Welcome to the Poorhouse: Ring-Ring-Ring!

Please do not take it personally if I do not answer the phone when you call. Bill collectors used to call my home every morning beginning at 8:30. Then it was 8 a.m. Now it can be any hour of the day. They now call my home,  my cell phone and my work lines. One called my wife's main office line, for a bill that is under my name. After she pointed that out--ripping them a new one in the process--they stopped calling her there.

My cell phone's history of received calls is now a collection of area codes I do not recognize, 877, 336, 623, 973 and on and on. Now, if I do not recognize the number, I do not pick it up. Same with text messages. That strategy has already caused me some embarrassment when it came to the source for a news story trying to reach me. I can't wait until my service ends in May.

I'm sorry, but it's just too dicey, when you are living on the financial edge, to deal with these people over the phone. They used to call when a bill was late, which is fine. I understand that. I can't always pay when they call, but I understand that. Now, however, they've gone to calling days before a bill is even due. It's as if they've figured out when I get paid and they want to get their mitts on my money before all the other bill collectors can.
The reason I do not like dealing with them on the phone is my wife already has our payments set up online. For purposes of cash flow (or lack thereof), not everyone gets paid on their due date. In the past when they got me on the line, I would pay over the phone only to discover my wife already had money going out to them. This led to double payments--which caused bank overdrafts when those funds were not there for another automatic bill, which led to more money that could be going to reducing debt going instead to pay penalties.

So I just don't answer the damn phone anymore. And lemme tell you, it's ringing. This month we have the second installment of our property tax bill due. If we don't pay on time, there will be a late fee. If we do pay on time, a credit card company(ies) will not get paid. The late fee on the tax is higher than the late fee on the credit cards, so the property tax bill it is. Meanwhile, ring-ring-ring.

My wife entertains the bill collectors on the line more often than I do. In all honesty, this has led to us getting enrolled in programs that waive late fees, monthly payments (temporarily so we can catch up) and suspend  accounts, which is fine by me. It's not like I'm using the cards anyway. What really seems to help is informing them how I got let go from my job last May, how I was on unemployment and how my new income is more than unemployment but less than it was when I made all those charges. The tone on the other end of the line immediately shifts from one of, "Where the hell is our money?" to "God, that's awful. There is a lot of that going around. How can I help?"

Interestingly, no caller has had an Indian accent or shared small talk comparing our weather with Mumbai's. From the sounds of their voices, everyone seems to be true blue American. Many times they are or have been in the same sinking boat as us. We've been told this is their second job to help make ends meet, or even the only job for a fellow who got laid off from a phone company somewhere in one of those unknown area codes. Maybe this is what happens when you don't pay your bill for months and months: they make you call others who are late, a sort of debtor phone bank hell. At least it's heartening to know the fucked-up economy is creating new job opportunities. Hell, I'll do it part-time. It's got to be less humiliating than telling strangers over and over and over, "I lost my job, I don't make as much as I used to, so now I'm a deadbeat, yadda-yadda-yadda..."

One fellow who really took my tale of woe to heart kept me on the line for an hour (another reason I don't answer the phone. I was missing Lost, for gosh sakes!). He had a side consulting business--on hold--helping get people out of debt. He gave me all kinds of advice about how I should go out and find a better-paying job with the government and hang out at the library, which is filled with job-finding resources. He even provided a little strategy when it comes to filing my state and federal income taxes. He said I could work the numbers so I get any amount of return I want. Just pick a large enough amount to give to the credit card companies so they'll stop calling, he offered, and then later if I want I can have a tax pro figure out what the return should have been, and if I want I can file an addendum to my taxes. When the IRS throws me before the judge for my creative accounting, do you really think he'll believe me when I say I was following the advice of a credit card bill solicitor?

I must say, the fellow was very sweet, he felt genuinely awful about my circumstance and he is just one more reason I do not answer the goddamn phone when it rings.

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