The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Mon, 12 Jul 2004 The Long Hot Summer

Good afternoon, loyal reader. It is another fine day, if you call mid-80s and humid fine. It is finally starting to feel like summer, after a strangely cold June and first part of July. If the temperature gets as high above normal as it was as below normal for the last six weeks, we're going to be in a lot of trouble. Grace is entering the 3rd trimester and is not able to tolerate heat and humidity; she tends to wake up nauseated (nothing like some dry-heaving to start the day off right).

Our other big news is that I'm unemployed. I have been receiving Michigan unemployment: the first time in my life I've ever had to actually use the system. We received our first check and should get a second this week. It was considerably easier to apply and receive this benefit than I thought it would be.

I'm grateful to have it, but there is a complication, of course; it will pay us about $1,200 per month. That's very helpful. But our rent costs $1,000 per month, and we need to put about $850 towards debts each month to maintain the consolidated debt plan we set up two years ago. Then, there are the matters of food, utilities, car repairs (non-trivial at the moment), and all other expenses.

Among these other expenses are creditors hounding us for payment for my brief hospital stay last year, which we thought was covered by our insurance at the time.

It was, for some definition of "covered," which in reality meant "mostly not covered." I'm not used to this; in the past, every medical expense I have had was entirely covered, or required small co-payments.

But now we're being hounded; the creditors are threatening some kind of court action unless we pay them $5,000. Well, we don't have $5,000, so they're not going to get it -- for the time being, at least. I suppose they may be able to legally garnish my unemployment. Maybe they will put me in jail. I hear they are doing that to debtors again. I hope it is air- conditioned and they will let me write letters.

Which brings me back to the fundamental problem of unemployment. If I understand its ostensible purpose, it is supposed to pay me enough to stay afloat while I spend all my time finding a job. But of course I have, in reality, been putting a great deal of time into trying to get enough money to make ends meet in the short term. This has involved, in part, running around selling off, or trying to sell off, a lot of our possessions. We've gotten rid of all of our records, almost every bit of my remaining music gear, video tapes, and boxes and boxes of books. I've sold a few small items on eBay as well.

Those things that we can't sell, we've been donating, recycling, or just throwing away. We want to be ready to move on short notice. And of course with Grace feeling sick and tired much of the time, a great deal of my energy has gone into cooking and home-schooling. So I am feeling quite overwhelmed, and am not feeling on top of my job search.

And, this late-breaking news. Re: our debt consolidation agent, Take Charge America (formerly CCOA, Credit Counselors of America). It turns out that although we have sent them statements religiously, and paid them religiously, they have only received our last set of statements, which we had to fax multiple times. After two years, in which we assumed they were checking up on the agreements with creditors that they negotiated on our behalf, they have finally done some looking, after some serious prodding. We prodded because it did not appear that some of the creditors, such as Citibank, were acting in accordance with the agreement.

Silly me; I had thought that TCA must be using a sophisticated computer modeling tool, like... oh, I don't know... Excel... to track our progress, and was using our statements to verify that progress. Instead they apparently lost 18 months worth of statements, failed to tell us, and didn't bother to do... well, much of anything. Well, that's not quite true: they've been deducting $585 from our bank account each month, and paying it to the creditors. That's something; at least the creditors are being paid on a regular schedule. But it is less than we expected.

Anyway, we're supposed to send them our statements, for those creditors which still send us statements, quarterly. We've done that: we faxed them. Something on the other end received them. TCA claims they did not receive the faxed statements; they never verified that the creditors were complying; in fact, they didn't even tell us that one creditor was insisting on receiving $4.00 more per month before reducing the interest rate, and thus has charged us 13% interest for the last two years.

They also didn't notice that Citibank was charging us 19.9% instead of the agreed-upon 9.9%. And they haven't attempted to get MBNA, who was charging too much and eventually corrected their interest rate, to credit us per our original agreement.

In other words, it isn't enough if Citibank is caught charging twice the negotiated interest rate and made to reduce the rate; they agreed to a negotiated settlement in which we paid X at Y interest. They must recalculate and correct our balance to match what our balance would have been had they been complying with the agreement from the outset.

Because of creditor non-compliance and TCA's apathetic enforcement, they've told us that it is going to take approximately another 3.5 years, instead of two years, until we are debt-free. We thought we were at the halfway point. In other words, a 37.5% increase in the time, and thus the money, we originally planned to pay. That's more than just a rounding error.

My suspicion is that our account rep is simply losing the statements to lessen her workload, and only responding when customers are angry enough to gripe to her supervisors. It is eerily similar to the behavior of our Medicaid rep: lose the evidence. The dog ate my homework.

So we'll try to follow up aggressively; if the creditors aren't complying, and won't pay the agreed amounts, we'll write to them ourselves; if that doesn't work, we'll have TCA drop them from the agreement and inform them that they won't get paid. I'm all for personal responsibility; we want to pay our debts. But I'm not willing to pay these debts indefinitely, at whatever rate our creditors think they can get away with.

So we've got one more thing to worry about. I've got to make up spreadheets for each of nine different creditors and try to extract information from TCA; I've got to follow up on both the creditors that send us statements and those that don't.

As if unemployment, pregnancy, a mountain of 1099-MISC income upon which I can't afford to pay the taxes, and a mountain of medical bills weren't enough.

On the positive side, some of our friends and relatives have been exceedingly generous; we've gotten assistance with our utility bills (air conditioning is essential if Grace is to be functional); we've gotten help with groceries; we've even been given maternity clothes, and even a working car to help us out. That's wonderful.

Now, on to the job search. The job market does seem to be picking up, and that's good. However, what I see more of are postings like this one:

"We have the following Immediate Job Openings in our highly esteemed organization.

Six Java/J2EE consultants. Atleast three years of experience in above technologies. Required Skills: experience in Websphere and WAS is a must. Candidates who are willing to Transfer H1 will also be considered. we will give Training in hot and current technologies. Candidates should be willing to relocate any where in USA."

There's often some strange catch: either "willing to relocate to [sic] any where in USA," or they want seven years of experience and 65% travel but they only want to pay $30,000, or the requirements are so specific, mentioning a dozen acronyms I've never heard of, that I am not eligible by any stretch.

What I'm really looking for is an employer that wants a long-term relationship, not a one-night stand; in other words, I want dinner and a movie before I get screwed. I want to be an employee; I want health benefits for my family; I want a salary that will enable us to pay off our debts. It would also be nice if the job involved something I was even remotely interested in and did not involve a terrible commute. (We've seen in many of our friends what that does to a family).

At the moment we're considering moving. Grace really wants to live in New England again. I'm game if I can find a decent job and place to live. I feel like Ann Arbor no longer offers us much except some friendships.

One possibility is Providence, RI: I have applied for an instructional design job at Brown University. I have a phone interview scheduled next Monday. The job sounds potentially interesting, although there are downsides: it is temporary, leading to a possible permanent position, without benefits. We would need to try to get Grace enrolled in some kind of equivalent Medicaid program in Rhode Island. If I take that job and it doesn't lead to a permanent position, I'll be in the same position again, but with a newborn baby, although (we hope) in better financial shape.

Another possibility that caught my eye is an opening at the Field School in Washington, DC. DC is expensive but there is good public transport. I have cousins in the area who might help us move. The Field School job looks interesting because although it is a system administration job, the school's web site indicates they are open to combinations involving teaching. In other words there is a possibility I could run their computers and also teach computer programming. Unfortunately I have not yet managed to get an interview for that job, but I'm going to hound them.

I'll continue in another weblog entry and discuss a little bit more the kind of job I'm looking for. Meanwhile, wish us luck, or if you are the praying type, please pray for us.

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