Lisa Clute Sets a Budget --
How credit card debt led to a young woman’s collapse. Her trip of baby steps towards change that followed. Including a serendipitous stop at a place paid for with foundation money from a fortune leftover from Buffalo’s by-gone industrial age.
Lisa Clute opened the envelope from Office Depot, saw the bill for $30 left to pay on her new laptop and began to weep.
Bills, some opened and left in the envelopes, some still sealed, were everywhere. They spilled to the floor from their piles -- on the kitchen table, the chairs around the table, the shelf near the table, the top of the microwave by the door. It was February of last year. She had stopped dealing with her mail about six months before. At 30, she wasn’t making enough money to keep spending the way she had been. She’d been missing payments on the $7,000 she owed on her credit cards. Her life felt like the disaster her kitchen was.
Because there was no room for eating, she had her spaghetti dinners on the couch by the TV with a view of her front room. From there, she could see more envelopes. They covered the table by the window that looked out on a busy-but-leafy street in the University District. A treadmill she once bought to help in her struggle with her weight had almost sat in that corner, but she canceled her order because she couldn’t afford the payments. Now the idea of ever doing a workout there seemed like a lost cause. There was no room.
Eight boxes of a decade’s worth of statements and bill records were on the floor, scattered under the table, around its edge, and near her small desk, where one kept her feet from going all the way under when she sat down.
She crawled into bed to weep and her Shih Tzus Willie and Abby jumped up with her. Lisa’s more usual personal state matches her yellow blond bob of round curls and her dogs, who look and act like a pair of friendly muppets. She will coo, “Hey baby,” to them with the same bubbly, effusiveness leads her to chat with strangers, he r neighbor, store clerks. But on this Thursday evening, she came home after the kind of hard day she has when she pressures herself to work faster when extra things get added to her regular job of checking the batch records for syringe-injected medicine at a pharmaceutical company. To feel drained and find that not even the computer was paid off, was too much.
Instead of going to church as she planned, she stayed home to cry. And cry. And cry. Normal people, she thought, don’t lose it like this over a $30 bill. Then her cell phone buzzed. She got more calls from the debt collectors than anyone else. Most every conversation with a friend included at least one beep from an agent, trying to get through. They rang about 10 or 15 times a day. Now it was too late even for them.
She flipped her phone open. It was a friend from church. She was worried when Lisa wasn’t at the service. “You’re crying over a $30 bill?” she said, trying to ease Lisa’s upset. It wasn’t that much money. For Lisa, it was a catastrophe. “The world stopped for my $30 bill,” she said.
The debt pile
When her debt first started to pile up a decade ago, it didn’t seem like anythin g. There’s not much she remembers about the day she signed up for her first card. She knows she was 19, a psychology and studio-art major and a junior at the University at Buffalo. She’d just transferred from a small Pennsylvania college. Beautiful with old stone buildings and lush greens, but too small.
So was Salamanca, the place where she grew up. It is and was beautiful to drive through the rolling hills that she learned in school a glacier carved. It is the only city in the country on an Indian reservation. People who live there pay rent to the Seneca Nation, an arrangement that once led to tire-burning protest when rates went up. She watched one store after another close in the mall on Main Street. The movie theater where she saw “Braveheart,” which she liked for the noble doggedness of Mel Gibson’s Scottish rebel, was the only thing that lasted.
“It was kind of a dying town when I was little,” she said. Lisa fit better in Buffalo. It didn’t have the same kind of natural beauty. The university’s suburban campus was flat, though as the biggest school in the state system with 27,000 students, it seemed fresh and full of life. Lisa walked to her classes past the sculpture of white marble pillars by the lake where students lounged in the sun. Everywhere she looked, there were people, walking through the grass, riding skateboards, holding hands.A 10-minute cushion of highway separates the main campus’s Amherst suburb from Buffalo, where it can be easier to see symptoms of the same kind of economic sorrow Lisa found in Salamanca. In 1998, when Lisa signed up for her first credit card, Buffalo had been slipping since the move of Bell Aircraft in the 1960s began the exodus and collapse of its manufacturing base.
Even though the metropolitan area remains the second biggest in the state, most of the 1.1 million people live outside the urban core, where gracious old Victorian houses sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars less than they would in other places. The old city’s pockmarked crust of red brick, clapboard, empty factories and closed department stores has been around so long it is possible to drive by without really noticing. Neighborhoods where fathers once raised families with paychecks from the plants that made steel, windshield wipers, car radiators, axles, airplanes, now hold thousands of vacant houses. They can seem invisible.
When Lisa walked into the student commons ten years ago, she saw the credit card sign-up table near the Starbucks and told herself, “Don’t do it,” before she took the free toy and handed her driver’s license for the friendly man to scan. He was already talking to someone else as she filled out the paperwork. Her cousin, who wasn’t in school, couldn’t get a credit card. On campus, people seemed to give them away like candy. By the end of that year, she had two.
“In the beginning when you use it, it doesn’t seem that bad,” she said. “But, you know, if you keep using it, how can you pay it off?”
It didn’t seem that bad
Back then, her job making $40 a week as a line cook and cashier at Burger King made getting a card seem reasonable. She didn’t have big expenses. Her money went to Sunday church collections and grocery shopping at Wegmans to better skip cafeteria food and dine instead on imitation crabmeat she liked to eat with salt and butter spray.
She’s not like the rest of the bill-paying, debt-avoiding Clute family. Her father invested the money he made in the apartment houses he now manages for a living. Her sister, an editor, now between jobs has been getting by with her savings. Her brother in Vermont, a serious rock climber, has a good information technology job.
As the oldest, Lisa grew up differently. She calls her relationship with money, “weird.” She remembers being poor when her parents moved from Colorado to be closer to her grandparents. Her dad, a surveyor and construction manager, couldn’t find a job so he fixed cars at a friend’s mechanic shop. The family qualified for, but didn’t take, welfare. It was a rare, twice-year kind of treat when her father came home with a bag of McDonald’s cheeseburgers. “We were always really excited,” she said.
By high school, when her father had a better job managing ski townhouse construction in Ellicottville, she felt out of place in her thrift-store clothes. She remembers then deciding to spend the money she saved from working weekends at flea markets selling candy apples from her parents’ giant apple concession stand. When she came to school in a new pair of Guess jeans, her friends told her she was dressing a lot better. It felt good to be wearing the same thing all the really put-together girls wore. And, she loved the cool little upside-down triangle on the back right pocket.
She didn’t start buying a lot on credit until she started her own, independent adult life. She marveled at how her cards erased the boundaries between people who had money and people who didn’t. “To be able buy whatever I wanted was just an amazing concept to me,” she said. “You don’t have cash. After a little while you don’t even think about it. If you write a check and it doesn’t go through you get in a lot of trouble. Credit card? No problem.”
After she graduated from U.B., she wore a suit from $300 worth of credit shopping at Fashion Bug to her new job downtown job as a customer service rep for a satellite dish installation company. Once she even paid off her $1,000 balance completely and called to cancel. The man on the other end talked her out of it. What if there was an emergency? “At the time,” she said, “I just had a hard time saying, ‘No.’”
Her balances climbed again. At 25 when she quit her stressful job as supervisor at the satellite company, she owed $3,000. A series of short jobs followed, cleaning her father’s apartments, working as secretary for a flour-milling company, a temporary post as a hospital administrative assistant, and eventually, six months on unemployment.
This is about when she thinks Buffalo’s sour economy hurt her most. She had recommendations from her bosses as a good, hard worker but she couldn’t find a job that lasted. So she started graduate school at Canisius College, figuring she would have more options if she could earn a teaching certificate. She puzzled over whether she’d prefer second grade because she thought she’d be good at making things simple, or fifth grade because it was her personal favorite.
She started using her credit card to pay for groceries, her cell phone, gas and electric bills. That, she would say later, was one of the stupidest things a person can do. At the time, she thought she’d catch up. Something good would happen, she hoped. She applied at the Geico insurance call center three times, the application limit. Even Burger King refused her. She was just about ready to move and try her luck in Baltimore when her temp agency asked her to wait.
Days later, she got the job at the pharmaceutical company. The pay was decent, but not enough to do much more than pay off the monthly minimum on the credit cards. She bought more anyway. She reme mbers standing in line with $250 worth of clothes in her arms at Lane Bryant, a store she thinks of as the Ann Taylor for women size 14 and up. “Why am I shopping?” she wondered, before buying all of it, including a really cute orange zip-up sweatshirt.
“The truth is I probably just could have done without,” she said. “I don’t know. We’re Americans. We just want what we want. It’s such a culture of instant gratification.”
After the $30-computer-bill crying jag she describes the way she changed her life as a long series of baby steps. The first: “Lisa,” she said, “you have to know what you have to pay.”
Two days later, on a winter Saturday last year, she was in a somber mood when she stood opening her mail in her small kitchen with its peeling yellow wallpaper with some kind of little fruit that was too busy for how small the kitchen was. To look at it made her feel God-I-hate-this-wallpaper crazy.
She worked steadily. The stove was the only clear surface in her place. Its round electric burners on white enamel were her desk. She made piles, for her pay stubs and bills to double check, bills to file. When she found the $20 bill from a co-pay from a doctor’s visit, it was scary. She hoped there weren’t too many more like that.
Then she found another from a doctor. For more than a hundred dollars. She was annoyed by the surprise. Her unopened mail had been one of those things where it had seemed like ignorance was bliss. “It’s really not,” said Lisa.
Finally, after four hours of sorting and opening, she collapsed on the sofa. It felt like the longest four hours of her life. Exhausted, with Willie at her feet and Abby by her stomach, she looked in the kitchen. She could see the table. Its top, a light-brown wood grain, was bare. Knowing there were things in her life she didn’t know had been making her nervous and anxious all along. She would realize this later.
Her next baby step was talking about the debt she’d been keeping a secret. She needed to pay off her credit cards. She begged her father to co-sign a loan for $7,000. She couldn’t get one by herself. He thought about it for a week. She fretted. “I think that was the most humiliating time in my life,” she said.
Her father told her he didn’t like the idea of co-signing a loan. She thought of Judge Judy. It’s the only thing on TV when she comes home from work. Problems fall into two basic categories. Divvying up stereos, laptops and microwaves after a breakup and when co-signed loans go wrong. One person gets stuck with the bill, the other slips off with the car or whatever came with the loan money. “It’s the exact same thing over and over again,” she said. Now, thought Lisa, she was one of those co-signing-loan people.
It felt liberating
Her father never said why he relented, but she figures it was because she’s his daughter and he loves her. At the bank, he got so mad when he saw the 15 or 18 percent interest Lisa was going to have to pay that he took the loan out in his name to get 8 percent.
While they made the arrangements for $195 a month to come out of her bank account for four years , Lisa asked for advice. The loan lady said: You can’t keep spending. Put your cards in the freezer. That would still be dangerously close. She opened her wallet and gave them to her father.
Last summer it felt liberating when she resisted the urge to use credit to replace the Victoria’s Secret eye shadow and other makeup thieves stole when they broke into her car. “See?” she thought, “I can get by.” She bought mascara from the grocery store and used some cheap eye shadow she had been ignoring at home.
She has become more strategic with money. When one of her credit cards expired and a new one came in the mail, she did put it in freezer. She drives to more stores to buy the things she needs. Instead of Lane Bryant, she hunts down bargains at Dots. Her mom always compliments her on the cute red shirt with a tie in the back she got there for $10. Her kitchen shelf that once let bills spill to the floor now has bottles of laundry detergent she buys on sale. Wegmans grocery has the best price on dog food. Aldi’s has good deals on the produce, grapefruit and grapes she likes.
In spite of all her progress, living this new way has been frustrating. “I’m finally in a spot where I’m living within my means and I barely make it,” she said. As this year’s tax season approached, she despaired. She knew she always did her taxes wrong, but she didn’t want to pay $50 to a professional.
She complained about her financial woes and the counselor who has been helping her keep her life on track this past year told her there were free tax preparation centers. She called the number she found by a Google search, gave her ZIP code and got the office address at 2495 Main Street.
Less than a mile from her house, the Tri-Main building is an old Trico factory converted into offices and studios. It was one of the plants where John Oishei made his fortune perfecting and mass producing windshield wipers. Three years ago, the foundation that was started with the money he left behind when he died in 1968 gave almost half a million dollars to add to the city’s collection of free tax centers and advertise their existence. The I.R.S. had estimated that the city and its county had about $40 million in unclaimed tax money. Three years into the project, the United Way calculates $40 million dollars in tax refunds has made it to thousands of center clients who return year after year to report they have used the money to pay off debt and buy cars and houses.
When Lisa first made her way through the old factory, which still has its original floors of plain cement, she was shocked to walk into the tax services office and find a welcoming plate of cookies and muffins in the waiting room. She was also shocked to learn that the man helping her had been volunteering to help people with their taxes for 18 years. “It kind of makes me want to cry,” she said one Saturday afternoon as she sat in the warren of cubicles where tax volunteers quietly worked around her.
Just the week before, the tax advisor calculated that the government owed her $1,300. When he told her to come back a week later and he would go over her last two returns that she did herself, she was elated. “I don’t think I’ll ever try to do my taxes again myself,” she said.
As the financial advisor pored over her tax forms, Lisa considered ideas for what she would do with the extra money. She was going to start a savings account. For the first time. “If I could put $500 in there, that would be great,” she said happily.
The tax volunteer found another $1,200 in refund money owed to her from 2005 and 2006. Once she gets the checks this summer she will replace her grey, dented, rusty 1993 Ford Tempo that stalls, starts and stalls, the first few times she turns the key. Eventually, if she can pay off several thousand dollars of her student loans, she might even go back school and get her teaching degree.
In the beginning, after her first dose of tax cash from 2007 was direct deposited into her account, she used it for less expensive bonuses. The refund money and this year’s $600 stimulus package rebate let her treat herself to a few drive-through stops for Tim Hortons’ coffee on the way to work, put $350 in savings, pay back her parents’ loans for Christmas and new tires, and buy a new kitchen table.
Her new treadmill, her most substantial purchase among them, stood out. She was more deliberate with this newfound cash than she was with credit. The $80 standing bookshelves in her bedroom and hallway -- where they display a crystal vase, dolls in Victorian dresses, Van Gogh art book and, now, Suze Orman’s guide to women and money – still remind her of how she charged them when she couldn’t afford to.
For the treadmill, she carefully shopped and planned for the spring Sunday when she would bring it home. She found the best price, $650, on the one that was just right, with a wide enough conveyor belt so she could walk without feeling penned in, at BJ’s, the membership discount store.
To get enough money in her debit card account, she cashed the check with the $300 contribution from her mother. As she sat on her porch Saturday afternoon before, she called out to a neighbor to arrange carrying help. “I’m buying a treadmill tomorrow! Can I borrow your husband or one of your boys?” That night she started to paint the kitchen walls with a brilliant sky blue that makes the space feel open, not chaotic and cramped like the hideous old wallpaper.
By Sunday afternoon, when her landlord arrived to take her to pick it in his van, she was dressed for an outing in a flowy top, its sheer layer patterned with roses. Her fuchsia toenails peered merrily from the tips of her black sandals. “Oooooh!” she said, giving her sister a squeeze. “I’m excited and nervous.”
Amanda, who said she just wanted to see her sister happy, came for the ride. She smiled, a quieter, low-key contrast to Lisa, who stood by the cash register at BJ’s, pulled out her debit card, laughed, said, “Here goes all my money. Cha-ching!” before tucking the receipt in her wallet.
Two nights later, Lisa turned on the treadmill for the first time. Its soft mechanical whir sent the dogs hiding in her bedroom. She went two miles. It took forty minutes. All the little excuses that had been holding her back from exercise – the need for money to join a gym, guilt about leaving her dogs, the hazard of walking in the neighborhood alone at dusk – dissolved.
When she steps on her treadmill in the corner she cleared of bills, it feels like nothing is holding her back in life anymore. A few days before, she had found her old nemesis by surprise when she was cleaning the freezer. There it was, inside a Ziploc bag, tucked back by the crust of ice crystals, a can of coffee and a block of venison. The discovery was just kind of funny. Ironic, really, she thought as she pushed the bag safely back behind the ice cube tray. She’d forgotten the silver Mastercard even existed.
This story is also posted on The Buffalo News.com