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Bankruptcy ain’t cheap. August 11, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It should have been in The Onion. But unfortunately, it was for real. There was the ad, featuring an attractive, happily smiling older couple:

“Let BANKRUPTCY help you get a FRESH START debt-free! STOP foreclosures! STOP repossessions! STOP creditor calls! STOP lawsuits! STOP sheriff sales! STOP wage garnishments! Eliminate your credit card debt!”


Well, unbelievable to our friend Ben, anyway. I cannot for the life of me imagine what sort of person would declare bankruptcy when they still have a job and are earning money (“STOP wage garnishments!”). Or default on the agreements they voluntarily entered into to pay people for services rendered (“STOP lawsuits! Eliminate your credit card debt!”). No wonder the economy’s tanking.

In the good old days, defaulting on loans and agreements entered into in good faith was cause for humiliation and shame at best and debtors’ prison at worst, not for cheerful smiles in gloating ads. It’s certainly a comment both on our declining national values and on the situation so many people have found themselves in when they’re bombarded with encouragement to buy, buy, buy and reassured of cheap credit on every side. (But as our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, warned, “Creditors have better memories than debtors.” Or as the comedian Steven Wright so memorably put it, “If you think nobody cares that you’re alive, try missing a payment.”)

I read recently that the average American homeowner carries roughly $300,000 in debt. At first, I found this unbelievable. How could someone rack up this much debt? Then I thought about it, and realized I was being clueless. A family carrying a mortgage, two (or more) monthly car payments, credit-card debt, perhaps a home equity loan, maybe college loans…. $300,000 begins to look small. And that, my friends, is damned scary. 

Getting back to the bankruptcy ad, the best part was that it included a coupon for “$500 off any bankruptcy! Restrictions apply.” If the law firm that placed this delightful ad is offering $500 off, what on earth must it cost to file for bankruptcy through them?! Yow. Yes, there certainly are pro bono lawyers, but something tells me these guys aren’t among them.

Our friend Ben says: If you happen to have $500 lying around, you might be better off applying that money to your legitimate creditors. And giving some serious thought to finding ways to live within your means.



1. mr_subjunctive - August 11, 2011

I think you may be missing that most people understand how to live within their means just fine; what people don’t take into account are things like cars breaking down, funeral expenses, sudden unexpected illness, having hours cut or being laid off, deceptive salesmen who get you to sign up for more debt than you believe you’re signing up for, and things of that nature. In a just world, we would all have savings to cover such things (or they wouldn’t happen in the first place), be well-informed about whatever debt we’re taking on, and easily able to find a job or a better job, but we don’t, as you may have noticed, live in a just world. Less and less just all the time, in fact.

Also I’m confused about how you interpret having a $500 off coupon as meaning that a person has $500 in the bank. The whole point of using the coupon is because you don’t have the $500 it offers.

I’m not sure what kind of ego boost you’re getting out of scolding people for considering bankruptcy,[1] but it’s not like bankruptcy is a big happy get-out-of-debt-free card that solves all of your problems forever. Nor is it particularly simple and easy to do. Nor is there much evidence that people are using it all willy-nilly to get out of their responsibilities. And it lowers your credit score and makes lots of things a lot more difficult and expensive for years afterward.

What this post does is kick people when they’re down. You don’t even try to understand why someone might make this choice, you don’t acknowledge that people’s financial situations might change for reasons completely outside of their control, or that sometimes doing the right thing involves incurring additional debt (e.g. going back to school to receive training for a better job), or that most Americans are presently living paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t afford even a modestly-priced emergency (ref.), you just wag a finger and tell everybody to live within their means. Well fuck that. How about you stick to writing about topics that don’t require compassion for other human beings?[2]

[1] And just to get this out of the way: I have never filed for bankruptcy or even thought about it.
[2] You’re damn right I’m angry.

Gads, Mr. S., thank God you didn’t read my original version of this post, which went on (and on) about honor, integrity, one’s duty to one’s fellow humans, and etc.etc. This is the third rewrite, third day out from writing the first draft; I decided to try to focus on my outrage that someone would create such an appalling advertisement rather than condemn those who might be tempted to take advantage of it, and I hoped I’d succeeded in doing that. Your comment certainly suggests otherwise! In the immortal words of the Sweet Potato Queens, “We never see ourselves as others see us.” I’ll get to work on my compassion.

As for living within one’s means, in my case that means never driving my ancient, bought-used vehicle, which now has over 200,000 miles, in more than a ten-mile radius; having no a/c in the house and thus dying all summer, and freezing all winter with the thermostat set at 50, since I can’t afford heat and would turn it down to 40 if I didn’t think the pipes would freeze; never going on vacation or out to eat or even to a movie or buying new clothes, even if said clothes are just tee-shirts and jeans; being unable to afford normal health care like dental or optometrist checkups and never, ever seeing a physician for a checkup; being unable to buy fresh produce unless it was “reduced” because it’s past its due date; obviously, we don’t eat meat. My total income this year will be $3,000, assuming I’m ever actually paid the $3,000 for six months of full-time editing. I wear decades-old clothes purchased used from Goodwill; I ask friends to cut off my hair because I can’t afford a $15 haircut; I have worn the same shoes now for over 20 years.

Believe me, I know all about living within my extremely limited means and living on the razor’s edge. But I still live within my means, such as they are, through great personal sacrifice. And I wouldn’t dream of trying to live on any other terms and imposing on others by defrauding them to make my own lifestyle, however modest, possible.

2. mr_subjunctive - August 11, 2011

By way of partial apology/explanation, I seem to be having an exceptionally angry day, for no logical reason.[1] I mean, the post still irks me, even after cooling down for a while, but yes, fine, I did probably overreact somewhat.

No, I don’t see the outrage toward the advertisers at all, frankly. Maybe a little bit in the second-to-last paragraph, but even there, it comes off more like you’re assuming that the filers have all kinds of money and just don’t want to pay their debts. Or at least it did to me.


No wonder the economy’s tanking. My understanding was that the economy is tanking because our banker overlords fucked everything up terribly by making risky loans, gambling that they could sell the loans to someone else before it became obvious that some of them were bad, and then after the whole house came down and it became obvious to everybody that a whole lot of debt had been sold that was no good, they threatened to fuck everything up even worse unless we gave them a whole lot of money so they could continue to draw their multi-million dollar salaries and bleed the poor. And now they’re screaming about the national debt so that they can gut what little remains of our safety net and take that money too.

Though individuals may be financially irresponsible at times, I believe that people generally try to make the best rational decisions they can given the information they’re presented with, and when the Jacksons next door screw up, they don’t put 5% of the American people out of work. (Bankruptcy lawyers may be shady, but they didn’t actually cause this situation either. Filing for bankruptcy is a complex process, and I really doubt that anyone could manage to navigate the system on their own. Is the help overpriced? Probably. But that’s a problem with lawyers, and not a new problem either.)

In the good old days, defaulting on loans and agreements entered into in good faith was cause for humiliation and shame at best and debtors’ prison at worst, not for cheerful smiles in gloating ads. You’re suggesting that they try to attract business with images of miserable, dirty people in prisons? ‘Cause I don’t think that’s how advertising works.

Also debtors’ prisons are coming back. Google “debtors prison michigan” if you don’t believe me. And humiliation and shame never actually went anywhere.

It’s certainly a comment both on our declining national values I have not yet seen any evidence that values are declining,[2] so you lost me there.

[1] Twitter is implicated: I’d found last year that I was angrier when I spent a lot of time on Twitter, so I stopped going there several months ago. Then I got bored in the last week or two, and started going back, and found myself turning into a raging asshole again. I mean, not that that doesn’t happen from time to time even without Twitter, but it’s been especially bad lately. So today I deleted my account.
Why Twitter? Why rage? No clue: I have yet to come up with a plausible theory. But it does.
[2] No, really: I’m serious! In fact, I haven’t even seen a coherent definition of what these “values” that are “declining” even are. You’re surely not under the impression that people only recently started to lie, cheat and steal, right? As far as I can tell, “declining moral values” is a meaningless phrase meant to create an “us” (who are good and noble and hold fast to the moral traditions of our ancestors) to oppose the “them” (who marry box turtles, have abortion parties, and practice witchcraft, frequently all at the same time) and get everybody all self-righteous and indignant. If you have some hard data about this declining, I’d love to hear about it.

Hi Mr. S.! I remember your first misadventures with Twitter; thank God I’m such a Luddite, since I know having to deal with endless, mindless tweets would drive me insane. I try to answer e-mail promptly, and coping with that is more than enough! Your point here is very well made: Any time someone sets up an us/them dichotomy, they’re asking to be called on it. I’d go on at greater length in respect to your always-thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, but frankly, I’m still so traumatized by the WordPress malfunction I’m hiding from my own blog.

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