Surviving Debt: Expert Advice

Some people just like self-help books. Some people (like someone I am related to) always have one open on their nightstand and seem to have read them all. I’ve only recently gotten into them and that is to supplement the in-person help I have been getting (specifically, on managing my business).

If you’re a self-help person, you have to check out Surviving Debt: Expert Advice for Getting Out of Financial Trouble, published by the National Consumer Law Center, now in its 11th edition. It covers almost every personal financial issue you can think of, and is only $20. CLICK HERE to purchase (I get no benefit from this other than to share with you a really valuable resource)

You can even get free content from the book by clicking here. 

Let’s say you had a car repossessed a few years ago, and you can’t figure out how to pay off the debt resulted from that. Or you want to know which of your accounts to pay first. Surviving Debt has a chapter for that. If you’re the type of person who can read instructions and advice and follow through, then the price tag on this book is more than worth it. Maybe you’re shy about talking to someone about your finances, or want to know if you really are as bad off as you think you are (if I had a nickel for everyone who was afraid to pull their credit reports!), try Surviving Debt first. Then let me know if it was helpful, and which sections were the most relevant to you. You may need some follow up help, or have questions about your options. After all, this kind of book doesn’t (and can’t) provide you advice specific to where you live as each state is different in how debt is pursued and your options are different depending on which creditor you are dealing with, whether you have been sued on the account or whether it is in collection or not. Foreclosures especially are different in every state, so maybe after reading about your particular problem you will feel better prepared to ask questions and start tackling your situation with a live professional.

This book, and the chance to read parts of it for no charge, was too good an opportunity not to share with you. Again, I get no proceeds from the sale of the book (I don’t even keep the proceeds from the sales of my own book!), I just wanted to make sure you knew about it, especially as many of you are looking forward to a new year soon and in my experience, most people have something money-related on their New Year’s resolution list.

Living Her Dream

Quite often I find myself in conversations with people who say things like, “When __ happens, then I will do ___.”  For example, “When I retire, then I will play more golf,” or “When I earn more money, then I will take a vacation,” or “When I have more time, then I will volunteer.”  I have a few of those on my list too.

I have a friend, well actually someone I would feel lucky if she called me a friend, whom I met many years ago at a networking event and we have seen each other at various events and meetings over the years.  I knew that she spoke some French and German and did things like organized get-togethers for French-speakers and German-speakers, and that she played piano and organ.  She is also a real estate agent and that is how I met her.  But unlike all the other small business owners I have met over the years, she isn’t waiting until her business “takes off,” or until she makes a certain amount of money, to do the things she enjoys and that would make her life and the lives of others better.  As small as it seems to get a bunch of people together to practice speaking French once per month, she takes the time to do it.  She doesn’t see it as taking time away from working and making money and therefore something she shouldn’t do or can’t do or that she should wait to do.  It’s important to her, it’s important to others, and it’s something she isn’t waiting to do.

I learned recently that she has added yet another interesting and generous activity to her weekly routine—she plays the piano and organizes a choir for people who get lunch at a particular soup kitchen in Hartford.  The meal is served at noon, she arrives at 11 and anyone else who is there who wants to sing can join the group.  The first week, back in May, there were apparently only about four reluctant participants.  But as the weeks passed, and she continued to appear and warm up the piano, more and more people have been joining.  One week there were over 20 singers!  They also recently sang in State House Square and Kathleen Malloy, the governor’s wife, joined them.  After each session now, the singers tell her how much they enjoy the choir, how it makes them feel good and especially after meeting Mrs. Malloy, how they actually feel like someone, for the first time in their lives.

What is also interesting about this is she had no idea what the result would be, how the option of singing for a little while before eating lunch would affect the patrons of the soup kitchen, how it would change their lives or hers.  But she did it anyways.  She stepped into the unknown and just went with it.

Just an hour per week, and she is making such an impact.  Without concern that she could be out showing a house to a client, and maybe making a little more money if she worked instead of volunteered.  She isn’t waiting to live her dream, she is doing it now.

If only all of us took an hour per week to do what makes us each feel happy, something we know is doing good for ourselves and others, what would our communities look like?  How much better would our little world be?

I’m sharing this, instead of my usual stuff about foreclosure and mortgages and the headaches of being in debt because I hope highlighting what my friend is doing will inspire you to not wait to do the things you want to do until ___ happens.

Let me know what you think, let me know if you are already living your dream, or what you plan to do instead of waiting for the right moment, the right amount of time or having enough money.

99 Homes

A week or so back, I was at a conference table with another lawyer and a client. The subject was, of course, debt and a pending foreclosure. I’d known the attorney for some time, always thought of him as a sort of analytic, ‘just the facts, ma’am’ kind of guy.

So, he shocked me when he, emotionally, started talking about the movie 99 Homes, several years old now, but … well, here’s what I wrote about it after it came out:

99 Homes is a kick in the stomach. It’s visceral, it’s brutal.

It sarahblogbegins with a court hearing in Orlando, Florida. A twenty second hearing during which a character, alone before a judge in a chaotic courtroom is told his paperwork is not in order and even if it was it’s too late and he will be evicted by the bank in the morning. Quick, devastatingly direct.

The subsequent eviction scene was tense and just heart-ripping. It was hard to watch.

Something really hit me in the brief moments before the sheriffs come –  it’s a quick, easy to overlook shot, though that it’s repeated later in the movie, a few times actually, albeit in different forms.

This is it: the homeowner’s sitting at a kitchen table buried in paperwork. He’s frantically burrowing through it while calling attorneys on his cell phone. It’s crystal clear he’s ignored dozens – at least – notices from the bank, court, and the sheriff’s office.

Later, as the movie takes some dark turns and heads toward the ’99’ homes of the title, it’s obvious that most of the people Michael Shannon (great in this, as in almost everything else) is evicting have done exactly the same thing – they’ve ignored notices, even ones stuck on their front doors by day-glo red tape.

99-homes-18It’s a theme I’ve explored more than a few times and really thought I had a handle on. But seeing it … was hard. There’s a natural reaction to wanting bad news to go away without having to do anything. There’s the depression that hits, the ‘nah, this isn’t really happening’ denial … well, really most of the steps normally associated with the grieving process.

Except here, as so vividly shown in the film, there is no acceptance, just sheriffs and a bank rep at the door to wrest the home away.

I’m still a little rocked by this but I’m pretty sure the next time someone hesitates before hiring me I’ll just tell them to watch 99 Homes and get back to me.

Picturing Foreclosure

Who do you picture when you hear the word Foreclosure?  Do you picture people sitting around piles of cash they have saved up because they haven’t paid their mortgage? Do you picture people going on vacation on the money they saved by not paying their mortgage?  Do you think they are sleeping soundly on a bed of sweet-smelling flowers and wake up to rainbows?

Maybe that’s what you picture, since we have been trained, as good Americans, to work hard and pay our bills.  So if someone isn’t paying their bills they must really be enjoying all the “extra” money they have hanging around.  If we all believe that paying your bills = good and not paying bills = bad, then of course you think there is some benefit to the person not paying their bills, that they have “gotten away with something,” and are getting rich in the process.

After years and years of working with people in debt, I can tell you not being able to pay bills comes with nothing but gray hair and sleepless nights.

I’ve been trying to figure out who is more likely to be in foreclosure so that I can “target” my advertising better.  I want to focus my advertising time, energy and money on that group. The problem is, there is no ONE group more likely to be in foreclosure.  I have helped doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, landscapers, painters, contractors, nurses, teachers, retirees, the disabled–you name it—who have all fallen on hard (or even harder) times.  The only common denominator is owning a home. Whether your mortgage payment is $3000 per month or $900 per month, your home is your castle.  

And hardship doesn’t discriminate.  

I have a list a mile long of the terrible things that happened to my clients before they fell behind on their bills, all which fall under the main categories of unemployment, divorce, disability or injury, having to care for someone sick, or death of a spouse or family member.  That stuff can happen to anyone.

Believe me no one who isn’t paying their mortgage fat, happy and sitting on a pile of cash.  They come to my office crying, depressed, sleep deprived and arguing with their spouse because of the stress that reduced household income and inability to pay bills causes.  Don’t think for a minute that the shame and embarrassment is any less for the house painter than the doctor, or that it’s any easier for the real estate agent than the nurse to reach out for help.

I was talking to a friend today who just went through a major health crisis, which got worse while he was in denial about the seriousness of his condition before finally going to his doctor.  His takeaway is that he feels we should all be talking about our issues and how they affect us and make us feel. He specifically said he’s seeing a counselor to get over the stress he experienced while getting urgent medical treatment, and he thinks the more we all discuss that the better we will all be, and that we will be more likely to reach out for help when we need it sooner.

I couldn’t agree more.  I’ve been saying that for years, I even had the Got Debt? logo imprinted on my business cards for years because when I showed it to people it would make them smile and more likely to discuss money problems.  In my experience, the sooner someone reaches out for help with their financial issues the more options they have. Nine times out of ten I’m told by clients speaking to me has helped them sleep much better immediately.  At the very least, reaching out for help sooner can make you feel like you’re sleeping on a bed of flowers.

Foreclosure Ten Years After the Collapse

Lehman Brothers collapsed ten years ago this week triggering the Recession, the effects of which are still lingering. I, certainly, see them almost every day.

The spate of foreclosures that closely followed Lehman and AIG’s collapses are still clogging courts across the U.S.. According to a few recent reports I’ve read, foreclosure filings won’t peak for another two years. All told, that’s at a dozen years of misery for a significant percentage of Connecticut homeowners.

The years since the collapse also happened to coincide – almost exactly – with the most prolific, almost instantaneous, exchange of information in human history.

So, it’s no surprise the Internet is alive with conspiracy theories about mortgages and foreclosures  – conspiracies involving banks, mortgage lenders, government entities, brokerage firms, real estate investment companies, hedge funds, foreclosure law firms, and a host more.

An entire industry has arisen around these theories, complete with handy solutions to ‘fix’ your foreclosure, maybe even get a ‘free house’ out of the deal  – a favorite phrase. Many of the sites offering these also offer a vast index of links to get you started. They usually start out free, then . . . well, you know.

This stuff is out there, they’re up there in the Google search rankings and pretty hard to miss, and, as far as I can see, have resulted in one, two max, ‘free homes’ in twelve years and millions of foreclosure filings. The lottery has better odds . . . I’ll also note that in one of those cases the legal fees – the case went to a state supreme court – exceeded the value of the home. By a lot.

What the preponderance of these sites, and all the ‘magic-erase-your-debt’ company sites, really does is bury the lawyers and court services and everyone else that can really help while obscuring the legitimate issues and solutions of the for89a3c0192640c5b0f17b47e53441975declosure process.

Case in point, a large foreclosure firm filed against a homeowner in southeastern Connecticut about a year ago. The homeowner skipped a response in state court and went straight to Federal District Court with a complaint that the court kindly referred to a ‘somewhat repetitive, verbose, and dense.’

The homeowner’s complaint was straight off several self-help websites. It attacked the ‘system’ while ignoring the nuts and bolts. The district court was not unsympathetic to some piece of the argument, tried several times to direct the homeowner toward something legally solid (the court, in fact, did everything but highlight the relevant passages in neon yellow), failed each time as the plaintiff merely regurgitated their first – and only – argument. Endlessly.

The homeowners missed the golden opportunities offered by the court; the foreclosure firm made a half a dozen procedural errors in their pursuit of the state foreclosure action that the homeowners – guided by the web-based conspiracy crowd – missed in their attempt to slay the giant.

After a long and tortuous process, the homeowners lost; the foreclosure firm touted it as a notable, precedent setting win on various industry web sites. (Every side is entitled to their own illusions).

Maybe there was (and is) a conspiracy (s), certainly a lot of really bad things happened to take down the economy. The thing is: none of that matters – the foreclosure process is not the place to blow the lid off any of that. It’s the place to work to either keep your home or stay in it as long as possible while you rearrange your life.

These websites and self-help programs offer a narrative for a confusing, stressful time. They do not offer realistic  solutions for going to court to defend a foreclosure.

They’re not going to save your house, they’re not going to keep you in the house while you plan, they’re not going to guide you through the pros and cons of each path, they’re not going to help you make an informed decision, and they sure aren’t going to present your best face to the Judge.

When Geoffrey Owens Played a Lawyer . . .

I posted something about Geoffrey Owens and ‘job shaming’ on Facebook last week because I saw in the ‘story’ of Geoffrey’s job at Trader Joe’s something I see regularly working with people going through foreclosure: the ‘debt shaming’ I write about often. It seemed especially poignant as all this was precipitated by Owens losing his steady income source, The Cosby Show residuals that went away when the show was pulled from syndication because of the sexual abuse charges leveled at Cosby.

Just like many of my clients, an unexpected change in income had a disastrous effect.

All that reminded me of a great Geoffrey Owens role as one of my favorite TV lawyers of all time: Gerald Watkins Mayfield in HBO’s Divorce.

Divorce is the story of a successful business woman, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her not quite as successful husband, Robert (Thomas Hayden Church) living in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, a pretty, upscale town on the Hudson River an hour or so north of New York City. The town, by the way, is pretty much a character.

sarahbloghboObviously, they have marital problems. They go through all the motions of therapy and reconciliation and mediation, it’s obvious six show or so in that they need to divorce and it’s going to get ugly.

They need lawyers. Robert’s not the type to ask around or spend time on Google, or, indeed, doing anything proactive. Eventually, though, a friend introduces him to  a relative who’s an attorney right in town and ‘does everything.’ That would be Gerald Watkins Mayfield and he is everything I’ve been writing for years.

He works out of his garage and his wife pops in every few minutes to remind him to ‘watch the oven, dinner’s in’ but, all in all, it’s pretty charming. Until he starts talking. Then it’s funny and chilling – if you’re a lawyer.

The scene (easily the funniest in the show, period):

“So, you do mostly divorces?”

“Nope, mostly wills, trusts, estates.”

“You do some divorces?”

“You know what, Robert? Basically, it’s all law.”

That’s it, in a nutshell, perfectly put by a great character. ‘Basically, it’s all law.’

It’s not, of course, but clients still buy into it. As Robert does. Disastrously. I’ll leave it to you to watch the show to see just how disastrously it is.

For now, though, just understand that if you need a divorce attorney, hire a firm that does family law; need an estate plan? Hire an estate planning firm; are facing a foreclosure? Retain someone who does exactly that most of her working day.