65 Pages

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. I'm surprisingly un-traumatized about the whole thing.
Let's go back to the beginning, shall we?

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  

16 comments:

ouyangdan said... March 2, 2009 at 4:16 AM  

{{{{{oPDo}}}}}

Thank-you for sharing.

And hang in there.

I am thinking of you.

Dori said... March 2, 2009 at 5:11 AM  

Its good to see you here again, Portly. I saw you at Shakesville now and then (where I lurk, like a dark unnoticeable lurky thing), but I was still a bit worried.

My parents declared bankruptcy when I was in high school for similar reasons to you. I learned from that experience that I had no interest in playing the financial game. I have had one small credit card, which I canceled after a year. I just can't bring myself to apply for credit anymore because I know what the game is, and I have no interest in playing. I live hand-to-mouth and I prefer it that way for the most part. Knowing that I'm living (barely) within my means is a comforting thought.

"What If Something Bad Happens!?!!??!"

I want to thank you for this introspection. I have lately been clinging to a job I can't stand for health benefits I don't have time to use. I keep rationalizing it with the idea that if something happens to me or my spouse, at least we have health insurance. On the other hand, this job is sapping my motivation to even get out of bed in the morning.

I think you may have helped me take another step closer to doing what I truly need to do.

Thanks so much, Portly.

Bob said... March 2, 2009 at 6:34 AM  

You'll get no disapproving comment from me, you know. Far as I -- who have lived on a cash only basis for years -- am concerned, you've just moved closer to the ideal.

And the Work Ethic thing... it comes from Them, and we all know what They are like.

You're doing just fine, my phriend.

(((PD)))

Oh, glad to see a new post. :)

vesta44 said... March 2, 2009 at 8:14 AM  

You won't hear anything bad from me either. You do what you have to do in order to survive, and I think the economy is putting quite a few more people in the same boat.
I don't believe in credit cards anymore, but DH has one that we use once a month, and pay off as soon as the bill arrives so we don't have to pay any interest (usually put less than $200 on it, sometimes don't use it at all), mainly so we have it for emergencies. Credit limit on it is small enough that we can't go overboard with it, and that's the way I like it.

occhiblu said... March 2, 2009 at 10:08 AM  

I'm in the midst of that same dance with the credit card companies now; I got serious about paying off my debt, and as I pay off cards they (a) close my account for "non-use", thus lowering my total available credit and fucking with my credit score, (b) lower my credit limit, again lowering my total available credit and fucking with my credit score, or (c) screw around with my payment due dates so that a check I send for the March statement gets credited for February and then I get a "missed payment" notice for March, which causes them to raise the interest rates on all my cards.

I am currently carrying the *least* amount of credit card debt I've had in my adult life, and my rates and available credit are the lowest they've ever been. It's *so* frustrating to feel that I'm doing things right, and still falling behind.

I'm lucky in that I'm financially stable enough right now that I can see the end of the tunnel in getting these demon cards paid off (and then CANCELED!), but I have had several emotional breakdowns on seeing my rates hiked up or my credit limits lowered, and I'm very glad you found a way to get out of that cycle for yourself.

occhiblu said... March 2, 2009 at 10:09 AM  

(Oops, that should have been "my rates are the *highest* they've ever been.")

Jess said... March 2, 2009 at 11:15 AM  

*hugs*

It sounds like you've made the best possible decision in the circumstances, even if it was a difficult one.

Those credit card companies behaved really badly, I'm surprised there's not a financial regulator that you could complain to.

witchtrivets said... March 2, 2009 at 1:38 PM  

Wow, that is intense. I wish everyone could hear/read your story and understand how this all works. How good people doing exactly what they are supposed to do, can't do what they need to do to stay afloat.

I am sorry PD, I understand how hard the decision must have been. My partner and I live as simply as we can and have no debt but the house. We are in the 4th week of her layoff and I just dodged the bullet on a big round of layoffs at my work. If I get laid off...well, it will not be good. I know the fear and I appreciate that you could share this.

But, I am so sorry to hear how this all went down for you.

Steve said... March 2, 2009 at 2:28 PM  

PD
i just don't know what to say other than (yet again) you're honesty and bravery leave me in awe.

You'll get no disapproving words from e just as much love and support I can send via a poorly worded comment!

Pido (aka just Steve now)

Gine said... March 2, 2009 at 3:08 PM  

I felt the way you did when my home was foreclosed on. I couldn't blog because I didn't want to write about that, and I couldn't write about anything else. I commend you on your honesty and bravery.

You and yours're in my prayers.
G

Lisa said... March 2, 2009 at 7:44 PM  

We're in the middle of it now with lawyers. I couldn't pull the trigger until I'd cleared it through my midwestern values models - my parents. When my mother said to me that sometimes you just have to know when you're beat, I knew I could do it, as unsavory as it is.

I am still deep down, personally scandalized and embarrassed and shamed to have failed.

I do like your perspective on this. It is a two way street, a dance, a game we engage in. In this case, we just happened to be the losers. We = my husband and I.

I wish you the best and much strength to get through this distracting time.

Wisewebwoman said... March 5, 2009 at 12:21 PM  

YAY PD!
floodlighting the 'dark corners' is such a relief. I have the same credit card pickle as you and have considered it. They are sooooo vultures and have made gazillions from me in interest rates. I feel absolutely no compunction about dishonouring credit card debt.
XO
WWW

Meowser said... March 5, 2009 at 5:18 PM  

I figured out years ago I could not handle credit cards (not because I was a shopaholic, but because I was a chronic underearner) and gave them up. And seeing people like you put through the wringer by the credit card companies makes me feel so relieved that I am not dealing with those sleazemerchants any longer. So I can't buy a "real" iPod or travel to France, big whoop. iPods will be $50 or less in a few years anyway.

Thanks for your pieces on this here and on Shakesville. People need to hear this stuff.

Anonymous said... March 14, 2009 at 4:07 PM  

From a fellow Clogged Blogger (different reasons, same effect) I'm so sorry to hear about what you've been going through. Your next post, about the Gateway Center, had me in stitches at times. Strength and grace in the face of credit card companies. I didn't know it was possible. The woo-woo stuff obviously works!

quixote
.

Anonymous said... March 22, 2009 at 7:49 PM  

I want to thank you for writing about this. I've been silently following your blog off and on for about six months now, and I've always found you interesting and fun to read.

I read this post today, and it was perfect. I, too, am about to file for personal bankruptcy, as well as my parents. I sat in the shower crying for an hour today, and it is good to know that I can do this without being afraid, without being ashamed, and without being angry.

This is exactly what I needed to keep me getting up in the morning and taking care of business. Thank you.

Susie from Philly said... May 10, 2009 at 4:56 AM  

Good for you! I actually filed twice - once when I was married and my husband maxed out our credit cards to keep our business afloat. The second time was a few years after my divorce, when I got in way over my head with the cost of heating the small home I rented. (Apparently the heating system burned dollar bills.)

The first time, I felt ashamed. The second time, I just didn't give a rat's ass. I was beginning to catch on to the way the financial deck was stacked against working people.

I now live in a cash-only world. I have to say, I enjoy that a lot more than credit.

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