This excellent essay by Steve Rhode originally appeared on the Personal Finance Syndication Network, PFSyncom. Mr. Rhode also maintains a web site titled Get Out of Debt Guy that contains a variety of good advice and information about all manner of consumer debt problems, including student loans. You can learn more about Steve Rodes here.
Debt and Introspection Are More Related
Than You Think
by Steve Rhode
There has been little study of victim profiling and when we think of someone as a victim the first thoughts that are present are those of people who have suffered a terrible misfortune beyond their control at the hands of some external event. There are people who are victims of events and situations beyond their control.
For example, people who are randomly murdered, raped, abused, injured or harmed, physically or emotionally. Take disorganized killers for example, their victims are selected because of the opportunity to carryout their act rather than because of anything unusual about the victim themselves. A disorganized killer, as categorized by a serial killer profile, may simply walk up to the next door they come to, ring the bell and kill whoever answers the door. If your time is up, it’s up.
A rape victim may just have simply been the next target of opportunity. Sometimes there is no greater explanation or rationale for their misfortune other than “wrong place, wrong time.” And while we search for a deeper or greater meaning why their life was altered in such a fundamental way by grotesque violence, sometimes life is simply random and chaotic.
Victims of financial problems present similar rationales, Sometimes they were truly disadvantaged by people who duped them.
Recently, a furniture store went out of business, there was no indication that it was in trouble. Every outward sign indicated that the company was stable. Suddenly they go out of business and furniture that previous customers ordered will not be delivered and the status of the deposits left for those orders is undetermined. These folks are truly victim of the transaction. There is no doubt that sometimes events are random and can leave you in financially deficient position. Here is an example that almost everyone has experienced where we lose 100% of our money, vending machines. Sometime they just take your money and don’t deliver the goods. Some people attempt to deliver a couple of well placed smacks and move on. We just accept that it happens sometimes because it does.
In my work helping people with financial problems I’ve observed that while some people suffer from random financial misfortune, there truly is a pattern of financial victims who are often found to repeat the same or similar financial mistakes over and over again. Rather than learn from the situation, they can be seen waving the flag of entitlement and summoning up an army of excuses for this weeks episode of financial misfortune. Can’t you picture the commercial for next weeks show? Stay tuned for up scenes from next weeks show when Bob will lose his job and not have any savings to fall back on because he blew it all on day trading last week. What will Mary say when she finds out? Tune in Tuesday at 8 PM Eastern Time.
What is striking is the number and severity of poor financial decisions some people make. It’s too frequent to just be a random happenstance.
To what degree do we hold people accountable for their individual actions? Is the recipient of misfortune ever to be responsible for their misfortune? Early victim theory in the 1940s actually labeled the person to whom misfortune befouled as a hapless person who brought it on. Since then victim theory has swung to the opposite direction and essentially anyone who is the recipient of anything negative or unexpected is to be cuddled and cajoled and not accept any responsibility for their actions. But it that realistic or healthy? Whatever happened to personal responsibility?
I’ll be honest with you. I hate personal responsibility. I don’t mind accepting responsibility for my actions and the way things turn out. Certainly, life is not always rosy and we don’t always make the best decisions but cut me some slack.
Modern American life not only does not encourage you to be personally responsible, it makes you run from it. We live in such a litigious society that I’m wondering when toilet paper manufactures are going to get sued for excessive chafing. I’m sure they have been already. Maybe toilet paper made out of sawdust wasn’t such a good idea after all gentlemen. Not that I’m bitter about it but ouch, that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject.
My office overlooks the 18th hole on a golf course. I’ve seen all sorts of unusual things on that course. I’ve seen guys playing golf in the dark, near typhoon weather, wearing shorts in sub zero weather and there is even this woman who walks down the center of the fairway from the green to the tee during lunch. For some unexplained reason she has a golf ball, throws it up in the air and smacks it with her hand. She walks to where it lands, picks it up and continues towards the tee. I keep waiting for her to get hit with an oncoming golf ball one day. In my past life, when I was in ophthalmology, I had a patient who was stuck in the eye with a tee shot. It ruptured the eye and she was blind. This is why I never look back on the golf course or in life. I’d much rather get hit in the back with a ball than lose my sight.
When the weather is dangerous, like a big electrical storm, the course blows a siren to warn golfers to get off the course. Most golfers do, some don’t. Some just continue to play so let’s take the golfer who stands with his metal club (lightning rod) pointing skyward during a tremendous electrical storm. If he is struck by lightning, is he partially to blame or is the gold course going to get sued also? Other golfers sought appropriate shelter during the storm by this one places himself in a position of danger, greatly increasing his chances of getting struck and does. Can a victim contribute to the outcome and if so do we serve the victim by simply saying, “don’t worry” or “that’s OK”?
Wouldn’t we serve the victim more by consoling them in their time of need and help them to accept responsibility for their actions which allowed them to be harmed in the first place? Hopefully, they will learn from the error of their ways and not repeat the same mistake again in the future. We do this with children, why not adults?
Financial victims often cry foul because of the actions of others. In fact, they frequently contribute to their misfortune by simply not participating in their financial lives.
For many years I worked in an office. One day in the late 1980’s I decided to pursue my dream and left. I started a real estate company, The Great Virginia Land Company. I thought it would be really cool to work outside all day long. Walking through the country, enjoying nature and making money at the same time. I bought and sold country acreage. When my real estate company was going full force I wanted to make very sure that purchasers of property from me clearly understood the contract they were about to sign which included financing. At first, I would read the contract with them, explain every detail and be available to answer any questions they had. They typically glazed over by the third paragraph. That approach wasn’t working so I made myself available as they read the contract to answer any questions they had. Nobody asked questions and just wanted to know where to sign. I even asked them questions to make sure they had read the contract. Most were put off by my inquisition. Finally, they trained me to just hand them the contract. They would look up and before they could say anything I’d say “here” and point to the signature line. They would look up again and I’d say “here” and hand them a pen.
I used to get excited when I thought someone was going to ask a question about the financing, I wanted to explain it all to them but finally I was beaten into submission by the public’s lack of caring about the contract or financing. The prevailing question was never what the total cost would be, but “what will my monthly payment be?” They didn’t want to be bothered by actually reading or understanding the damn thing. They just wanted what they perceived to be the benefit once they signed the contract.
One day I sold fourteen pieces of property at one time. There were so many people wanting to purchase property from me that I passed out blank contracts, stood on the trunk of my car and as the purchasers all gathered around, like a concert in the park, I shouted out instructions on how to fill in the blanks. “In the first blank, put today’s date.” It was insane but I could not stop the frenzied action. If I had not done it this way, it is very possible that I could have been physically injured. People would get in such a tizzy if they could not sign the contract as quickly as possible. It was frightening at times. One day two people wanted to buy the same piece of property. One person decided to buy it first and the other said they were going to kill me and he had a gun in the back window of his truck. I decided it would be a good time to leave so I calmly walked to the car, jumped in and turned the ignition. Trust me, wrrr-wrrr-wrrr is not the kind of sound you want to hear at a moment like this, the car would not start, the battery was dead and I didn’t want to be. The guy in the pickup truck pulled up and said, “I kill city boys.” To which I could only respond, “Awesome but can I get a jumpstart first?” He gave me the jumpstart and I drove away.
So what did I learn from my experience. I learned people don’t like to see snakes in the grass when they are walking through the woods and they aren’t that interested in understanding consumer transactions.
Inevitably, if a problem ever latter arose from the transaction; the perception was always that they, the purchaser, were the victim, even when the exact and specific situation was clearly spelled out in the contract that they refused to read.
The same is true for almost all consumer credit transactions. People don’t read the agreements they sign and if they do read them they will not or do not ask questions and if they even ask a question and understand the answer, the vast majority of people will sign the agreement anyway as long as they want what they get when they do sign it. So, what level of responsibility do we have to adequately prepare for our financial lives?
Legislators and lawmakers think consumers are too stupid to accept responsibility for their situation. They feel that people don’t read the agreements they sign so we need to protect people from themselves. Is that really how we want to be treated, as stupid lemings?
Recently, I spoke to Richard. I’d had the opportunity to review his credit report before we spoke so it was clear to me that Richard had experienced two episodes of financial trouble in his life. The first about four years ago, the second about two years ago, but why? The debts were for unsecured credit cards, some utilities and local stores. Generally, that indicates someone moving into or out of a new area that is unprepared financially for the event. Clearly Richard’s credit report reflected an episodic history of financial trauma. After talking with Richard I learned that about four years ago he had relocated from Illinois to Iowa. He left behind some unpaid bills and had increased his debt load through the move to a point where he could not repay his bills. Once Richard found a job in Iowa he was able to stabilize his finances and repay most of his debts, he still had some old, very small debts outstanding. He also had some utility bills that were unpaid from his stay in Illinois. Richard said he forgot to change his address so the old bills did not follow him to his new address. In spite of Richards’s inability to notify his creditors, he feels it is unfair that they are hounding him and sent him to collections.
Richard said that he learned his lesson from that move and said he believed he would prepare better next time he relocated. Guess what, Richard did the exact same thing two years latter. He up and moves to California without prior planning. He leaves behind a wake of unpaid obligations and is again unable to find suitable employment in the area he has relocated to. Richard moves back to Iowa. Now, the first time Richard made the mistake of impulsively up and moving, you might say he was young, a few years out of college, and inexperienced in the ways of the world. How can we rationalize making the exact same financial mistakes again? Richard clearly knew what the results of his actions would be. He had lived through them once but yet he did not learn from his mistake and repeated it.
When I spoke to Richard he was clearly angry at his creditors for not being more reasonable when he fell behind on his bills. He was angry and belligerent and felt they should be more understanding.When Richard moved from Iowa to California, he did not make any prior effort to find employment before he left. He just moved. When Richard arrives in California he is unable to find jobs that pay him even half of what was making before in Iowa. Big surprise. Bet you didn’t see that one coming did you? Now, not only does Richard have to pay for the cost of his move and getting started in a new area, he also has previous obligations he had not yet satisfied.
Soon Richard becomes dissatisfied with California, gives up and decides to move back to Iowa. During the course of his move out and back Richard accumulates approximately 25 thousand dollars of debt on credit cards. He financed his move with credit since he did not have any available cash. He stated “I had to use the cards to live on.” Again, Richard leaves and does not notify his creditors where he is going. Again, Richard ends up on the other end of a collection telephone calls and is sought after for unpaid bills. Is Richard really a victim of his creditors?
Richard has a responsible job but yet cannot exhibit responsible behavior in other parts of his life. Sadly, Richard will probably live through another couple of similar events until his financial situation becomes so fucked up that he files bankruptcy (aka financial cleansing) and possibly begins his cycle of debt over again.
I’ve even had one client who had 78 unsecured credit card accounts totaling a million dollars of outstanding credit card debt. This does not include his other outstanding indebtedness. Is he a financial victim or a credit predator? At what point does a reasonable person stop applying for additional credit?
Consider the following story from Carla who contacted me recently. “My car was repossessed on the 31st of January, on Monday I spoke with the bill collector from the car lender, I informed him of my job, the location, everything down to what I did. He demanded that I Western Union him $126 to him within the hour, even though I told him I get paid on the 1st of Feb. (which was only 5 days from that point) he told me this before just as I have twice promised a payment by Western Union and did not comply. I understand that the bank must repossess the car and I’ve heard horror stories of individuals losing personal items kept in the car at the time of repossession. To the repo man himself or whomever else may like that “pink sweater” for their neighbor. I had piles of clothes in my backseat, a satchel, a stethoscope, a sweater of the utmost sentimental value, a gun, college books, and a CD player that I’m sure they plan on selling to make the money while the factory stereo is in the trunk. (also a gift from a friend.) I will be 21 years old this month and am already in a bad situation, forced to live with a man twice my age, which in the beginning was and I suppose still is by my choice. I recently got a job and had thought things were beginning to look up for me, now I don’t even know where my car is, which impound lot or where I mail payments to? My makeup bag was also in there with around $200.00 worth of makeup not to mention documentation and things of that nature I had in a backpack.”
As an impartial third party, you’ve have to marvel at the dysfunction in this persons financial life. I think the most startling statement is the admission of previous failed promises to pay. Can you really be surprised that the collector ordered the repossession of the vehicle after Carla clearly had make promises to pay and then did not honor them. Several other facts in her email are telling also.
Broken promises are going to come back to bite you in this situation. Did she not understand that when she made payment arrangements with the creditor and failed to meet them that it had a higher probability of not turning out well?
She kept personal items in the car in spite of knowing that a number of payments had been missed and repossession was a definite possibility and imminent.
She keeps a gun in the car. Is she feeling vulnerable and unprotected?
Carla mentions living with a man twice her age and that in the beginning it was her choice. Is she a victim of her relationship? It truly sounds like a relationship of convenience. Carla seems to indicate that she is a victim of the relationship since she is “forced” to live with him. She has created a situation where she has no other place to go so she lives with someone she does not care for simply because he took her in. She admits it was and is her choice to be there, so is she forced?
She got a job and thought things were beginning to look up. This is irrational optimism when it comes to the vehicle situation. Things will only look up when either the missed payments are brought current or an agreed repayment plan is in place. Just because she secures employment she feels the lender should back off. A good example of fantasy thinking.
Carla appears to be helpless in the situation. Does not know where to send payments and has not thought to contact the lender to ask.
She has also been damaged by the loss of stuff in the car. How about the damage caused to the lender by the loss of payments not received? This is not a consideration or point of view of Carla’s.
People commonly refer to “being forced” to do things in their financial lives. Certainly “being forced” is an example of victim thinking. “I was forced to hand him the money.” Generally, people who are forced are not operating under their free will and are under duress.