtue of the prestige of their positions as teachers (certainly not by their salaries). I grew up in a Kansas farming community, and let's just say this: The Work Ethic Is Strong With Teh Portly Dyke (read in your best Darth Vader, of course).
That work-ethic has served me well, I believe.
I've never felt deeply deprived of anything that was really important to me, I once co-owned a house, and later, gave it up and went back to renting. I've never starved or been homeless. I've lived simply, but very well, and still do -- and I think that it's important to mention here that I have lived this way by choice, and according to my own standards.
I generally did well being self-employed and maintaining a simple lifestyle. I've had varying levels of debt over the course of my life, but in the past ten years, I'd never made a late payment or missed a payment on any debt I had.
I was "getting by", and that was OK with me.
In the past two years, though, things got a bit tighter.
I did what I usually did when cash-flow was tight -- considered purchases more carefully, didn't eat out, traveled only for work -- stuff like that.
After 20 years of self-employment, I'd seen slumps come and go, so I wasn't particularly concerned. In fact, I figured it was probably just the Universe nudging me to do something different, so I did something I'd felt strongly urged to do -- I started working on a project that a lot of people had asked me to get out into the world -- a video version of a class that I'd taught in person for the last ten years.
I figured out how to finance a lot of this project by offering a pre-purchase deal to the people who had asked for it, and used some of my available credit line to fund the rest.
Yes, this would mean my debt-load would go up, but from the pre-purchase response, I figured I wouldn't have any trouble recouping it once the project was released.
Then, early last year, one of the community-members that I'd lived with for five years (and with whom I shared expenses for rent and utilities) suddenly decided that he wasn't interested in continuing to live in community anymore.
His decision was abrupt and messy, and I was already in the middle of the project -- we didn't have a candidate to replace him, so we decided we'd tough it out through the Summer as I got the project finished, and remain where we were living.
I'd already decreased my regular bread-and-butter work for a few months so that I could focus on the vid-project, and it seemed like a huge (and possibly project-killing) distraction to stop production in order to make a major residential move at that time -- a move that would also involve dismantling the video studio that I'd just set up (and somehow hoping that we'd find a place where I could "re"-mantle that studio).
So we stayed where we were, with rent and utility obligations that had increased by a third.
We did "what you do" -- we cut back on luxury utilities like cable TV and down-sized our phone plan. We ate very simply, cooking from scratch most of the time, and always ate at home. We sold some stuff that we weren't using, or that was expensive to keep up.
That all felt pretty good, too -- it was more aligned with the way that I want to live.
So, by September, the video project was ready for release -- to a public that had lately been put on notice that its economy was a shambles (which meant that buying an expensive set of DVDs was probably very low on the list of fiscal priorities).
It didn't really phase me. I've never been the type of person who thought that anyone else "owed" me a living. I've always been realistic about the nature of my work, and have known that a) it's not everyone's cup of tea, and b) if it's a choice between food/shelter/warmth and some service that I offer, I would always encourage a prospective client to procure that food/shelter/warmth before working with me.
I just kept on keepin' on -- paid my bills on time and in full. I ate even simpler, and cut non-essential expenditures even more, and my Beloved and I started looking at the reality of our financial situation -- we were going to need to move, we figured, and that was OK, too (even though we love this place).
We might even have made it through without the bankruptcy, if it weren't for the people that I owed money to -- credit card companies.
Credit card companies that began raising interest rates and lowering credit lines, even though I was on-time and paying in accordance with agreements, starting as early as last Spring -- even before my debt-load went up -- and even though they knew that lowering my credit limits would screw up my credit rating (which was pretty damn good at the time) because the lowered limits would make me look like I was maxing out my credit line, which I wasn't (at least not until they lowered my credit line)-- which would then trigger other creditors to raise my interest rates and cut credit lines I might have with them, which would screw my credit rating further.
They did this even though I wrote them nice letters and had polite telephone conversations with them about the fact that cutting my credit line right now would probably result in a cascading clusterfuck of credit hell. They did this even though they told me, straight out, that yes, I'd always been an excellent customer, and they wanted to keep me as a customer.
They also said that they were doing it because they could, according to our agreement (and they were right about this -- they could do it -- the agreement said that they could change my credit line or interest at any time, and for any reason -- although they never did so until it was clear to them that it would be very difficult for me to simply say "no" and cash them out on the debt).
When I asked them why they were doing it, they said that it was because my recent credit usage made me look like a higher-risk customer -- never mind an 18-year credit history with only one late payment ever, and that due to the vagaries of the US mail (long before it was possible to check one's credit card statement online) -- never mind that I was current on my debt.
The irony is that they actually made me a higher-risk customer.
My increased payments were eaten up by increased interest rates (one card raised me from 9.9% to 26% overnight -- for no reason other than "our agreement says that we can change your rate at any time for any reason" -- another card attempted to raise me from 12% to 33% -- although they relented after a letter in which I threatened to close my bank accounts with them) -- and the resultant lowered credit rating that triggered other cards to jump their rates up or bring my credit line down was actually what tipped the scales for me in terms of the bankrupcty.
When we came to the end of one month and barely scraped our rent payment together because we had paid the credit card debt on time, I did something I had not wanted to do -- something I had chalked off the options list for myself -- I began considering personal bankruptcy.
It took a couple of months for me to get absolutely clear on it. I had those midwestern values to struggle with, and other options to examine, and that hope that springs eternal, blah, blah, blah -- that somehow, things were going to suddenly shift.
I think the real turning point for me was when I called a credit-counseling company and explained my situation, and the counselor there said:
"Well, we have this plan (blah, blah, blah), but honestly, I think I'm just going to give you the number of the attorney that we refer to for bankruptcies."
She said this, even though recruiting me to their "plan" would have involved me paying her company a lot of money for quite a long time. They would negotiate my debt and my interest, but by the time they added their cut on top of the monthly payments, I'd still be scraping for rent and my credit-score would be screwed anyway.
(Actually, it was nice of her to be honest like that, even though it meant that her company wouldn't benefit.)
So, I stopped paying my credit-card bills, and moved forward with the bankruptcy.
I filed "Pro-Se" (which is a nice Latin way of saying "can't afford a lawyer"). This is in no way advice or recommendation, but it worked for me -- my bankruptcy was very simple -- I don't own a house or land, my car is 13 years old, I had no investments, savings, or "secured debt" -- and my decade as a wage-slave in public service did serve me well in this regard: I'm pretty handy with a form.
That said, after filling out, checking and re-checking, and mailing those 65+ pages, plus communicating by phone and mail with the BK court myself ever since -- ?
-- I can easily entertain the possibility that most bankruptcy attorneys actually earn their keep.
The most difficult part (for me, at least) is over: Making the choice to declare bankruptcy at all.
It wasn't an option I wanted to exercise, but I came to a point where it seemed clear that it was the wisest choice for me to make.
I don't feel like a victim. I played in that game, and this is where it took me.
I participated with an industry that I knew from the start was relying on my sense of fair-play and responsibility, while knowing that said industry would skirt fair-play and avoid responsibility in every way that it legally could.
In truth, I think that the credit industry still made money on me, even with the bankruptcy -- I haven't totted up every single figure yet, but I'm pretty sure that over the last 18 years, they made every bit of their money back, plus profit -- which is what the game was all about, really.
So I don't resent them, and I hope they don't resent me. This was the game that we played together. It's like a casino, really -- you go in knowing that the odds are against you -- but you go in anyway.
The hardest bit has been dealing with my midwestern ethics thing -- examining those internal voices that might want to brand me a "failure" -- and getting past the cultural entrainment that we all have to Be AFRAID -- Be VERY AFRAID!
Truth is, operating my life on a purely cash basis feels pretty good.
We're still eating very simply, and our household could currently be used as a case study in the research project: "Creating an Antithesis to Conspicuous Consumerism".
But right now? -- I'm well-fed, and warm, and sheltered.
And really, what else is there but -- right now?
Yes -- there are times when I find this thought in my head: "What if an emergency happens and I don't have any/enough creidt?!?!?!"
-- but I also thought that same kind of thought when I had "enough" "available credit", and when I had a "regular paycheck", and when I owned a house, and when I had "extra" money . . . . . . . . and -- when I had no money at all.
So it's clear to me that this thought -- "What If Something Bad Happens!?!!??!" -- is a thought I could have at any time -- under any circumstance --
-- just as I could have the following thought at any time, under any circumstance:
"You know, I think Everything's Gonna Work Out Just Fine."
(Blog Note: Yes, I am back to blogging. Yes, I think that my hesitance to speak about this particular aspect of my personal life -- the bankruptcy -- created a big old Blog-Clog for me. Yes, I feel scared to share this, and worried that my internal midwestern-ethic voices will be reflected in disapproving voices from the Blogosphere.
And finally -- YES -- I will be blogging further about my "bankruptcy experience", because there are some stories from this process that are just too surreal and luscious to pass up. Watch for them.)
Posted byPortlyDyke at 11:59 PM