till Debt do us part Money: As more Americans dig themselves into deep holes with credit cards, people are ready to help. They carry scissors and they know how to use them.

July 29, 1996|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Judy Cooper's eyes are glittering. She loves this part. She's already added up to the penny what her client owes on his credit cards. She knows his income and all his expenses. Cooper even knows what he spends to wash his underwear.

"Now," she says to the bespectacled man sitting across from her, "I want your credit cards."

She reaches her arm across the desk. Her outstretched palm is inches from his face. Her hand hangs in the air.

He sighs. Loudly. The sigh of a man who's been through this before. Another sigh. Then he reaches into his pocket and out comes the wallet. He pulls out credit card after credit card and spreads them out on the desk. Seven in all.

"I was going to cut up my credit cards," he tells Cooper.

"Oh, I'm going to make sure of that," says Cooper, who works at the Catonsville branch of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service. She laughs, though not unkindly.

Nearby, sitting unobtrusively on her office floor, is The Jar. It looks innocuous enough, but on closer inspection it holds hundreds of slashed credit cards. Credit cards wrested from the clenched fists of their owners. Sliced up, diced up and lying in The Jar as useless as so much Monopoly money.

The man sitting in front of her now owes $13,544 in credit card debt. Just keeping up with the minimum payments to Sears, Montgomery Ward, Visa, Value City, et al. took nearly $600 a month. Interest on some of his cards is as high as 23 percent.

It's a hard stretch for a retired government worker in his late 50s whose yearly income is $24,500. But he has plenty of company. With credit card debt at its highest level in a decade, America's long-standing infatuation with shop-till-you-drop, buy-now-pay-later plastic is intensifying. People are staggering under the weight of their debt. Why, we've even made a game show out of it.

Tune into the Lifetime Channel weeknights at 6: 30 for "Debt, the game show for real people who are really in the red!" If you can't believe that host Wink Martindale is still alive, wait until you hear the concept behind the show.

Ellen, Hal and Debbie are today's contestants. Ellen is "drowning in a sea of bills," Hal pulled out the old credit card after taking a beating on a stock tip and Debbie is just plain broke.

All three owe between $7,100 and $7,500 on their credit cards. The contestant who correctly answers the most questions (and they are really, really easy questions) gets his or her credit card debts paid off. Hal is on the verge of pulling himself out of the red when he flubs the last, all-or-nothing question. He goes home with zilch, except for his pile of credit card bills and a $1,500 savings bond.

In an interview with Sun television critic David Zurawik last month, Andrew J. Golder, senior producer of "Debt," said the show is an attempt to "tap into growing anxiety out there in America" about consumer debt, as well as "the powerful wish fulfillment" to escape it.

19 percent of income

No kidding. In America, we owe a whopping 19 percent of our yearly income to consumer debt, most of it to our 200 million-plus active credit card accounts.

An average household earning $30,000 a year has credit-card balances of $5,700. A $70,000 household owes $13,300, and that's not counting the mortgage.

No wonder the New York chapter of Debtor's Anonymous has this message on its answering machine: "Due to the overwhelming number of messages, we are asking you to write us at this time."

Founded in 1976, Debtor's Anonymous is a self-help support group with chapters in almost every U.S. city. Members follow the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and meet at least weekly to share their stories and progress to solvency.

There are many success stories, says Nick, a spokesman for the Baltimore-area chapters, which began in 1984. (Like AA members, those in Debtor's Anonymous go by their first names only.)

A graduate student was so deep in debt that he was homeless, Nick says. "He was bouncing around living in about four different basements. He had maxed out on all his credit cards. Now, he's a professor at UConn with more consulting jobs than he knows what to do with. In the jargon of DA, he's working a very strong program!"

It's not only poor people or blue-collar types who are in deep debt, Nick says. Doctors and businessmen making six figures join Debtor's Anonymous because they spend far more than they earn, he says.

So many people spend more than they earn that an entire industry has sprung up to rescue them. You may have noticed Consumer Credit Counseling Service's television ads, usually a couple lamenting how they got themselves in this position in the first place. The counseling service, the voice-over says, is one way out.

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