Last weekend I saw the documentary Maxed Out, which I read about a while ago, and which is out on DVD now, I think, though it’s also only just now made it to the Saskatoon theatres (or theatre—singular). It’s a pretty good movie, in case you haven’t seen it. It doesn’t offer much in the way of new information to anyone who’s owned a credit card or two, but it does tell some pretty horrific stories about the various ways that credit companies, collections agencies, banks, and lenders screw average Americans. Afterward, Rich and I contemplated a new documentary series called They’re Out to Fuck You, highlighting the multitude of ways that big business and government join forces to make every part of life as unfair and unpleasant, as short or as filled with malignant lumps, as dangerous and as diabetic as possible.
As an employee of a title insurance company, in the remote mountain village I moved here from, I didn’t see too many examples of unscrupulous lenders. There was one, though, who, every 12 months or so, would convince one elderly couple to refinance their million-dollar home, pocketing tens of thousands in closing fees (and, not incidentally, garnering a thou or so for our office as well) and sticking the homeowners in the stupidest, money-wastingest mortgage plan available—usually a high-interest ARM or some kind of weird balloon loan that would come due almost immediately. Both homeowners were tiny, at least in their 80s, and soft-spoken. The man had been diagnosed with some kind of degenerative disease, and his wife—though clearly a competent caregiver, if her husband’s appearance was any indication—was unsure how to handle the financial burden of staying alive longer than they had expected. Their son was the occasional cause of the released jail-bond liens on their real-estate record, so presumably he was in no position to offer filial advice about mortgages. If they had been a different type of couple, or lived at a different period in history, maybe she would have been taken in by a snake-oil salesman, a smooth-talking evangelist, a deposed Nigerian prince, or a clairvoyant, but instead it was the charismatic mortgage broker who ruined them. Shame on him, and shame on us for not stopping this couple from entering into what was very clearly an extortionate relationship.
In our defense, though, I must say that an escrow agent is supposed to act as a neutral party—giving information but not advice. Had our escrow agent said anything, not only could she have been reprimanded by the state licensing bureau, but the transaction would have simply been moved to another title agency and closed there. Our notary public might have wanted to question whether the man fully realized what it was that he was putting his signature to—it was, frankly, unclear how much he was able to grasp—but it would have been insulting to his wife, and it was clear, at least, to the man that his wife wanted him to sign this paper. If he didn’t know what he was signing, he at least knew that he was doing it to help the woman who bathed and fed him.
When I was a college student, I got suckered into a lot of things—quite by choice. Alcohol and drugs cost a lot of money, and at first I got around this by photocopying pages of books I needed for class from the library, and spending book-buying money at the bar. At some point—if not immediately—I realized that, although most of my college friends wore the same kind of second-hand store clothes that I did, some of my new classmates were quite rich, and wore designer labels, and did not smell like anti-lice powder. So began my never-to-be-resolved desire to be cute, which added a new dimension to my expenses.
Like every other college student, I started receiving credit card offers. Like most other college students, I got a card. And, like some other college students, I defaulted almost immediately. Stupid, right? I had no idea I’d be expected to pay back anything that I had borrowed anytime soon. I believe that my dad started getting phone calls from the credit card company, and that he, out of concern for my future FICO score, paid my credit card balance in its entirety, and never required me to reimburse him, thus furthering my misunderstanding of the meaning of “credit,” if we are to be honest with ourselves, and for which I kind of love him, and I kind of resent him.
A few months ago, while my dad was out here visiting my sister and me, he dropped off some mail he’d been saving for me, including one envelope that contained a warning from a collections agency that was trying to collect on an overdrawn checking account I’d closed almost seven years ago. After some digging, I started to remember a little bit about what might have precipitated this, and what I thought I remembered were several conversations between me and a bank VP all those years ago, about a debit charge that mistakenly had posted twice, and that this all had been resolved back then, or at least I thought it was. The lady I spoke to at the collections agency, however, said that she would be forced to report this uncollected debt to the credit agencies if I didn’t pay them a hundred-some bucks by the end of the week. The agency offered to knock off some penalties and interest, so they certainly didn’t rape me as hard or as violently as they might have. “This is fucking extortion!” I yelled at one, very polite collections agent. “This! Is! Extortion!” But I paid anyway. And apologized for my behavior.
Oh, the bank was U.S. Bank, I should mention. Not that I’m mad still about their exorbitant practices, I mean, but I believe in full disclosure.(5)
These days I tend to be pretty mindful of my finances. I spent a long period of my young adult life—post credit card fiasco, pre-living wage job—under the pall of bounced checks, late rent payments, surfing, and “borrowing” from my parents (in quotes, since I rarely, if ever, paid back these “loans”). I don’t need a lot of money to be happy, but not having enough money mostly means unhappiness, I’ve noticed. If you can afford to buy your friends a round of drinks, that makes you feel nice; if you’re constantly hoping that your friend won’t notice that you’ve never offered to repay him that $20 you borrowed that one time, that makes you feel bad. That kind of thing.
Last week, I was talking to a friend of mine about the changing situation at my apartment. With Rich moving in, I told her, I am suddenly surrounded by things. A chair, a TV, a table. Things that, quite frankly, today’s American household is considered incomplete without. When I sold my remote mountain condo, part of the reasoning behind it was that ownership—of the condo as well as all the stuff inside it—had become suffocating. I’d moved to the mountains with the back of my Subaru filled with books and clothes, and over six years had amassed a two-bedroom condo full of crap. Crap that made my life nice, yes. But also crap that I felt I needed to buy, for other people. I’d invite a guy to my house for the first time: “Where’s your TV?” he’d ask. Or my parents told me that they wanted to stay with me instead of at a hotel. “Oh, don’t worry about us. We’ll just take your bed,” they said. So, I ran to the store and bought a bed for the guest bedroom too—a $1000 expense so that they could save $100 a night. (At least I repaid those old debts somehow, right?) Before I left, I started feeling that everything was a chore. The coffee grinder owned me—“I’m filthy! Covered in grounds and oily!” it screamed at me from across the kitchen. Houseplants mocked me—shedding dead leaves and dirt, peeing excess water from their pots. The hallways smelled of thug dawg urine, the appliances were magnets for grime, the furniture required constant vacuuming, lest the fur grow too thick. I sprayed, vacuumed, steam cleaned, and wiped, and still the stains, smells, dust, and residue grew and grew and grew.
So when I moved to
“So, you’re zen,” my friend concluded, as we discussed the new chair and television set. “Rich isn’t.”
But that’s not it. I am as acquisitive and grasping as the next person.
But for right now, I’d like to get back to a place where I can balance enjoyment of life through ownership of things and exasperation due to the obligation borne of owning things. I think I’ve kind of done this, or I’m on my way. Rich says, “I should have brought the large sauté pan from my house,” or “I should go get the coffee grinder out of storage,” and I think, “Yes, that would make life easier, I think.” And then I think, “Oh crap. More stuff. Didn’t I just do that?”
Not that I’m much for self-help Oprah bullshit, but I do buy into what Suze Orman says: First people, then money, then stuff. One theme throughout Maxed Out is that people who have spent their money on stuff that was meant to make them happy—skis, Rolexes, stereo systems—become miserable because of debt accrued through these purchases. This doesn’t mean that things make people unhappy, mind you—but it certainly doesn’t say much on behalf of the “material objects = happiness” cause that all those big business interests, including the credit card companies, would like to advance.(7)
Some of what was highlighted in Maxed Out made me furious at the lenders: The scene where a mother of a mentally disabled man told how her son was told to sign his name on a loan that he clearly did not understand, for example. Some made me furious at the government: Footage of President Bush signing the bankruptcy bill into law, surrounded by grinning, soulless bank execs.
But mostly, what made me sad were the examples of the kind of human greed that got me in trouble with my first credit card company, as a college freshman, and that I still find myself struggling with. I remember, as an 18-year-old, reading Madame Bovary for the first time, and feeling that, if I didn’t stop myself, I could be the uncute embodiment of Flaubert’s heroine. That I would wake up one day and find that my life had been spent putting money and things, first, and ignoring the things that matter.
Fifteen years later, and I still worry.