Thursday, July 15, 2010

Uncle Sam isn't doing my financial reform many favors

Congress passed a financial reform package today, and President Obama is expected to sign it, perhaps as early as next week.

I'm nervous about what this will mean. That's not because I'm some big-wig investor or mega-bankers. I'm just a schmuck swimming in credit card debt. And the reason I'm scared is because the last time Congress clamped down on banks for their abusive practices on their account holders, the banks retaliated by becoming more abusive, raising interest rates even more and lowering limits.

And people wonder why consumers haven't started spending again to buy the country out of this recession. The answer is simple. We can't afford it.

There was only one beneficial piece in the last consumer protection bill as far as I can see, and that's the provision that requires the credit card companies to print some very useful and important information on the credit card statements. That key information tells us some very important things about what our credit cards are really costing us. In that information we can find out how long it will take to pay off our balances -- and how much we will eventually pay -- if we don't charge any more and only make the minimum payments. We can also see how much we would have to pay if we quit charging on the card to pay it off in three years.

That's important information to know. Of course the other actions the bank took have made it harder for me to dream of paying off the cards I have in three years or less. Credit card issuers have raised interest rates, and lowered limits which increases the proportion of debt you have, which lowers your credit rating, which then puts you at risk of getting rates raised again, and limits lowered again, and further erode the credit rating. It's feeling like a vicious, and expensive, cycle.

For me, though, there has been something of a silver lining. It has helped me to realize that I need to get out of debt as soon as possible and never get back into it again. I am tired of paying in blood to these legal loan sharks.

It is that conviction that brought me back to Digital Fishwrap again, after an absence of more than a year and a half. I feel like I've turned a corner in my financial life. After rounding that bend, I can see clearly the long, steep climb I face to summit this mountain of debt. I think the Fishwrap site can help me on this journey, because sometimes I need a place to confess my fear and frustration. I need a venue to vent my anger at myself and the assholes that helped me create this huge mess.

Learning to live without using credit cards has been tougher than I imagined. It's not that I lead an extravagant lifestyle. My couch and recliner are the two pieces of furniture I bought after getting my first job after college, bought on credit of course, because I didn't have the cash to buy them outright. And that's been the pattern of my life, buying items, large and small, on credit when there just wasn't the cash available. Gas for the car, gifts for others, travel to visit family when I lived far away, dinners for family and friends, all paid for on plastic.

I wasn't making much money in that first job, and had a series of low-paying jobs, but I make what should be a decent wage now, and I am still always broke, because nearly two-thirds of my monthly income goes to pay on credit cards. About one-third goes to all the core household expenses, like rent and utilities. Which leaves very little for everything else, like food, clothing, fuel and insurance for the car, etc.

I don't pretend to be a financial expert. If you saw my monthly bills and the checking account balance you would see that for yourself. I'm just a guy on a journey to get my life back. I've come to face the reality that another big raise or promotion is not just around the corner in this economy. There is no lottery jackpot coming my way to rescue me from myself and the banking bogeymen. It's going to take time, determination and tons of patience. I'm not sure I have that much patience, but maybe if I take the time to write about what I'm finding and learning it will keep me from running one and spending money on a lark just to avoid staring at the four walls or eating yet another home-prepped bargain-basement meal. And maybe you, dear readers, can help keep me on track.

1 comment:

Gene said...

Good topic for your return to Fishwrapland.
Good luck on your journey to financial sanity.
(Interesting new format, too!)

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