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Tales from the credit crypt: Counselors' crazy debt client stories

Debt counselors recall pets, secrets and attitudes

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Think you can astonish a credit counselor with your $20,000 credit card debt? Not a chance. They've seen it all -- from shopping divas who outspend their incomes to clients who have severe gut reactions once all their hidden debt is revealed.

These seasoned financial professionals, all working for nonprofit member organizations from either the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, have stories to tell. Here are just a few true money tales from behind closed doors. Some names and locations have been changed to protect clients' identity. Tales from the office: Credit counselor's crazy client stories

A gut reaction. After years of ignoring debt, discovering how dire it's become can be pretty distressing. But to get physically ill? Credit counselor Scott Monroe from Phoenix was on the receiving end of what can happen when figures are finally totaled. His client came in with a bag bursting with unopened bills. "Even in the beginning, she wasn't looking too lively. Her voice was lowered to the point where almost no sound was coming out." Monroe had her open the envelopes (a technique used to help borrowers gain ownership over their situation) and recite the balances as he added them up. "When it reached over $35,000, she had this look on her face -- something very unpleasant was about to happen. I grabbed the trash can, but it was too late. She threw up all over my desk." Monroe rescheduled the session until she was feeling up to the task.

How can I possibly budget when I spend more than I have coming in?!

San Diego credit counseling client
who was spending $100,000 a year over her salary 

What do you mean I have to budget? Spending problems are not always easy to recognize or admit, as San Diego counselor Ellen O'Neill knows well. One particular client had an especially hard time accepting living within her income. During the session, O'Neill found out the woman was spending a jaw-dropping $100,000 each year more than her annual salary. To stay afloat, she had been drawing equity from her house -- and paid the home loans off with her credit cards. When O'Neill explained the danger of this behavior, and that she needed to budget, the client's response nearly left her speechless. "How can I possibly budget when I spend more than I have coming in?!," she asked, haughtily. O'Neill did her best to remain calm and reasonable. "I told her that was a valid point, but she still had to spend within her means." And ultimately, that's what she helped the client do.

Animal story No. 1: The bird. Counselors are accustomed to cleaning up debt messes -- but bird fallout is not the norm. Mike Ruehle, from Boulder, Colo., recalls a client who arrived with a large parrot. "During the session, the bird sat on his shoulder and pooped down the front of the client's shirt. The client did not react negatively to the action; in fact, it all seemed to be quite normal for him." Because the gentleman was out of work, Ruehle did his best to prepare him for job seeking. "At that time, our agency had a special program for the unemployed. I had the pleasure of trying to help this guy compose a resume with the bird on his shoulder." Moreover, said Ruehle, "this client wanted to work in a grocery store and thought he was entitled to take his bird to work with him.

Divorce at the desk. Couples can make for challenging sessions, but none so dramatic as another of Monroe's. "A married couple came in, and it started out normal, pleasant. I immediately got the sense that the wife was in charge." Monroe evaluated the budget and creditors. "There were only five statements. Because the husband barely said anything, I turned to him and asked if there was anything else. Up from his briefcase he pulls a bag packed with papers, all bills. The wife was in shock. If looks could kill ... He had roughly $80,000 in debt she didn't know about." The husband had been trying to support a lifestyle he couldn't afford, started gambling, lost his job and took out cash advances to pay for it all. The statements went to his post office box. He left the house each morning, pretending to go to work. "I wish I could have crawled away, but tried to stick to the debt and go over possibilities." Monroe gave them referrals for marriage counseling.

Animal story No. 2: The mouse. Rodents can be terrific pets -- but not for people who are terrified of them. Which is why Denise Benioff, a counselor out of Dallas, cites the following as her most memorable appointment: "A client came in for a progress review and explained that her pet mouse had a medical issue and the vet bill was over $200!" She wanted to reduce her creditor payments to cover the cost and asked Benioff if she wanted to see the animal. "Since I have an irrational phobia about mice, I politely declined. Unfortunately for me, she set the mouse right on my desk. After a loud gasp and a potential panic attack, I tried to compose myself while pushing myself back against the wall. I think she understood my reaction and put the mouse back in her coat." The critter stayed home for future reviews.

The wife was in shock. If looks can kill ... he had roughly $80,000 in debt she didn't know about.

-- Credit counselor Scott Monroe from Phoenix
    

Looking for miracles. Many clients hope for a magic solution to their problems, making realistic options difficult to propose. Andrew Bernstein, from West Palm Beach, Fla., remembers a resistant-but-broke big spender. The client had been earning a great salary but was told a year before that his job would be eliminated (and even then owed $250,000 in debt). In the months prior to the layoff, he purchased a house, a car and other expensive items. "He had used up all his credit and now, having no money and no real job prospects, he wanted to take care of his debt." Bernstein proposed bankruptcy, but the man said he couldn't afford an attorney. Outside of getting a job, the client's solutions were few. "When I told the guy, he got terribly angry and said the ad he saw claimed that we could assist anybody." Remaining composed, Bernstein advised him that the best thing to do, then, is to start paying everyone whatever he could afford. "I don't know what he did after he hung up with me," he says, who turned the experience into educational gold: "I've used it in my financial literacy seminars for the past eight years!"

After a few years on the job, credit counselors can handle pretty much any type of financial dilemma. Don't put off getting help because you're afraid to reveal what's been going on. Unless you bring an elephant into the room, your circumstances are probably quite ordinary.

See related: Income down, bills up. Time for credit counseling?, 8 steps to picking a credit counselor?, Credit card video: How to pick the right credit counseling agency

Published: January 8, 2010


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