'Chargaholic' breaks the habit

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

It all started more than 20 years ago with Santa Claus -- Santa Claus and the Sears Wishbook and a mother's desire to wrap her children in Christmas gifts.

This month it ended with Sherry, 47, sitting in a counselor's office surrounded by credit-card bills and telephone bills and insurance statements and paycheck records that all pointed to one indisputable fact -- Sherry and her husband couldn't pay their bills.

By the time Sherry arrived at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland's Catonsville headquarters, she and her husband owed $12,000 in consumer debt -- a third of their $36,000 annual income. On average, she said, she was two to three months behind on payments to nine creditors.

"I was getting all these calls so I was avoiding the calls," she said.

Sherry's moment of truth came when one of the credit-card companies advised her to contact CCCS.

"It was when I talked to Discover on the phone and they suggested I come here," said the mother of two.

Sherry readily conceded that she was responsible for the family's financial pickle. Her husband, she said, handed her his paycheck on Thursdays, and she decided where the dollars would go. Not until the current crisis did he tell her that, no matter what, he'd better not see his wages garnished. Contemplating the spending habits that landed her at CCCS, Sherry observed that her debts centered on her now-grown son and daughter, whom, she emphasized again and again, "I love dearly."

"I really think it got out of hand because credit was too easy," Sherry said. "I overindulged the children at Christmas and kept taking out bill-payer loans. It was like a mushroom -- it kept blowing up. My son says I'm a chargaholic."

"There were a few years when things were paid off," said Sherry. "I put my credit cards away for a while. But then I took them out for just a little bit of shopping and. . . ," she recounted.

Expenses increased as Sherry's son, now 24, and daughter, 22, grew older.

When her son left home to attend the University of Maryland at College Park, there were added costs for a fraternity, clothes, the extras. "He likes the high life," Sherry said.

In addition, Sherry and her husband bankrolled him while he worked summers in Ocean City. Then the family decided to send the daughter to a private college that cost $14,000 a year.

The straw that broke the family's financial back came in 1989 when Sherry refinanced their home and used the money they got from the equity to buy a car and pay for her daughter's college expenses.

"I had a mortgage at 7.5 percent and a payment of $206. I took that mortgage and went to $703," she sighed. Aside from more than tripling her monthly payment, the refinancing also extended the life of her mortgage by 12 years.

On top of that, her husband's employer -- a manufacturer -- has been experiencing a severe downturn. Not only has her husband's overtime income fallen off, but he is in danger of losing his job; even with his 25 years of seniority, he is perilously close to the top of the lay-off list. "He's 21 from the street," Sherry said.

During Sherry's appointment, CCCS counselor Joe Walker told her it might take 35 or 36 months for the family to free itself from debts.

"God forbid there's any decrease of income in that time," commented Walker.

His game plan for Sherry and her husband will require them to cut their living expenses by $200 a month while lowering monthly payments by $40 a month. She'll also pay CCCS a $5 monthly fee. There will be a written budget, one that Walker terms Spartan, for them to follow.

"Between the two," said Walker, "instead of being $229 behind [a month], we'll be even or slightly ahead."

"We'll work with creditors to accept lower payments. Sherry will remit the money to us. After we get the first remittance, we'll send a proposal to the creditors," said Walker, who had 32 years experience in the credit industry before retiring. He has been working at CCCS as a part-time credit counselor for 1 1/2 years.

Normally, creditors accept CCCS' proposals for debt repayment. Usually both late charges and interest charges are stopped. Assuming all goes well, Sherry will send CCCS a monthly payment that will be distributed among her creditors for as long as she remains in the program.

In addition, Sherry and Walker discussed the possibility of increasing the family income by Sherry's going to work. Up to now, Sherry has been a homemaker who has occasionally worked part time.

The other -- and bigger -- side of the equation is to cut living expenses.

"There are areas in the living expenses that could be reduced," Walker said.

A prime target is the couple's phone bill, which runs around $110 a month. It's that high because the couple's son freely uses their AT&T; credit card for personal and business calls.

"This is an expense this family can't afford right now," Walker said.

In addition, Sherry said she was going to tell her daughter, who has been living at home since finishing college in May, that she will have to foot her own car insurance bill.

"What Sherry and her husband have to do now is track their expenses," said Walker.

As part of the deal, Sherry has agreed to stop using credit cards.

"I shall cut them up," she proclaimed.

Psychologically, that may be an important step, but in a practical sense it's moot; once she is in the debt-repayment program, her credit accounts will be frozen and no more credit will be extended.

Although the austere budget allocates money for little beyond the necessities -- utilities, transportation, insurance, food and mortgage payment plus the credit-card bills -- Sherry didn't think it would affect her personal lifestyle very much.

"I feel my children are on their own. We're conservative. We're not party people," she said.

Sherry said Walker's background in the credit industry gave her confidence that the plan would work.

"He knows where he's coming from," she said. As for herself, "At least I won't get any more of those awful calls."

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