Updated on 11.02.10

A Rough Patch

Trent Hamm

This week, I’m going to take a look at a few of the longer questions that have been languishing in the reader mailbag. These questions were too long for a regular mailbag post – and deserve a longer answer – but are well worth discussing on The Simple Dollar.

Alice writes in with a tale about an excessive amount of short term debt:

I was married to a man who spent every penny he thought was available – and if he didn’t know of any that was available, he spent more – with no regard of how we were going to pay bills or buy groceries. I read Dave Ramsey and got excited, knowing that we made enough to cover bills and save and have some free money each week. As soon as I mentioned the “B” word (budget), he balked, yelled and pretty much threw a fit saying that he felt like a kid on an allowance.

Because of many bad decisions, we had terrible credit. When it got to the point where we had to have a better vehicle, we had to have my mother put it in her name so we (she) could borrow the money to pay for it. We also agreed to make the payment on her car and used her old car as a trade in on the newer ones. He would spend money from our checking account via the debit card and never tell me, so when it was time to pay bills, there was no money left. If he ever worked over time, instead of paying more bills with that increase in cash flow (my idea), he would want to spend more – since he worked hard for that money (his idea). I was also working on finishing my degree and my classes were free. We were so behind on our bills, that there were many semesters that I took out student loans just so we could make it through. If there was ever a time when the money was tight, I typically ended up putting our groceries on my mothers credit card – for which I would give her the money when I could.

We ended up getting a divorce and losing our house to foreclosure. He is paying about 12K that was still due on the second mortgage, and a few very small doctor and hospital bills, maybe around $2K. I ended up with two hefty car payment (yes, I do have my car, though) – on which I owe more than either of them are worth. I am paying (or trying to pay) on my mothers credit card bills (which probably total around $15K – not all groceries, mind you) and have a hefty balance of student loans – about $36K. So much of what we owed was in my name due to the student loans or in my moms name. Even if I thought bankruptcy were an option, it’s still not since the bulk of the amount owed is either not in my name or is in the form of student loans.

I make fairly good money, but my paycheck has recently been garnished and will be for another six months or so. Right before that happened, I made an agreement to pay off an old credit card bill in three months. First payment of $300, with two subsequent payments of $275 for a total of $850 – when the original total owed was $1,450. I have tried and tried to find part time work for evenings and weekends. Either they are wanting more availability or someone younger or they just think I’m over qualified.

Since the garnishment, my paycheck is $1,709 a month. I just recently started receiving child support of $450 per month. I have the following bills:
Rent $600 – which is extremely low for the area. I got a great deal from someone I attend church with.
Car payments $505
Car Ins $135 – for my car only, but high since it has a lien against it.
Renters Ins $15
Cell phone $170 – I pay for four phone lines: mine, my moms and my two teenagers – with no home phone.
Electricity $100 – In the summer, I had the thermostat set to 78 so that we wouldn’t use the A/C any more than absolutely necessary. In the winter, I put it on 67 for the same reason.
Water $30
Moms credit card $300
My credit card $45
Credit card agreement $275 (only two more months)
Internet $45 (necessary for school work or getting work things done from home) – we have no home phone service or TV
Food $300
Gasoline $150
As for the student loans, they are in forbearance for another year and a half.

Before the garnishment started, I was just squeaking by and now am pretty much devastated with the level of debt. At least for the next six months. How do people survive things like this? I thankfully did start a separate checking account at another bank for the child support deposits and I have been able to use that for food and gas for the month. If I scrimp on food, then I have enough left over for any small incidentals that the kids might need.

I had to purchase new tires last month and that wiped out my small savings. My paycheck is gone as soon as I get it, or before that you could say and I only get paid once a month. I’m on salary, so no overtime pay is available.

I do not have any idea what to do.

If you run the math on Alice’s bills above, you’ll find that it adds up to $2,670, while her monthly take-home is $2,159. This means that, for the time being, she’s spending $511 more than she’s bringing in each month.

In two months, the credit card agreement will end, but that will still leave her with a $236 monthly shortfall. In six months, her wage garnishment will end and she’ll be back ahead of the game.

The tough question, though, is how to handle this six month period. From what I can tell, Alice’s solution lies in going through her expenses and cutting some of them out.

The first thing I spy that can be cut is that $505 monthly car payment. You need to get rid of that car as soon as you can and get a low-end model that will just serve to get you back and forth to work. Are you underwater on the car? If you’re not, take it to a dealership and see if you can negotiate an arrangement that leaves you with a fully paid-for old car that will work for the time being. Not only will this eliminate or drastically lower your monthly payments, it will likely reduce your auto insurance as well.

I would hold off on the payments on my mother’s credit card, too. $300 a month on your mother’s debt when you’re struggling this mightily is not a wise choice. I do admire you for stepping up to the plate and helping your family, but when that help is causing you to drown, you’ve got to cut back. You’re not going to be able to help in the future at this rate, so pull back on that $300 a month until your finances recover a bit.

Look into public transportation as an option. If you’re in an area where $600 rent is considered a huge bargain, you’re likely in an area that has some public transportation available. Find out if you can use this for some of your transportation needs, which will reduce the gas usage and maintenance on your car.

Visit local food pantries to supplement your food requirements. Food pantries exist to help those in hard times who want to help themselves, and that certainly describes you. Stop in, pick up some food for yourself and your family, and trim your food spending a bit. If this makes you feel guilty, pledge to donate to the pantry when your financial situation is better.

Keep in mind as you’re making these choices that you’re addressing a short term situation. In six months, you’ll return to a situation where your income significantly exceeds your expenses – you’re making moves to help you get through this rough patch.

Keep your chin up. Things will get better.

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  1. Cheryl says:

    How about those teenagers? Do they know your problems? You may be overqualified for flipping burgers, but they won’t be. Ask them to help out for a few months if it won’t affect their schoolwork.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Be on the lookout for free meals. One place we lived our church provided dinner two nights a week for free or small donation. Are those school children getting free breakfast and lunch?

  3. Tammy says:

    I believe she said she is paying on her mother’s credit card because it is her debt. She was using her mother’s credit to live on. Obviously, she does not want to trash her mother’s credit rating and/or have debt collectors hounding her mother,

    I hope she makes it through the next few months and is able to get on track soon. Good luck.

  4. Wesley says:

    I agree with reply #1, I’m sure the teenagers, if they are of the proper age, can get a job which can at least pay for their cell phones. That could lop off a bit of the bill. Also, I’m curious what cell phone plan they have for $170 a month, that seems like a lot. It seems like there has to be some sort of data plan going on there which is unnecessary. A 4 person family plan at any of the major carriers which includes enough minutes for basic calling and usually unlimited texts.

  5. Evan says:

    Agreed with the kids. If they want a cell phone, they can work for it. Most of us grew up without them, and while they’re much more integral to life right now, they are not a right.

  6. Ruth says:

    For four people that cell phone bill isn’t outrageous, but there should be room to cut back. I think the lowest family plans with four lines usually run about $120.

  7. J says:

    If you can get out of your cell phone service contracts without a major fee, you might cut the total costs for you phone and internet by ending your cell and internet services and adding a landline with DSL internet. Most phone companies offer a discount when you bundle services.

  8. Sarah says:

    I agree with the previous commenters that the teenagers should be put to work. If they feel like working will interfere with their school work, maybe they can work just on weekends/vacations. Babysitting is a great job if you know parents who need it. Also make sure they get really good grades/good SAT scores so they can get scholarships for college. Alice didn’t say anything about college, but I assume it’s on the horizon somewhere.

  9. Johanna says:

    Alice says that the $505 is for two car payments – presumably her car and her mother’s car. But I don’t understand why she’s making the payment for her mother’s car. Presumably in exchange for putting the loan for her car (which she’s also paying) in her mother’s name? That doesn’t seem like a fair exchange to me.

  10. Karen says:

    First – good on her for not taking her mother’s credit down with her. Too many adult children are doing that these days and it’s nice to see someone stepping up to the plate.

    One thing that jumps out is the teens. If they are old enough to have a cell phone, they are old enough to pay for it. Ditto with clothes, social activities, gifts, etc that they may want to buy.

    The phones in general could be slashed by just getting a home phone line – cell phones are nice, but they ARE a luxury.

    The question of the car payments isn’t quite as clear – are there actually two vehicles, and she is paying for her mother’s car, or is she actually paying for her mother’s old car that was traded in? She did say that the CARS are worth less than are owed on them, which implies that there are two cars involved. With you in such financial straits, Mom should be paying for her own vehicle. If Mom is living with and being supported by her, then there is the possibility of trading them in together toward a vehicle that could be shared and that could really lower the payment.

    Mom’s credit card – a suggestion here is that you sit down together and sort out how much of the card balance is actually from you and your family, and agree on a divided payment where Mom picks up her share. $15K is a whole lot of money and I would like to hope that at least some of that is not your debt! It may be time for Mom to call the credit card company herself – letting them know that financial hard times have come and she doesn’t want to shirk the bill but would like some lenience in payments, maybe interest-only for say six months, and also, you MUST NOT use that card any more!!!

    Best of luck – this lady sounds honest and well-intentioned and I’m sure she’ll be able to get out from under this although it will take a lot of time and commitment.

  11. Aryn says:

    She says both cars are underwater, so selling them won’t solve the problem. However, her mother should be paying for her own car.

  12. Michael says:

    On an unrelated note, so far the 2 “in-depth looks” have been some of my favorite posts in a while. Any chance of a weekly “in-depth look” feature?

  13. EmilyP says:

    Lay off on the teenages until we know more – 13-15 years old is a teenager, but not old enough to be hired at McD’s… Arguably, the “old enough to have a cell phone means old enough to work” equation could mean no cell phone, but cutting the $10 line on the family plan isn’t worth the contract-breaking fee. Not saying my version is true either, just pointing out that it all depends on Alice’s numbers.

  14. Gretchen says:

    There are places were $600 a month in rent isn’t a huge bargain?

    Why are her wages being garnished?

    It’s also possible the kids are old enough to find jobs and are trying and can’t.

  15. Michelle says:

    I’m wondering if she’s considered public assistance. She might qualify for food stamps, at least. There’s no shame in taking it, if you really need it. Which she might for the next few months.

  16. Gretchen says:

    Is the mom’s cc debt all the daughter’s?

    is the mom working/paying on that card?

  17. Johanna says:

    Also, I disagree with the notion that Alice’s problem is a short-term one. All of the expenses she lists here would qualify as “must-haves” under the All Your Worth budget. Right now, they add up to far more than 100% of her income. Even after the credit card settlement and the wage garnishment end, they’ll still eat up most of it. Assuming the garnishment is about $600/month (i.e., 25% of her pay), her must-haves will be about 86% of her take-home pay.

    And that’s before the student loans kick in.

    Notice that there’s no room in Alice’s budget for retirement savings, emergency savings, college savings, or anything fun at all. Alice is absolutely right: This is no way to live.

  18. Michelle says:

    @Gretchen – 2 years ago I rented a 2 bedroom apartment in Lawrence, KS, for $315 a month.

  19. Johanna says:

    Maybe not all of these suggestions will work for Alice, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

    Stop paying for Mom’s car. (Assuming both car payments are the same, this saves you $250.)

    Replace the cell phones with a Tracfone family plan ($22/month for three phones, have Mom pay for her own). Use them for necessary calls only, not as toys. If you need to use the phone more than this, get a basic landline ($15-30). (Saves you $120-150.)

    Get a cheaper internet plan, if one is available. (In my area, the low-end broadband plan is $20, which would save you $25.)

    Aim to cut your food, gas, and electricity expenses by a total of $200. (Look for free food/meals, eat more rice and beans and less meat, volunteer in exchange for food, carpool, combine trips, drive slower, set the temperature even lower in the winter and higher in the summer, check whether you can get a cheaper electricity supplier.)

    Ask around about odd jobs that you and your kids can do – aim to bring in a total of $250/month.

    Once the credit card settlement and wage garnishment end, that should bring your income to about $3000 and your must-have expenses to about $1800. Budget a bit of the leftover money for fun, and use the rest to pay down your credit card, then Mom’s. In the year between when the garnishment ends and the student loans kick in, you should be able to get rid of a big chunk of that debt, which will make more room for your student loan payments.

  20. R S says:

    @Trent I’m surprised by the suggestion to not pay towards the Mom’s credit card bill, when Alice seems to imply it’s a bill she put on her mom’s card.
    “If there was ever a time when the money was tight, I typically ended up putting our groceries on my mothers credit card – for which I would give her the money when I could.”
    Was there something I missed? Why do you suggest shirking this responsibility?

  21. jim says:

    It sounds to me like paying moms credit card and moms car payment is not charity to mom but instead Alice repaying her mom.

    Regarding cars she says: “When it got to the point where we had to have a better vehicle, we had to have my mother put it in her name so we (she) could borrow the money to pay for it. We also agreed to make the payment on her car and used her old car as a trade in on the newer ones.”
    “I ended up with two hefty car payment (yes, I do have my car, though) – on which I owe more than either of them are worth.”

    So it sounds to me as if they took her mothers old car and then agreed to pay of her mothers current car. They are paying the mothers car due to an obligation not out of charity to the mother. Also the cards are both apparently under water.

    For moms credit card she had said: “I typically ended up putting our groceries on my mothers credit card”
    So I”m assuming that she’s paying her mothers credit card to pay off debts that Alice and her ex put on the cards.

  22. Johanna says:

    “So it sounds to me as if they took her mothers old car and then agreed to pay of her mothers current car.”

    Even so, that doesn’t sound like a fair deal to me.

    And as others have asked: Is the entire $15K on Mom’s credit card due to Alice’s spending? Or did Mom use that card too?

  23. Laura in Seattle says:

    I second the food pantry advice. They are there specifically to help people get through periods like this. You might feel weird about going there, but it beats starving.

    It’s also a good idea to find out if any local churches have any programs – family assistance, free dinners, thrift shop, free counseling – that might help Alice get through this rough patch.

  24. jim says:

    Johanna #22 said : “Even so, that doesn’t sound like a fair deal to me.”

    Why do you think that?

    Keep in mind that “old” and “new” labels for a car tell us very little. An “old” EScalade is worth lots more than a “new” Aveo.
    WE don’t know the values of the “old” versus “current” car or what the outstanding balance on the debt was. I’m going with the assumption that Alice’s mom didn’t some how rip them off in the car dealings.

  25. Joanna says:

    Honestly it seems like a lot of you, including trent, didn’t read the problem fully before answering.

    She is paying both car payments because she traded in her moms car, even though there was still a loan on it, and got the new car in her mothers name as well. She must pay all of this, or destroy her mothers credit. She’s underwater on it, so cannot sell.

    Secondly, she has to continue paying those huge payments to the credit card. That’s not overpayment, that’s an agreement to settle for less than the value. If she forfeits the agreement, she’ll owe more and likely rake up even more fees.

    As for her mothers card, if she’s already paying the minimum, not much can be done there. Possibly call the cc company and ask for a lower rate, but dont count on it.

    The only thing I see as optional here is the cellular phone. Don’t cancel them, you don’t need those fees right now, but call your provider and ask for a 6 month “seasonal suspension” on all of them. You’ll probably pay a nominal fee of about 5bucks a month, but you can put them on hold until you’re back in the green.

    As this is a short term problem, you may also want to consider renting a room in your house if you have one free. That may free up some easy income.

  26. I agree that teenagers can at least pay for their own cell phones. In fact, they should contribute a little to the household expenses, if they can. See if anyone in church needs yardwork done or babysitting, or other sorts of help. Other than that, the usual recommendations come to mind – garage sales, sell through ebay and craigslist, cut back even harder on the electricity, and food budget. Not easy, but not impossible. Good luck to her.

  27. Rachel says:

    She mentioned that she got a good deal on housing from a friend at church which means she is somewhat active in a church. Any church worth its salt has a benevolence fund just for these situations. She should go to the pastor, elders, or deacons privately and explain her situation, indicating that it’s short-term.

    Also, I admire her desire to pay back her mother, but her mother should understand the dire situation she’s in, again for the short term. As long as Alice’s mother is financially able to meet her obligations, she should allow Alice to delay repayment for 6 months.

  28. Johanna says:

    What I’m wondering now is how Alice’s mother feels about seeing her daughter and grandchildren struggle like this, and whether she’s able to or interested in helping out in any way other than lending her credit (which has only allowed Alice to take on more debt than she can afford).

    It’s great that Alice wants to make good on her obligations to her mother, but the truth is that she can’t realistically do that right now and still meet her obligations to herself and her own children. If Mom has a credit card with a $15K limit just lying around, and if she can qualify for $500 worth of car payments in her own name, she can’t be that badly off.

    Or maybe she’d like to help, but she doesn’t realize just how bad Alice’s financial situation really is.

  29. J.O. says:

    I’m reading the credit card debt as being partly Alice’s and partly her mother’s, from these two statements:

    “If there was ever a time when the money was tight, I typically ended up putting our groceries on my mothers credit card – for which I would give her the money when I could.”

    “I am paying (or trying to pay) on my mothers credit card bills (which probably total around $15K – not all groceries, mind you)…”

  30. cynthia says:

    My heart really goes out to you. I, too, was in a financially disastrous marriage and am now divorced and dealing with some of the fall out. I know you have tried to find a second job, but I wonder if you could find seasonal employment. I don’t think that Target or Macy’s or Fed Ex really care how over qualified people are when they are needing short time employees for the holiday season.

    And, if your children are too young for jobs, perhaps they could help out some by raking neighbors leaves or having a pet sitting or dog walking business?

    All the best. Good luck.

  31. My heart goes out to this person. The math says cut back on expenses or raise income. Mom and the kids have to pick up work till things can become more stable in 6 months. At the moment things are really scary. But it will pass in time.

    Nobody wants to go thru this kind of torture but maybe mom could get the dad to come up with more money during these hard times. I know its highly unlikely but still could try. Getting some church help an applying for food stamps may help.

    Its going to be a hard six months, but nothing much can be done. The Mom will be able to rebuild eventually. Don’t give up is the only advice I can offer.

  32. Weston says:

    Has she ever had a lawyer look at the garnishment? Many states have exemptions that protect people in certain situations from garnishment.

  33. Sara says:

    Trent, I also enjoy these detailed posts, in effect, money makeovers. It would add to the readability to put the expenses in table or spreadsheet form.

  34. deRuiter says:

    Bad decisions, more bad decisions, an enabling Mother, it’s now time to clean up the mess. The teenagers can get some work: baby sitting, yard work, if old enough then flipping burgers, scrubbing floors, waiting tables. Teenagers don’t need cell phones. They can cut back on groceries, cook all meals at home, take lunch from home. As to #32, as a person who pays all their bills, it is increasingly tiresome to see the profligates given a free ride. Her salary is garnished because she took money from others and did not repay it. How about moving in with Mom the enabler for six months or a year?

  35. getagrip says:

    Trent, this was poorly responded to considering it’s pretty clear that the poster is underwater on the vehicles and the money on her mother’s credit card is her debt, not the mothers. Made me think you just slapped this off to fill some space. I’d like to think she could negotiate something with her mother for the next few months, but likely her mother is helping her out already, can’t help out, or she feels (or has been told) she’s gone to that well once too many times. However, her mother may be able to help with the cell phone line as well if she can’t get a cheaper plan for some reason.

  36. Kevin says:

    So the moral of this story is, “be careful who you marry, and even more careful with whom you choose to have kids.”

    I wish Alice the best of luck. She’s going to need it. Choices have consequences. There’s a reason parents caution their kids to slow down and think about their choices, and it’s not just because they’re un-fun old fuddy-duddies. It’s because they were trying to help you avoid a mess like this.

  37. Jane says:

    I agree that the cell phone bill is the glaring expense here. Could you possibly have two pay as you go phones that you all share? I have one (a hand me down, so I got the phone free) with Verizon that costs an average of $10 a month. It’s 20 cents a minute, which means I have very short conversations, but it works for safety and emergencies. Then you could get a $20 land line on which your teenagers could talk to their heart’s content when at home. This could conceivably lower your phone expenses to under $50 a month.

  38. Johanna says:

    @Kevin: So just like Jennifer’s question on Monday, it’s a woman’s responsibility to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong in a relationship before she enters into it, and if she fails to do that, any hurt or abuse she suffers is all her fault? I’m seeing a pattern here.

  39. Enid says:

    It is possible to sell the car even if she is underwater. It all depends on the exact numbers, but if she owes $10K and can sell for $8K, she could come out ahead selling if she can get a $2K loan to cover the difference. Better to owe $2K than $10K. And if she can take public transportation while she’s cleaning up the mess, she will also save on gas, insurance, and maintenance. An extra $500 or so a month would be nice right now.

  40. Kevin says:

    @Johanna: What “pattern?” I never left any comments on Jennifer’s post on Monday. I was merely making an observation on THIS post. How, praytell, does that suggest a “pattern?”

  41. Kevin says:

    @Johanna: Oh, and I’m sure the ex-husband is suffering, too. He’s got a foreclosure on his record, and will be getting dinged with a double-dose of child support for many years to come. They’re BOTH suffering the consequences of rash choices, so you can save your feminist hyperbole for a more apt context.

  42. Hope D says:

    I think she needs to keep looking for a job. More money seems to be the only solution that will not hurt her mother.

  43. Amy says:

    I fail to understand why people with bad behavior go to their family for help and receive it only to ultimately screw them. Why Trent would you advise anyone to ignore a debt owed to a family member (mom)? From my reading, the credit card debt us all hers and therefore totally her responsibility. So because of this grown womans continous bad behavior and her moms willingness to help- the moms credit should go down in flames too!

    People need to grow up. My grandfather had a saying- if you make your bed hard lie in it but don’t expect me to climb in with you.

    A divorce is rarely one sided- both parties must accept responsibility for their part.

    Note- Mcdonalds hires 15 year olds.

  44. I’d cut that car out too–even if it meant going with a clunker for six months–I’d do it to get out from underneath that debt!

  45. maria says:

    Johanna: I am a women and hell yes it is my resposibility to anticipate and PLAN for anything that may go wrong in my life, and yes any hurt or abuse I suffer would be MY fault if I made such bad decisions.
    I certianly do see a pattern… you and your nothing is my fault and give me all the government/ free hand outs I can get..and if there is not enough hand outs to cover all the bad decisions lets vote for higher taxes so we can have more.

  46. Johanna says:

    @Kevin: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you had blamed Jennifer for being cheated on. Other people did, but not you.

    But even if Alice *were* to blame for marrying an irresponsible and possibly abusive man, that’s not at all helpful for figuring out what she should do now. “Should have” – as in “you shouldn’t have married him” or “you shouldn’t have had children” – is not advice.

    And I hope you don’t think you’re insulting me by calling me a feminist. :)

  47. Callie says:

    Oh what an underused resource U.S. teenagers are. Even if they’re 13 and 15 there is oh so much they can do. Right now my son is attempting to sell his art via Cafe Press. I’m sure if he HAD to he’d put more energy into it. There is also yard work, baby sitting, elder sitting, tutoring, and cleaning. The list goes on. I’m getting ready to take a job, so we’ll have a lot of housework that I will not have time to do. I thought about hiring a maid, but she/he will probably want as much as I’m making. So, I offered to hire my son at minimum wage. It’s a win win. he gets some extra money to put towards the car he wants(he’s 13) and I get extra housework. He already does a ton of work so I can’t ask him to do the extra w/o pay. I wonder if Alice’s mother lives with them? Combining households might be something to consider. My own mother(bless her soul) saved us from a pickle by moving in with us. We also got to take care of her and my son was able to get to know her better. Hang in there Alice! Know that any leaning you do on your teens, with the right spirit, will benefit them in the long run.

  48. Michelle says:

    Personal responsibility is certainly about planning ahead properly – we all try to do that, and if we take Alice at her word, she was trying to get her husband to help her plan ahead and save but he refused. So now they are divorced. But it’s not only about foresight. Personal responsibility is also about recognizing when you’ve made mistakes, or you need to redirect your life and taking measures to do so. Alice (and Jennifer in the last post) are doing just that. Why does that evoke such ire from some of you?

    God bless those of you who manage to go through life without making any mistakes, or suffering any unforseen events that alter your plans. If you can’t be empathetic or offer constructive suggestions, I’d at least think it much more useful to count your blessings rather than bask in smugness.

  49. Michelle says:

    I wish there were an edit…
    By “we all plan ahead” I meant those of us who use resources like TSD. Certainly there are plenty of people who live only for today.

  50. Michelle says:

    @Kevin: “dinged with a double-dose of child support”? Are you suggesting it’s an unfair hardship for him to share responsibility in supporting his children?

  51. Mister E says:

    I’m not sure what it’s like these days but even if the teens are too young to find “real” work (I think McD’s hires at 15) there may be other options.

    I know paper routes aren’t as common as they once were and the ones that are still around are often given to adults but that might be an option. Newspapers or flyers.

    Also if they are involved in any sports referee programs may accept younger kids.

    I was employed in one form or another from 10 years old. From 10-15 I delivered flyers and refereed soccer for the most part. The money was obviously not huge but it was something.

  52. SwingCheese says:

    There is a grocery store in our area that hires 15 year olds, and I know that my husband worked at a different grocery store chain (different area of the country) when he was 15. Also, I babysat beginning at 12.

    Other than that, I have no advice, but I’m feeling very lucky to have married a man who is on the same page as I when it comes to finances. You see, we met and moved in together when we were young and impulsive, and didn’t worry about personal finance until we were older. (Neither of us grew up with parents offering sound financial advice, so it wasn’t something that occurred to us until the last few years.) Thankfully we’re not in the situation that Alice is.

  53. mary m says:

    “She is paying both car payments because she traded in her moms car, even though there was still a loan on it, and got the new car in her mothers name as well. She must pay all of this, or destroy her mothers credit. She’s underwater on it, so cannot sell.”
    That’s not how car loans work. You can’t make payments on a car you have already traded in. Now, you can roll in negative equity on the newer purchase, but that would be 1 payment. Paying for 2 or more cars here.
    Also, getting rid of cell phones and not knowing where your kids are would be more stressful than paying for the plan. To skimp on this would only cost more money in the future. Now maybe getting text blocks on the phone and eliminate that part of the bill.

  54. guest says:

    Food banks are always suggested in articles like this, but they are not always available to the working poor. First, many require that a family meet income guidelines that are way below what it takes to make it. Second, many are only open during hours when most people who work for businesses are unable to visit them, like the one I used that was open from 2-4 2 non-weekend days a week. Third, your must be able to get to some very inconvenient locations not easily accessed by public trans, and lugging four bags of food six blocks to the bus is no picnic. Fourth, finding out when and where food is available can be an almost impossible maze of voicemail systems and creative guessing that may bebeyond the mental resources of a person whose emotions and energy are alreaady consumed by getting through the month. Also, the food is not very healthy. I had to turn down the 2 full bags of day old pastries every week because a family member is diabetic, and the hot dogs were nasty. We ate them anyway. Food banks don’t include cooking instructions for the food they provide,and I heard several people say they didn’t know wahat to do with an item so they were going to throw it out.

  55. Tammy says:

    @I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic because I truly hope that Alice makes it through this. However, I have to say that someone who brings home in excess of $3000 per month is not part of the working poor! She earns more than many two income families in this country. She is broke not poor.

  56. Kevin says:


    No, I wouldn’t say child support is “unfair,” but yes, it most certainly is a “hardship.”

  57. Johanna says:

    @mary m: Teenagers and their parents somehow managed before cell phones. Alice’s sons can do what we did then: Tell their parent(s) beforehand where they’re going, who they’ll be with, and what time they’ll be home. A prepaid plan should be plenty to cover the times when it’s necessary to get in touch about a change of plans.

    @Tammy: Where are you getting $3000 per month? Right now, Alice is bringing home $1709 per month plus the child support.

  58. SupportingParents says:

    Trent, I have to say I’m a little disppointed with your advice here. One, she is paying off a card in her mother’s name but it is still her debt. This debt should actually be her priority since it is putting someone else in the situation which she does not want to remain in.

    Two, a food pantry? I’m sorry but if you have cell phones, cable, dsl, and bring in 300+ you are not in the poverty bracket that food pantries are designed for. It is ethically questionable that you suggest she find a “free meal” just because she and her former spouse made poor choices. Alice was along for the ride when the money was being spent and was right there with her ex when she asked her mother for a bail out, to buy a car in her mom’s name, etc. There are a lot of excuses throughout this post but little to admit that she actually had a part in the debt, either from being passive or from her own poor choices.

    Third,did you even read her question? She says that she’s underwater in her car loan, then you ask if she is. There is only one thing worse than bad advice and that is advice given without knowledge of the situation.

    I feel for this woman but she needs to make some hard choices and cut back her lifestyle (and yes, there are lots of ways to cut back starting with the $300 grocery bill and cell phones) and start owning up to your part of the debt. Once your ex started getting out of control with spending where was the real attempt to stop it?

  59. Johanna says:

    Sorry – for “Alice’s sons” read “Alice’s teenagers.” Not sure how I got the impression that they’re both boys.

  60. Michelle says:

    @Supporting Parents – Agreed: one of my big complaints about Trent’s Q&A is that at least half the time he seems not to have read the question. Luckily the commenters do.

    Disagreed: For the purposes of this Q&A, why does she need to own up to her part in getting into debt? Even if she made a statement about her own culpability, that wouldn’t change the situation she’s in today. She’s in debt, she explained why she’s in debt and she’s asking how to stay afloat. An on-line confessional or therapy session is not required.

    Disagreed: Is it ethically questionable for her to have to choose between food for her two children or credit card payments? Also, most food pantries are privately run, so they would get to decide if Alice was eligible or not. If she’s eligible for public assistance for food would be formula-based, and also not a question of morality.

  61. Angel says:

    I’m glad that some of the people posting here can sympathize with this woman and try to offer solutions. What’s the point in criticizing her when it’s already been done and the debt is already owed? Show her some support. She’s trying! People that have no sympathy for those in debt or for people that have fallen on hard times in general are usually self righteous. Get some humanity!

  62. Interested Reader says:

    Food banks vary, what’s true for one food bank in one location is not the same as another.

    For example, there are food banks that work with either local farmers or local gardners to get donations of fresh produce. Obviously this isn’t true for every location or every food bank but there some out there doing this.

    Also food banks have different requirements, there are some that have no income requirements. And food banks are run by different organizations. There’s a group of local churches that run a food bank that is open to anyone who feels they have need. It actually started with 1 church and then others in the same location started donating food and volunteers.

    Even if Alice’s church doesn’t have a program like ths they may know of churche or resources that do.

    To all these people who are being critical of Alice and other posters have made mistakes and are askign for help. I have a question for all of you — what is it like to live a life free of mistakes and how did you develop such wonderful foresight to never make a mistake or a bad choice?

  63. maria says:

    I agree with #55 Tammy, she is bringing home around 3k a month ($1750paychek + $450childsupport + ?? more in 6 months when the garnishment is over)and is broke not poor.
    I do sympathize for her, however what she needs is a strong financial plan to get out of debt. Which means she will have to make HUGE sacrifices that involve herself and family (her own choices, Trent’s advice or the advice of commenter’s) that will be extremely painful and last for probably several years. Beans and rice, night job, kids working, roommates, live with Mom, no cell phone, whatever increases her income and decrease the bills… it’s not rocket science… This is the painful reality of her poor financial decisions of the past. She even lets us know she is in this pickle ” Because of many bad decisions”.
    I believe very strongly that people in debt need to own up to it. This does not make me self righteous.
    We all make mistakes, how we correct our mistakes shows what we are truly made of.

  64. Amanda B. says:

    @ Kevin- You are right, the take away from this post (and the other) is that marrying and mating with the wrong person can really screw up you life. I didn’t see anything wrong with that statement at all. In fact, it may be worth repeating that even if you make all the best financial choices in the world, being yoked to a chronic spender can undo it all. Because of that anyone (male or female) should be sure they and their perspective spouse are on the same page with finances and they should stay that way. I once saw this story of this poor man who, while bringing home a solid six figures, didn’t realize his wife had wracked up $300,000 in non mortgage debt. He obviously would have been better off had he been more careful who he picked as a spouse. I don’t think there was anything accusatory or insensitive about it.

  65. Kevin says:

    I agree with Maria. I don’t understand why some commenters seem to think that people like Alice should be exempt from criticism because they’re trying to fix their situation.

    Admitting you made a mistake does not excuse you from the consequences. There are still consequences to be suffered. Accepting them shows grace and maturity, but you still have to experience them. There’s not “Get Out Of Debt Free” card that is dispensed to you just because you acknowledge that you made mistakes. Whistling while you dig yourself out of your hole will make the job seem more tolerable, but you still have to do it.

  66. Michelle says:

    I don’t see even one post on here that suggested there was “a get out of debt free card.” Not a single person has even suggested she declare bankruptcy. I didn’t hear Alice asking for a way out with no consequences, she (and Jennifer yesterday) were only asking for suggestions of how to go forward.

    I agree, there is a larger theme here about the implications of whom you marry. That is a great discussion to be had, but better off in the theoretical rather than in direct response to a real live person who is in need of help. Too many of the posts here smack of, “well, it’s your own fault for marrying a loser, dummy. This is what you get…” Not helpful.

  67. Amanda B. says:

    I agree that it is painful to discuss the consequences of a bad marriage choice when “real” people are involved (Alice may not be her real name, none of us know her, and I don’t know if she is even aware of the discussion, thus the quotes). However, without real examples that cut to your heart and invoke some kind of sympathy, the conversation is easily dismissed. I would bet that there aren’t a ton of people who would say that picking a spouse isn’t an important decision that should be made carefully. But a lot of us do enter into relationships and get swept away. I recognize that Alice and Jennifer were asking for advise, but there situations are also teaching moments and discussion points. If Trent didn’t see that possibility and the value of it, why wouldn’t he have just answered them privately?

  68. Tall Bill says:

    Go without texting & the phone bill can drop to $100 or less. That’s where were at. Use the local library for free entertainment & check Craigs List for just about any home appliance needed for free. Check out Trent’s & other easy bulk food receipes for making food last over several meals, etc. Does that car need to be that new at that rate? Just as were finding our economy at this point, we all need to look at each and every line item for change. Good Luck

  69. Johanna says:

    “If Trent didn’t see that possibility and the value of it, why wouldn’t he have just answered them privately?”

    Er…because Trent’s job is to write a blog that people read, not to serve as a private therapist?

  70. SupportingParents says:

    @Michelle #60

    What I meant about owning up to her part of the debt was that she should not ruin her mother’s credit, or try to borrow more from her mother when there is still room in the budget for cutbacks. There is definitely a theme in this post about it being the ex’s fault but she was watching the accounts dwindle then. Irrelavent now since she has split from the financial dead weight and is now trying to get back on track but it is hard to sympathize when someone knowingly takes on debt then wonders why there is no money now.

    She is not choosing between starving her children and credit card payments. She is choosing to have cell phones, internet, etc. which yes, does seem morally wrong to then go to a food bank. My post, however, was to Trent suggesting that rather than cut back or prepare more frugal meals she should be taking free food from food banks. That $170 phone payment could buy a lot of food. Her credit card payments are also an obligation, she spent the money, why shouldn’t she be required to pay them back? I don’t understand your thinking that it is ok not to pay them, especially when in someone else’s name.

    This is an awful situation to be in but there are countless people who are starving and in need through no fault of their own and I questions Trent’s suggestion because the income stated is enough to support this family AND pay the debt off, it will just take work and encouragement.

  71. Michelle says:

    @ SP – I do agree Alice should pay her mother’s credit cards since she incurred the debt. I’m pretty sure Trent would agree too, if he had read the post carefully.

  72. Michelle says:

    Post left me too soon…

    Even if Alice got rid of her cell phones and internet and squeezed a few more dollars out of her budget (and really, $100 a month per person – especially when two are teenagers, is already a tight food budget) she would not make up the $500+ a month that she’s behind; without the garnishment she’d barely break even. What happens when there’s an emergency?

    I have a different opinion than you of who is worthy of help. Your last comment seems to imply that someone in a bad situation by fate rather than by fault is more worthy of support than someone who made a mistake. I have a difficult time with people who want to be supported but will not make positive changes, but that is not Alice. And even those who do continue exercising “faults of their own” I do not wish to see starve.

  73. adri says:

    I don’t have any advice outside of what’s already been said, but hang in there, Alice! You are smart and capable, and you’re already on the right track by facing the situation head-on. What a lovely example you will be for your children, when you’re through with this mess and they see what your hard work accomplished!

  74. Robyn says:

    You didn’t mention the food budget — it seems like something that could come down if needed. $300 a month isn’t huge, but it’s more than I pay to feed my family. There are three of us plus the baby (the older child easily eats as much as my husband or I), and we’re definitely not on a bare-bones meal plan at $275/month or (usually) less. I could cut back a lot if we had a good reason (since we’re in a good financial position, we don’t feel the need to keep our grocery budget at a bare minimum). Normally I wouldn’t suggest that to a working mom because I know there’s lot of time and energy involved in meal prep on that kind of budget, but if you’ve got teenaged kids, they can definitely learn to do the cooking and clean-up. For that matter, I agree with everyone who said they should be looking for work too. At the very least, they can do all of the housework so Mom has more time and energy to maximize her income.

  75. Mia says:

    I think Joanna (#19) has some good ideas. Here are a couple of others:

    Internet – $45. You could use your local library’s computers/internet. While it may be a little less convenient – it’s free and should get the job done. Encourage your kids to do all necessary research for homework while at school. Doesn’t have to be forever, just until you back on your feet.

    Sell some stuff. My assumption is during your marriage your husband probably wanted a lot of “stuff”. Do you still have it in your possession? Sell it. Exercise equipment, stereos, tvs, golf clubs, slightly used clothing/shoes, movies, books, etc…If you don’t need it, don’t use it, and you can make $25 or so bucks for it I would say sell it. Not only will it bring in some money, it will clear clutter, and any potential ill will over the purchased item.

    Odd jobs – Try advertising your services at your church. If you attend a small church, send your advertisement to larger churches as well. For example, car detailing. Most places in my area charge around $25 to wash a car and basic detailing. If you could charge say $20 and advertise at a few churches, on any given Saturday you could bring in an extra $100. Get your kids involved you may be able to do more.

    Cell phone – I think it’s cheaper to have a home phone. I understand Alice may need a phone for work, but the kids to have a cell phone is not a necessity. Cut all lines but hers and add a basic home phone line for the kids and other phone calls (such as business or work related calls that can be taken while at home).

    I think the biggest help would be to bring in more money and I think the best chance of that is to sell some stuff. Good luck, may God bless you.

  76. Nate Poodel says:

    Jennifer should look into finding work as a cleaning lady or weekend baby sitter. It would give her a bit of pocket money and she could do it on evenings or weekends.

  77. Bryan says:

    I am in agreement that the teenager cellphones need to go. I am not that old and I never had a cellphone until I was 21 and I purchased it on my own. Too many people look at these as must have items but they are not.

    You may even be able to bundle a phone service with your internet and save money by dropping all the cell phones or possibly keep one or two for limited use (pre pay phones come to mind).

    Also, if the kids are at least 15 years old (could be younger in some areas) they can qualify for many jobs with limited work hours and duties (check the local labor laws). Let them work so they can afford a few things for themselves. I dont agree with them contributing to your parental obligations (food, shelter, etc.), but they can buy a couple items to help remove some of your burden. Plus young teenagers want freedom and independance, this will give them a chance to get a taste of earning and responsibility while still being under your wing.

    Finally, this is what assistance programs were created for. There is a bad stigma on welfare because of the many who abuse it. You fit the correct definition of a person who needs a temporary boost to get through a rough patch. There is no shame in that.

  78. Brittany says:

    A compromise on the cell phone issue could be having the kids share a phone–they’ll complain, but assuming they go to the same school if they’re close in age, this could help the parent-axienty-level issue while giving some breathing room in the budget. Also, trim the internet package (my 1.5 mpbs downstream “DSL Express” with ATT is only $14.95, and I’ve never once had a problem with it–it streams video flawlessly), and use a free/low cost internet phone for a bulk of your calling (Google Voice (completely free) or Skype (low-cost)). That could help you cut back to

    If your kids already have iPhone from previous high-spending days, I also know people who download the Skype ap, use free wifi hotspots, and have a $3/month phone bill.

  79. Michelle says:

    I’m a little late to the game here, but I agree with a lot of what’s been suggested.

    The thing that jumped out at me about Alice’s expenditures were the cell phones and internet. Internet is a luxury, not a necessity, as are cell phones. Not to mention, why is Alice paying for her mom’s cell phone?

    Also, several people have mentioned looking into getting food stamps or welfare. From what Alice makes, garnishment or not, she likely would not qualify for either. Food stamps, for a family of three, require a gross income of under $1,900 (give or take a few dollars) monthly. Alice makes more than this, especially factoring in the child support payments. The requirements for welfare in most states are similar.

    I think the reason Trent suggested doing away with paying on the mother’s credit card for the time being is that it’s not legally Alice’s obligation. Sure, she’s trying to do the right thing and not run her mother’s credit into the ground (But why her mother allowed her to rack up $15k in debt on her credit card is another argument altogether…), and that’s commendable, but the debt is not legally Alice’s. Trent was saying it’s an agreement debt and can be put aside for a small amount of time. If it were a legal debt, it couldn’t.

  80. Alice says:


    I got a part time seasonal job through Christmas and that really helped! I cut back the cell phone plan to where right now I only pay $96 per month for four lines. I pay for my moms cell phone because it is only $9.99 extra (plus any taxes) on my bill and would be more for her to have her own line. She’s almost 80 and I want her to have a cell phone just in case.

    The credit card bill that I made the arrangement to pay off is paid. Even though I’m on salary at my job, I did extra work and got paid extra through both December and January, which resulted in more garnishment money being taken – but will cause it to be paid off sooner.

    Because the ex was seven months behind in child support, the state took half of his Christmas bonus and added that to my December child support income.

    We also had some issues with the heat in the house we are renting, so the owners put in a new system and are only charging me half for one months rent.

    In response to those who think my food budget for the month is high – that also includes breakfast and lunch money for my kids at school. I shop at the cheapest store in town and do rather well in that area. Often buying a weeks worth of groceries for around $50.

    The teenagers could get jobs, however, we are pretty far out in the county and I’m not sure how they would get to work. I’d have to leave my job early to go get them and bring them to town, then drive back in to town to pick them up.

    I just received my tax refund and will be putting some of it into savings to get me through next months garnishment shortfall. In March, there will only be about half as much as usual taken out because it will be all paid. By the end of April I will have a full paycheck plus the child support. I’ll be well on my way to staying above water and getting all bills paid off.

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