In 2005, I was writing columns for The Next Step Magazine. It was a very helpful college preparatory magazine at a time when there was not as much advice available about college as there is today, and things were not totally out of control cost wise as they are today.
In 2005 personal bankruptcies were the highest in history. That year personal bankruptcies filed in the federal courts totaled 2,078,415. After I retired in 2011, according to the Buffalo News, filings in Western New York steadily declined for the next five years, as they did in most parts of the country. In fiscal year 2017, personal bankruptcies filed in the federal courts totaled only 767,721.
Concerned about the record filings, I wrote a column entitled “Bankruptcy Bound – How do people go from overspending on credit cards to declaring bankruptcy?” It was about the many mistakes that I had observed that the overspending bankrupts made. They were by far the overwhelming majority. It was my hope in writing the column that both students and their parents, who in those days generally also read the magazine, would avoid the same mistakes in the future.
As college students prepare to return to school, here are some of the mistakes those debtors made, and, by the way, they are just as important to avoid today as they were 13 years ago. Remember, our credit card debt is now at a record high of over $1 trillion, so there as many Americans out there who are not using their cards only for convenience and paying off their balances every month.
1. They seldom updated a budget that they had developed with a realistic view of what they needed versus what they wanted and could afford. As a result, they never knew what their true disposable income was, what they could actually afford without going into debt, or what they could realistically borrow and pay back within a reasonable time.
2. They were persuaded by non-stop marketing and peer pressure that they needed to go out to dinner every weekend, take an annual Disneyworld vacation (disclaimer: I own Disney stock), and so much more, without determining and knowing that they could afford them.
3. They actually believed that if a bank solicited them for a credit card, the bank had actually determined that they could afford to borrow up to the credit limit and pay the entire debt back.
4. They thought that they could afford credit card debt if they could pay the minimum payments, without ever calculating the true cost of that debt, and seeing how much more they were actually paying for what they purchased or did with those credit cards.
5. They had so many credit cards and store charges that they never proactively monitored their accounts. They just paid the minimum payments every month, and often they didn’t even know what their total debt was until they went to a credit counselor or an attorney for help.
6. They went into credit card debt in order to weather hard times, instead of cutting expenses, and doing anything and everything possible to bring in some or more income. In addition, they had more hard times to weather than necessary, because they didn’t save for emergencies, job losses, car repairs, or other anticipated expenses.
7. When their credit card debt became significant, they never tried to immediately put a plan in place to stop charging and start paying down their debt. (Unfortunately, there wasn’t as much advice and help available before 2005.)
8. No light bulb went off even when they went to charge something and the charge was denied because their card was maxed out. They just pulled out another one.
9. Too often, they admitted that they really didn’t have much to show for all of their credit card debt, and they couldn’t actually even remember what most of the debt was incurred for.
10. Many debtors said they never thought that the credit card companies would be so nasty when they went into default, because the companies had been so nice when they signed them up.
11. Debtors admitted that they waited too long to go on a “financial diet,” or to get help with their excessive debt and overspending, so that bankruptcy became their only alternative.
12. They never realized how stressful and embarrassing it would be to go bankrupt as an over-spender.
Sometimes I think that you can’t say these things too often!
John Ninfo is a retired bankruptcy judge and the founder of the National CARE Financial Literacy Program. Find his previous weekly columns at http://www.mpnnow.com/search?text=Ninfo or at http://www.monroecopost.com/search?text=Ninfo.