In November of 2017, I wrote an article for The Financial Diet detailing the month-long journey that ultimately lead to an eviction I never saw coming. To quickly recap: It was the final month of the lease, everyone had moved out of the apartment, my half of rent was paid, and I was (perhaps willfully) ignorant of any real problem until the day my friend/roommates husband let me know eviction papers had already been filed. Of course, that is the extremely abbreviated version. I’d recommend reading the original. The confessional ended with many strings still untied. I knew roughly how much the debt would be, but I was unsure of how (or when) it would be paid, and at that point, I had no idea how the eviction would affect my future.
Naturally, I received heaps of advice from TFD readers, suggesting everything from taking my friend and her husband to small claims court, to disputing the debt in its entirety, to simply paying it myself and hoping that the couple would help, at least in part. At one point, a couple of readers in my area even reached out offering assistance if I needed it, offering up their basement apartment should the need arise — something I think about often whenever I start to feel that the internet has become a little too heartless.
I’m writing to you today to give you the conclusion to that story, to fill in the timeline that was left unfinished, and, of course, to share the mistakes I’ve made along the way in the hopes that someone else can learn as much from them as I did.
I had a few missed calls on my phone at the end of a long workday. The messages were left by a woman, Jenny (that’s what we’ll call her), stating the (now too familiar) classic disclaimer that she was attempting to collect a debt, and to call the company back as soon as I could. I’m pretty skeptical of people who want my money, and initially I wasn’t sure that the calls were legitimate. But after a couple of days, I was able to actually pick up the phone, and she explained to me that she was with the collections agency that works for my former apartment complex. This was my first time dealing with a debt collector, and I had no idea what to expect. I thought I was going to be dangled over a pit of fire by my cell phone’s charging cord. Turns out I’m just a generally dramatic person.
The call was simple. We reviewed the amount owed (slightly higher than the $2,200 after being sent over to their office) and possible payment options. To my surprise, Jenny told me know that the debt hadn’t been reported to any credit bureaus, and that as long as someone was making regular payments, their policy was to keep it that way. At first I saw this as a way to somehow force my friend’s husband to pay as well, but it turned out that it didn’t matter who paid, as long as someone did. So,I agreed to start paying $100 per month, starting in January. At that point, to me, it was simple math. If I pay, my credit is safe no matter what they do. If I don’t, and they don’t, it’s ruined.
I texted my old roommate, letting her know that payments were set up. Things were tense between us, we’d had a big fight the month before, mostly about the money. But of course, with so much frustration on my part, and unspoken guilt on hers, everything else we’d never said to each other came pouring out.
The first few payments had gone through. My friend and I were still in a weird place (I mean, how do you talk to someone whose husband financially screwed you over?) Speaking of her husband, she had left him, moving into her parents basement and getting a job as quickly as she could. She sent me $50 from her first paycheck, promising more as soon as she could get it to me.
Things at my own job were tense. The fun-loving startup culture I’d thought I was entering was neither of those things at the core, and it was wearing me down. I started searching for jobs gradually, thinking I had time to figure things out. I was wrong.
May 8th, 2018:
Right before the weekly catered lunch was about to begin, I was called into a small room and informed (in the most roundabout way possible) that I was being…Well. Not fired. I suppose “laid off” is a closer match to the way it was handled. While I was ultimately grateful for this forced escape, I found myself suddenly unemployed with no prospects. With (once again) no safety net, I was forced to abandon my lease, move in with a close family friend, and wait to find out how to pay off yet another angry landlord.
The next payment to the collections company bounced. When Jenny called, seeking to get me back on track, I ignored her. Deleted the messages. Somewhere in my brain, between the sort-of-helping Sertraline and the not-yet-diagnosed ADHD, I felt that if I simply looked away, it would all disappear. Of course, it didn’t. But I’ll be honest guys; it was so nice to pretend that it could.
In case you wondered, my friend and her husband did get back together. They moved out of the state, and though she kept in contact and frequently spoke to me of taking over payments, or paying me back as soon as she could, nothing concrete ever happened. They seemed to always be one financial goal away from being able to take over: “As soon as we pay off X,” “Once I get out of training for my new job,” “As soon as his business makes a little more money,” etc..
Would you believe me if I said that this is the story of the best debt collectors in the world? At this point, you probably thought the story was about a girl who has a history of ignoring money problems until they completely derail her life. And while you might be right, that’s not all there is, at least, not this time. I did not make another payment for many, many, many months. In fact, I didn’t make another payment for the remainder of the year.
I did move out of the basement room I’d been renting and into a new apartment (Surprise! No history of the eviction came up!) with a friend I’d known (and even worked alongside) for many years. I knew her to be reliable, honest, and capable of paying her bills on time, which has proved to be true to this day.
Maybe when I was spending $200 on throw pillows it should have occurred to me to start paying on the old debt again. And maybe it did. Occur to me, that is. But at that point, I did nothing about it. It was on my to-do-later list. So for a long time, it didn’t get done.
For the first time in 6 months, when Jenny called me, I answered. I set up payments again, working them into my budget, and began, slowly but surely, paying the debt down again. Some interest appeared to have accrued, but not much, and the debt still wasn’t on my credit report. I mentioned it to my old roommate, who was now a mother to two, and she said that she was anticipating taking over in a few months. I hoped she meant it, but didn’t expect anything. We talked about her sweet new baby, reminiscing about when we’d lived together when her first child was hardly bigger than this one. We tried to ignore the places our friendship was still cracked.
Since leasing our apartment in October, my new roommate and I had had a running joke. For context: I work in a large call center and she teaches preschoolers. Naturally, we decided that we would be the breeding ground for the world’s next superflu. Maybe a higher power got sick of hearing our joke, because midway through March, we each caught the common cold…which somehow morphed into something that caused us to completely lose our voices, eventually ending in weeks of bronchitis. While I was miraculously able still pay my bills that month, despite missing a week and a half of work, I was walking a fine line financially, and everything was about to get much worse.
Remember that lease I abandoned? Due to a series of events that were mostly my fault, I found myself suddenly facing wage garnishment, meaning that my already tight budget was now sitting thoroughly negative. Bills started bouncing. And, you guessed it, Jenny was soon leaving messages again. But something was different this time.
My friend sent me a message one morning shortly after, requesting contact information for the company that held mine and her husband’s debt. Within a week, she had started paying, and the phone calls stopped.
Honestly, I couldn’t believe it at first. It had been so long coming that it seemed surreal. Like when you spend years waiting for your 21st birthday, and then it comes and goes and suddenly you’re 22 and still dumbfounded every time you have to say so. But it was real. And just in time, too.
With the garnishment (finally) over, I was looking forward to enjoying the two raises I’d received over the last five months but had never actually seen in paycheck form. It was then that I received a call I didn’t expect. Turns out that while my friend was making regular payments, there was no active payment plan. Which meant that the debt would have to be reported to the credit bureaus (company policy, or something) unless one was put into effect.
My friend and I talked about it, we both made some phone calls, but ultimately, I ended up setting a payment plan back up. Maybe I didn’t have to. But the same math that had applied almost two years ago still applies now. I’m lucky to have avoided the credit hit that I should’ve received. I wasn’t going to waste that luck.
What I’ve Learned:
As I write this today, a debt that started at $2,400 has only about $500 left. My roommate and I are both making payments, and the debt will be completely paid off by mid-December. She has agreed to pay me back the additional payments I’m making now, and while I don’t really expect that to happen, I’m hopeful that it will. Either way, this whole thing is almost behind me, and while I didn’t make the best choices along the way, I learned a lot.
I learned, over and over, the importance of a safety net. I learned to distinguish between friends you hang out with and friends you trust with your financial security.
Don’t put your name on a lease you can’t comfortably afford on your own.
Don’t ignore red flags.
And no matter how much you love and trust someone, don’t expect them to change.
And perhaps the most important lesson: Allow yourself to grow. I got stuck in the mindset that I was simply incapable of ever having money. I honestly believed that I was on an endless spiral into permanent debt. And now, with the two largest debts I’ve ever faced fading in the rear-view mirror, I’m realizing that the end was in sight all along. I was just too busy beating myself up to see it.
JoAnn is a 20-something living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her favorite thing to do is sleep, but if you’re interviewing her she’ll probably say that she loves reading more than anything (which is almost true). Someday she plans to (not) retire running a 24-hour bookstore in Newport, OR, which she would argue is the best town on earth.
Image via Unsplash