Wednesday, October 6, 2021
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Reining in the debt

In August 2020 my life fell apart. Or at least I thought it did.

Over years I had built up debt.

I have been betting since I was 12. Sometimes I win. Streaks of winning days. Losing days not so many. I have been doing this for decades. I even work in horse racing. I know stuff. I am good at this.

I had always carried credit card debt. Nothing drastic. Manageable. Shuffle money here, shuffle money there. You get offered a bigger limit. You take it, just in case. Relieves some pressure. All good.

As the amount grew I stopped adding it up.

Endless phone calls from banks. Anxious about the mail. I told no-one. I was all alone. It was all me. It was all my fault. It had gotten away from me.

Thousands of plans hatched to climb out of the hole. Plans lasted a month, or two weeks, or four hours, or one race.

Sooner or later they collapsed. I regroup. I start again. This would be impossible to explain to an outsider, but I knew better.

It took a few months for the plane to crash, bits falling off on the way down.

I felt ashamed and humiliated, partly for what I’d done, but more for keeping it from those near to me. The core of my life. Can I be forgiven? Would I deserve it anyway?

But when the wreckage was laid bare, in agonising detail, the debt was in six figures. I had eight credit cards and a personal loan.

My wonderful partner had to absorb the shock. We then sent texts and emails to our immediate family outlining the situation. My partner said that if you put the truth out there you don’t know how much love will come back. She was right. There was plenty.

The phone calls and letters of demand were still coming. Where I was on my journey meant nothing to them.

We needed help. The National Debt Helpline put us onto Catholic Care. I got a phone call from a gambling counsellor. I have met her most Fridays since.

I was directed to a financial counsellor. Phone consultations only, thanks to Covid.

But thanks to Covid the landscape was new.

We called banks. We paid off some debts, others were put on ice. A number of banks allowed customers some Covid relief.

Appointments were made with the financial counsellor. Our first chat was more than an hour, more counselling less financial. I needed to get past the psychological barrier of saying out loud the scale of what I’d done. There were six creditors left.

After a few more sessions we settled on a strategy. Outline the whole problem to all our creditors. Talk about my 2018 redundancy, my current part-time position, my care for elderly parents. Put up a pro-rata offer of 50 cents in the dollar. Take the deal or nothing. Send all the offers all at once. Let all the creditors see each other. Say that it is all we could afford (true enough).

Then wait.

My financial counsellor tells me to get the acceptance in writing before paying them anything.

Within a day, St George rings me. I get a message while at work. I call back and They ask me to up the offer (which I do by a small amount). They say yes. I have 14 days to pay. They hadn’t read the letter.

Eight days later Suncorp Bank make contact. I return the call but the original caller isn’t there. The person I speak to reads the letter to me, disappears for twenty minutes and returns to accept the offer. I insist on the offer being accepted in writing and they say they will email me.

Then nothing!

Two weeks on I call the NAB with whom I have a credit card and personal loan. After moving through multiple layers of bureaucracy I got a chirpy youngster who accepts both offers, and giving us two weeks to pay.

He hadn’t read the letter either.

Four down, two to go. Westpac called and wanted to go through the offer. They grilled me about every aspect of the letter (which they had not read). I was also quizzed about my partner’s income. It isn’t her debt. It is mine. After two hours of agony they said no.

Four yes’s one no. One to go.

I called the ANZ to discuss the letter. They referred me to a collection agency. I emailed them the offer.

I waited a day and called them. They hadn’t read the letter so we read it together. I listened to fifteen minutes of lift music and they returned with a yes.

A few weeks later my financial counsellor and I regrouped. We came up with a plan B for Westpac, arguing EVERY ONE ELSE ACCEPTED THE OFFER so why won’t you.

We sent it. We called. They ACCEPTED!

A week later we paid. ALL DONE.

The debt of the six creditors was approximately $120k. We offered half. After a few weeks of to-ing and fro-ing they accepted our offers.

So many of us get into debt for any number of reasons. Part of my fear of revealing how bad it was getting was that banks were heartless behemoths who routinely crush people who owe them.

They call you, send letters, huff and puff but a lot of it is bluffing. Help is out there for you. Call the National Debt Helpline! They won’t be shocked by anything you say, even if you find it shocking as it comes out of your mouth.

Banks and collection agencies are understaffed and during Covid are attempting to get blood out of stones. Any offer you make them to clear your debt will be snaffled out of your hand in a heartbeat.

Finally – though I couldn’t see a way out a little over a year ago. It is not easy to believe but there is help out there.

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National Debt Helpline 1800 007 007

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