Blogs turn into confessionals by debtors

Online community offers support for those in financial turmoil

February 18, 2007|By New York Times News Service

When a woman who calls herself Tricia discovered last week that she owed $22,302 on her credit cards, she could not wait to spread the news. Tricia, 29, who does not talk to her family or friends about her finances, says she is ashamed of her personal debt.

Yet from the laundry room of her home in northern Michigan, Tricia goes online and posts intimate details of her financial life, including her net worth (now negative $38,691), the balance and finance charges on her credit cards, and the amount of debt she has paid down since starting a blog about her debt last year ($15,312).

Her journal, http:--bloggingawaydebt.com, is one of dozens that have sprung up in recent years, taking advantage of Internet anonymity to reveal to strangers fiscal intimacies the authors might not tell their closest friends.

Like other debt bloggers, Tricia believes that the exposure gives her the discipline to reduce her debt. "I think about this blog every time I'm in the store and something that I don't need catches my eye," she told readers last week. "Look what you all have done to me!"

A decade after the Internet became a public stage for revelations from the bedroom, it is now peering into the really private stuff: personal finance.

The blogs open an intimate and sometimes shockingly candid window on the day-to-day finances of American households in a time of rising debt, failing mortgages and financial uncertainty. In 2006, the average American household carried about $7,200 in revolving debt (mostly on credit cards) and $21,000 in total debt.

A blog called "Poorer Than You" (http:--kgazette.blogspot.com) describes the financial doings of a 20-year-old film-school dropout. (Typical post: "Yesterday we ate lunch at Subway for a total of $8.00, and went grocery shopping with a list! And didn't buy anything that wasn't on it!") On saveleighann.blogspot.com, Leigh Ann Fraley, 37, provides daily accounts of her escape from $19,947 in credit card debt.

"I teach people how to get out of debt for a living, but I couldn't do it myself until I started the blog," said Fraley, who conducts seminars in personal finance for a bank in Northern California. "I started to write everything down, like, `I saved 20 cents today by parking at a meter that still had time on it.' I tell things I wouldn't tell my family." When she finally got out of debt in December, she said, "The blog was the first people I told."

A Boston couple who call themselves the King and Queen of Debt started their his-and-hers blog, "We're in Debt" (http:--wereindebt.com), last March as a way to talk to each other about their debt. They owed $34,155.70 on their credit cards at the time, and an additional $120,000, mostly in student loans.

"My wife and I have good communication skills in every avenue of life except finances," said the King of Debt, insisting on anonymity because, he said, "we don't want our parents to find out and kill us."

Starting the blog, he said, "was a way to communicate. We'd write articles and learn about each other. She learned how addicted to gadgets I was. When we married, we never talked about finances."

Tricia started her blog after reading the online account of another woman, http:--thedebtdefier.blogspot.com, who said she had paid off her credit card debt of $19,794.23 in a little more than a year.

Like other bloggers interviewed for this article, Tricia said she and her husband had arrived at their debt gradually, not by big financial crises but by regularly spending more money than they made, using credit that was offered freely by credit card companies.

Tricia said her credit problems began in her freshman year at Michigan Technological University, when she opened a Visa account in return for the campus sign-up premium, a large candy bar. Since then, she said, she has rarely made more than minimum payments. As credit card companies offered her more cards and deeper credit lines, she said she kept her balance close to the maximum, eventually topping $37,000. Even as her credit card debt surpassed her annual income, she assumed that someday she would make more money and pay it off.

"They just kept giving more credit, more credit," she said. "I don't blame them for my use, because that's on me, but it didn't help that they gave so much out."

She said she never discussed her debt with family or friends. "You don't want them to know," she said. "Our parents hope for the best for us, and it's hard to let them know we're struggling. And with friends, you don't want them to think less of you. And when you go out with friends you don't want to say, `Oh, I can't do that, I don't have the money.'"

Keeping the blog, she said, has made her conscious of her spending. Though most of her readers are strangers, she worries about letting them down.

"I know that if I use my credit card, I'll have to go on there and say I used it. I'll have to 'fess up. I've been wanting one of those LCD TVs for quite a while now, but every time I see them, I think about having to come on the blog and say I bought it. Because we don't need it, we have a TV, but it's still a temptation that's there. And I'm sure if I wasn't blogging we'd already have it."

Tricia said the comments she had gotten had been overwhelmingly supportive. But she acknowledges that the fear of censure can be useful also.

"I feel embarrassed about it," she said of her debt. "I try not to, though. I think to myself, `If we didn't get in this mess and get out of it, we would've just kept going the way we were. We could've just been living on the edge, but not underneath.'"

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