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Rhonda Robinson


July 27, 2013 - 11:00 am
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When we had our first financial setback several years ago, it was devastating. Not because I couldn’t have the things I wanted, or because we lost anything — because we didn’t. By the grace of God, we had what we needed. The reason I found it so painful was because of my shame. I couldn’t pay the bills. For the first time in our adult lives we couldn’t take care of ourselves — we needed help.

At the time, I felt so embarrassed that we didn’t have enough money to pay our debts that I made the biggest mistake I could make. I left bills unopened, knowing I couldn’t pay them. It seemed hopeless to even look at them. Needless to say, the shame just kept piling up.

One day a bill collector called me. I felt so bad, downright humiliated. Fearing I would sound like just another pathetic sob story, I told him my grandfather’s story of the hat. It made him laugh a little. Then I explained our circumstances, that we had little to no income but I would pay what I could. I wrote down his name and extension and made a note in my calendar to call him — before he called me.

The amount that I could pay varied each month. When I would call I made it a point to stay cheerful. I figured being a bill collector had to be a rough job, with people lying to you or yelling at you all day.

After a number of monthly calls, the now familiar voice on the phone began to ask about my husband’s health, and once offered to pray for him. On the day of the last payment, he actually thanked me and said he would miss my monthly calls and promised to keep my family in his prayers.

This week proved harder than last week as we pressed toward the end of the month and I found a few more holes in my financial boat. A couple of automatic payments I thought were stopped wreaked a bit of havoc. As shame began to creep in, I remembered how taking control of the situation gave me back my dignity.

So this week as we stretched even thinner, rather than recoil, I dug further into my budget. After gathering the remaining medical bills and ordering them from smallest to largest, I created a “debt snowball,” Dave Ramsey style. Keeping perspective, thankfulness, and taking control kept the feeling of helplessness and shame at bay.

If you are at the mercy of bill collectors, here’s how to remove your feelings of guilt from the struggle:

1) Be proactive. Make it a point to call them with a payment before they call you.

Be the one to set the tone of the call. When you call first, you are prepared and can articulate what you will pay.

2) Be honest. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Don’t allow yourself to give in to pressure and promise to pay what you wish you could pay or hope to pay.

3) Remember, bill collectors are people too.

Behind even the most demanding voice is someone just trying to make a living at a rotten job. Surprise him with cheerfulness; you’ll be amazed how much it will restore your dignity.

Next week’s goals: Put all the bills in the hat new budget and scrutinize the grocery bill.

Have you ever felt ashamed for a financial situation out of your control? How did you handle it?

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Rhonda Robinson writes on the social, political and parenting issues currently shaping the American family. She lives with her husband and teenage daughter in Middle Tennessee. Follow on twitter @amotherslife

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All Comments   (6)
All Comments   (6)
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Yes, Rhonda, it stinks.

When we got whacked on 9/11 everything changed so quickly for us. The worst time to sell things is when you have to and, of course, I had to. So, for a little over a decade we've been making back what we had. At square one, now, after 12 years.

Nothing like the feeling of wandering the house at 2 am w/ 2 very young boys and a loving wife, wondering about the next 'rabbit trick,' because you just weren't as smart as you thought you were.

Then you get smart. Best, T
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This story illustrates the difference between the middle class and the rich.

The rich have no qualms about walking away from debts that are owed and would be onerous to repay or if it affected their lifestyle negatively.

I advised a friend to walk away from a house when the market collapsed and he was paying a mortgage that was twice the worth of his house. He continue to pay for another 3 years (almost 120,000) and then couldn't make any more payments. If he had walked away when I had told him too he could have moved into an apartment for around $10,000 a year.

I haven't had to walk away from any debt as I, quite frankly, am a frugal bastard and never lived beyond my means and have always maintained a financial cushion for the inevitable bad times. That being said, I would walk away from a debt that would reduce my net worth significantly.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We're just now coming out of long term unemployment. I was out for almost exactly a year; a year and a day actually, but who's counting?

We did half the right things, we prepared to manage for about 6-8 months as was the norm a few years back, but not so much now. The half we did wrong was getting way too much unsecured debt.

Anyway, I just wanted to say I deal with debt collectors very similarly. I always am polite and cheerful, I always get the person's name and actually address them with it, and I always thank them for their time. I almost always garner prayers, good thoughts and well wishes. I give them a brief, but thorough explanation about why I can't pay and make no commitments to do so until I have money coming in again. They all keep records of what's said, but I'll go over it just the same. I think the politeness, along with my consistent dialogue as well as my overall payment history (which was excellent until the savings dried up), really helps everybody. I kind of had to force it at first, but now it's taken root and I can genuinely be upbeat when they call.

I was ashamed to the point of paralysis like you mentioned, Rhonda as things started to fall apart, and I think that there will always be a small part of me that will remain a bit ashamed. But just talking with these folks with the approach knowing that they're just doing their jobs and it's not their fault I got myself in this situation, has been sort of a catharsis. It really helped me when one young man I spoke with actually told me, "Look, you have nothing to beat yourself up over. You just fell on hard times and you won't be there forever!"

Truth and kindness go a long way in not only easing the bill collectors' work, even if you can pay nothing, but also has given me a whole new perspective I might never have had were it not for my overly long bout with unemployment. We're going to be a while catching up and digging out, but initially forcing myself but eventually falling into a good attitude helps in more ways than just dealing with bill collectors.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And the bill collectors are just doing their job; The same as an undertaker, funeral director, or medical examiner.
I'm reminded of the movie "Salesman", a 1969 film about door to door bible salesmen, and the emotional trauma they inflict on themselves, as well as their prospects.
A good bill collector has to have the heart of a main stream journalist, these days.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sorry: I forgot to include agencies like CCCS of the United Way, that have been helping people with sudden financial crisis for more than 45 years.
They can help avoid bankruptcy, and facilitate faster recovery of a good credit rating.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I have never not been able to make my bills. From the time I became an adult I had the means and the drive to make sure my expenses have always been well within my income. However I have been the bill collector, not as a job like you describe, but as a landlord.

It is nice to hear your story and I wish you well in your journey. I have lost a lot of my faith in humanity due to watching people in your situation come up with excuses around their debts. I understand human nature forcing us to resist evidence that speaks ill of our character, but I actually had a tenant tell me she wasn't going to pay me what the court told her to because I embarrassed her by evicting her (note: I was always scrupulously polite so she could never claim harassment and drag out the procedings longer than she did).

You are, and have, indeed approached the issue with dignity. And by allowing those on the other side of your struggling an identity of their own you have given us dignity as well and I appreciate that more than I can say. Many people try to shame debtees as well, as though I should feel ashamed of having the means to extend people credit when they don't have the ability to pay their bills.

Good luck to you.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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