You went into debt for THAT?!? Good examples of bad charging
Tales of wanton plastic use from wig collections to helping the homeless
By Erica Sandberg | Published: September 29, 2010
There's a right way to use credit cards: charging only what you can afford to repay in a month or two. There's a wrong-but-hey-we've-all-done-it way: occasionally overdoing it and winding up with a burdensome bill.
Then there is nonsensical debt -- those baffling, stunningly bad decisions, when people pull out the plastic for all the wrong reasons. And more people than you may think have done it. Here are their stories:
San Francisco bankruptcy attorney Jeena Cho has seen her fair share of extreme debting. "There is never a shortage of what people spend money on. I've had a gambler lose $80,000 in Vegas, continuing to believe he would make it back. I've also had several shopaholics who bought their way through Rolex, Gucci and Louis Vuitton," says Cho. Her most extraordinary case, though, was the woman seeking mystic guidance.
"This client ran up about $30,000 in calls to a 900-number psychic hot line," says Cho. "She felt deeply ashamed about what she had done and had tried to pay off the debt for four years." Yet without the means to do so, bankruptcy was her only option left.
With that much clairvoyant advice, though, she should have seen it coming.
Treating strange men to drinks
Talia Witkowski of Los Angeles admits she used to be a financial mess. "I thought my only escape from the emotional pain that I was in was to go on a spending binge whenever things got rough," says Witkowski. "Sadly enough, I actually spent a lot of money on credit cards buying men drinks when I would be out at bars to try and get their attention." The result: about $11,000 in debt.
The root of the problem was her broken ego. "The more I tried to buy people's attention and affection, the more empty I felt and broke I became," says Witkowski.
She credits the "Heal your Hunger" program for stopping that destructive behavior. "I had to get help for the emotional hunger that I was trying to fill with the spending." She cautions others trying to finance their pride: "Do something about you. If you have no or low self-worth, you can use credit cards in the wrong way."
Channeling Mother Teresa
After years on the job, credit counselors are rarely surprised by their clients charging practices. However, one client stood out for Robyn Daniels, a counselor with CESI Debt Solutions out of Raleigh, N.C.
"We had a couple out of Colorado who had a special fondness for homeless people," says Daniels. "They would pick them up and house them in hotels, buy them food. The problem was that they charged it all. They had enough money for their own expenses, but not enough to support a world of needy people." Their benevolence led to their own financial ruin. "They ended up getting in $20,000 in debt, their home went into foreclosure, and they lost their car."
The couple's intentions to help the less fortunate were pure, says Daniels, but "it would have been a better idea to use cash or drive them to community resources instead."
Denise Allyn, a credit counselor for SurePath Financial Solutions out of Camarillo, Calif., recalls a client who got into a particularly hairy problem. When Allyn inquired about the origin of her debt, the woman responded, "I spend a lot of money on wigs. My husband likes the red one the best."
Allyn discovered that the client had charged thousands of dollars on the hair pieces. "She had a ton of them. All different lengths, different colors. She wasn't a young lady, she was older, and she said ‘Honey, this is what keeps me ticking!'" That habit, though, was impairing her ability to pay for living expenses and she couldn't keep track of her bills. "So I responded, ‘Honey, you have enough wigs. Enjoy the ones you have!,'" laughs Allyn.
In the end, the client was satisfied with splurging on one or two a year. "The wigs made her feel like a special person each time she put one on. If that's what makes them happy, great," says Allyn.
A blow-out basement
Sometimes people charge irrationally for painful, emotional reasons. Grief is one. Mary Francis, from New Brunswick, Canada, authored "Sisterhood of Widows," a book of stories from women who lost their partners, many of whom discuss how fast they went through their money -- including Francis herself.
"When my husband died, I bought an old house. I not only spent all his insurance money on it, I charged over $30,000 to finish off the basement," says Francis. Why? "Widows are especially prone to overspending after the death of their husbands," explains Francis. "They often remodel their homes because it makes them feel like they have some control over their environment. When they're in shock, they make bad credit card purchases because they are on their own and just not thinking straight."
Today, Francis charges mindfully. "I've learned to be more careful about making financial decisions when I'm under stress."
What's going on and what to do
Todd Mark is vice president of education for Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Greater Dallas, and leads the agency's "Psychology of Debt and Spending" webinar. In it, Mark has heard plenty of extreme cases, including the man who charged a small fortune at strip clubs, and another who adopted 16 hard-to-place children, delving into debt to support them all. While the actual purchases were radically different, the motivations were similar. Ultimately, both wanted to feel important.
"We need to figure why we do what we do," says Mark. "Sometimes it's a compulsion for items that give a sense of power or make you feel unique. Maybe they give meaning or purpose to your life. It's not rational, it's emotional." When you're armed with credit cards, unchecked desires can be lethal to your financial health.
If nonsensical debt becomes problematic, Mark suggests only carrying cash. Remember and respect your budget priorities too. Housing, food, utilities, children's expenses and transportation come first, and "if other purchases impair them, get help immediately," says Mark. "Maybe it's a credit counselor, maybe it's a therapist. Unfortunately, you may not even see your own reckless charging behavior, so it may take the care and intervention of others to step in.
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