How to Remove the Shame from Your Financial Struggles

Out of your hat

My grandfather used to tell the story of an abusive bill collector.

The faceless man on the other end of the phone seemed harsh and demanding. My grandfather's struggling friend listened. When the caller finished his rant, the poor man replied,"That's it. You're out of the hat."

Confused, the caller asked what he meant. He answered: "There's just not enough money to go around. So each week I put all my bills in a hat. Then I pull out one and pay it in full. But if you're going to call me and be so nasty and rude, next month I'm not even going to put you in the hat!"

Grandpa would always chuckle and say that the young man became a bit more polite from then on -- and his name remained in the hat.

In last week's installment of this series,"Poor in Kenya Is a Lot Different Than Poor in American, Isn't it?" many of my commenters brought up the point that dignity and contentment are key factors for a full life -- no matter what your income status.

They were right. My grandparents modeled dignity, hard work, and contentment in the face of real poverty. I had all but forgotten the lessons learned a few years back when a debt collector began calling me.


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?