I spent an hour and a half on the phone yesterday with a very nice and sort of understanding call center employee doing a settlement on one of  three credit cards, none of which I have spent any money on for well over a year and none of which I’ve made any payments on for several months. Did you know that you can stop using and also more crucially stop paying all your credit cards, then call them up at some later date (but not too much later because they’ll start suing you) and offer them some % of the money you owe them, then bargain and haggle until they accept that that’s all the money they’re ever going to get from you, and then you pay them and it’s done?  I had no idea this was possible either until I did it. I sort of found this out by accident. I would not actually recommend it as a course of action if there are any other options available to you. For one thing, it makes you feel like the scum of the fucking earth.

For another, it completely ruins your credit, obviously. But for me this last-resort approach to debt was what it took for me to stop using my credit cards and accept that I won’t be able to use credit for a long time. Knowing that there was no back-up plan was the only thing that has ever been able to coerce me into actually living within my means, which I still interpret to mean “spending every penny I make” but at least I am no longer spending more. I don’t really want to use writing about this as an opportunity to beat myself up for making mistakes because I’ve done that a lot already. I can work on changing but some of the work has to also be about not denying who I am, which is a person who fundamentally loves to spend money. Not in a hoardery way, not in a shopaholic way, but in a much more insidious and also, to my mind, way more fun way that involves *just not ever thinking about money.*  Most of my money is spent on snacks and treats and delicious groceries for meals for my friends. I buy presents and experiences, stuff that makes life fun and exciting and glamorous and livable, $4 iced teas and in-season farmer’s market produce. The only problem with this approach is that all the day-to-day *not thinking about money* gets concentrated in these big apocalyptic sessions of *being forced to think about nothing but money, and in the worst possible way.* Finding a way towards moderation is the goal. Supposedly the story of my life is about learning how to see a spectrum of options rather than black and white extremes.  (From an astrological perspective.) (I also spend money on astrology.)

I had been told that the settlement call would take ten minutes so that’s how much time I’d budgeted, and after procrastinating about the call all day I finally picked up the phone at about the same time I was supposed to be arriving for a book party in Manhattan. One of the things the call center employee did, probably following a corporate protocol, was to put me on hold repeatedly while she discussed my “situation” with her “colleagues.” The hold music was so much even worse than what you’re imagining: a tinny loop of the same two bars of upbeat jazz that would not have passed muster as a ringtone in 1999. By the way, I am borrowing money to pay this settlement from a lender who specializes in lending money at semi-usurious but not-as-usurious-as-credit-card rates to people with busted credit, but I couldn’t say that, so I said I was borrowing the money from an uncle who I made up on the spot. When she said she couldn’t get her colleagues to come down any lower than 60% of the total amount I owed, I put her on hold to discuss this with my uncle. Actually I used the opportunity to brush my teeth and change out of a sweaty tshirt into a reliable black dress I’ve owned since 2008. I got back on the line and announced that my uncle could not possibly lend me that much money, that the very most I could talk him into was an amount that represented 40% of the total amount owed. This was the most I’d been approved for by the lender so I was actually telling the truth, in a way. I also found myself telling the truth when explaining the “hardship” that had led to my being unable to pay my credit cards in the first place. “There have been a lot of changes in my industry that have made it much more difficult to make the amount of money it was once possible to make.” “It sounds like you really care about your work and are doing your best in a tough industry,” said the call center employee. I don’t know if she was required to say this or was being sincere. She also at one point said “It’s good you have family who can help you,” in a way that could have sounded bitchy, or like she knew I was lying, but that actually sounded wistful and real.

This intimate conversation with a call center stranger took much longer than I’d anticipated and culminated in a standoff when I thought the entire thing would be for naught because they refused to fax the letter I needed in order to get the money (from my “uncle”) but eventually I won. After thanking this woman, my tormentor, who is probably also tormented herself, who certainly did not seem like she in any way wanted to be working in a call center, profusely, I ordered up an Uber so I could catch the last 10 minutes of the party. It cost $19.61. Money well spent. Also, afterwards, I took a subway and a bus to get home and cooked dinner instead of getting takeout even though that meant eating at midnight, so maybe there is hope for me yet.

5 comments to Settling

  • Whit

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read something on the subject of money that didn’t make me feel panic and/or shame. Thank you for writing and sharing.

  • Bmouse

    Elizabeth Warren mentions negotiating payment on bills in the personal finance book she wrote with her daughter called “All Your Worth”. It has what seemed to me to have a useful “Financial CPR” chapter, which went into all the things you can do when the financial roads get really rough. Good luck with everything, dealing with your bills the way you did is a great step.

  • God, yeah, I feel all of this. I’ve never been able to pull off the “never think about money” thing for more than a few days at a time, but I am terrible about getting a paycheck, doing that for two or three days, then suddenly realizing I have to get through the next 10 days with the amount of money I need to pay the bills that need to be paid plus, say, $10 for food/gas/whatever else. Inevitably, that means leaving a bunch of debts unpaid. Right now I owe the IRS a shitload of money because I’m also a contract employee, and haven’t been able to afford my quarterly payments. Whee! Too bad I can’t use this same approach with the government.

  • emily

    @andrew weeellll you kind of can bc you can put your tax payments on a credit card. Not that anyone should ever do that. (I’ve done it.)

  • I loved reading this! Your voice, as always, is so fresh in a sea of voices I don’t want to listen to that I call the internet. This particularly affected me right now because I’m dropping a shift at work even though I can’t really afford it because my coworkers/manager are being too ridiculous for me to work with without getting panic attacks. I spend money in a similar way, like it doesn’t matter, on things like used (or new) books and dresses and utilizing restaurant week, shopping at the farmers market when I can’t exactly afford it and art supplies.

    Anyway, you’re a beacon of light to a young writer who has nothing figured out.

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