Years of caregiving can land you in debt

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I have no job at the moment and no income. I do not own anything, not even a car. By the grace of a neighbor, I am staying in a very tiny place until I find work. I have $25,000 on credit cards because I spent 12 years taking care of my mother who died. She let her home go back to the bank, so I will not get anything from the estate.

I have already been harassed and had to change all my mail to a P.O. box. I have a cell phone, but I can't afford to keep it. I use a computer at the library to check job openings. I am not an uneducated person, just one who is having a hard time getting back into the work force at 60 years old.

I have no idea what to do next. I have called the credit card companies. The lowest amount they'll take for a payment per month is just not doable for me with no income and no money. If and when I get a job, will they take everything from me? I am so depressed I can't eat or sleep. I consulted a lawyer and she said I should file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy immediately. I can't do that as they need money up front, and the fees are nearly $1,400 dollars for court costs and so on. I have no idea what to do.   -- Carol

Answer for the expert

Dear Carol,
Let's take your worries one at a time.

First, if you are being harassed, that has to stop now. It shouldn't have been necessary for you to change to a P.O. Box. Credit card collectors have no reason to come to your house. They also can't contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., or call you on the phone if you tell them not to. Read about your other rights as a debtor in this article, "Know your rights: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act."

I recommend communicating with debt collectors only by mail for three reasons: Talking to collectors is one of the most upsetting, unpleasant experiences I can think of outside a doctor's office, and a phone conversation doesn't leave a paper trail. And it's too easy to give away information you shouldn't or that's none of their business. Next time they call, tell them to communicate with you by mail only.

Send them a basic cease-and-desist letter, such as our debt collection sample letters. Fill in the blanks and send by certified mail with receipt requested.

Next, stop worrying about them garnishing all your wages when you do get a job. The amount they can garnish is limited according to state laws. It takes time for them to figure out you have a new job, and by then you may be able to set up an acceptable payment plan, saving you the hassle and embarrassment of having your wages garnished at your brand new job.

I only recommend bankruptcy for unusual, one-time events when people have large debts they can't hope to pay. Taking care of your sick mother for 12 years should qualify, and you shouldn't feel like a failure if you choose that option. On the other hand, your debt is not insurmountable, and this is a bad time of your life to go through the time-consuming and emotionally draining experience of bankruptcy. And, as you've noticed, filing for bankruptcy isn't cheap. You don't need to rush into bankruptcy as you're basically judgment proof anyway because you have no assets they can take.

The most important thing for you right now is to find work. Although it was emotionally satisfying to be able to take care of your mother, you may enjoy getting up in the morning and being around a variety of people again. Go online and take some of the free online career quizzes. Get career counseling if you need it. (Counseling is often available at community colleges, libraries, state employment offices and, of course, online.) Don't give up!

You might consider starting your own business. With your experience in care giving, you could run an adult or child day care center, start an elder care errand or "check-in" service, or even start an adult care home (check out your state's legal requirements first). Whatever your talents, make sure you are making the most of them and doing something you find fulfilling. Under the circumstances, you will probably be working for several years. You might as well find work you enjoy.

This is a new chapter of your life. Don't let debts and debt collectors spoil it for you. Deal with the debts in the best way you can, and then move on.

See related: Debt collection sample letters, Know your rights: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, How to keep debt collectors at bay, 11 tips for dealing with debt collection, collectors

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Updated: 03-22-2019