Taking Credit when Credit is Due and the Story of My Debt

by Elisabeth

On a bright and sunny 1995 summer’s day I entered a banking institution in Port Coquitlam to open my first bank account.  I can’t remember the decision making process that got me there, I only know that up until then I was a member of my local credit union, and banking was not something I spent much time thinking about. But I was 18 years old and getting ready to leave for university in Victoria. With my blonde platinum blonde hair, baby-doll dress, and combat boots on, I marched in to get a bank account and a student loan. I signed countless pages with multiple carbon copies. They told me that I need a credit card. I signed more pages. I left the bank with no concrete idea of what happened. I was excited about the credit card and remarked how incredibly painless the whole thing had been. The loan made university official. But I was 18 and more concerned about leaving my boyfriend.

In 1999, on an overcast September day in Victoria, I was in a panic. Over $500 was debited from my bank account and I had no idea what was going on. It was my rent money. When I phoned my bank they informed me that this was my first student loan repayment. Even though I was still in school, having added on a minor in English, they had calculated that I should be graduated, working, and ready to pay back. I didn’t see it coming. Throughout my university career I had been changing homes roughly every 4-8 months chasing work in other places during my summers, and returning to Victoria for school. Mail may have been sent, but I didn’t get it. Now I was out $500.  There was no way to get it back. This was a small premonition of what was to come.

By 2003, during an intense but all-consuming job working and living onboard a passenger train, I found it hard to keep up with the student loan interest relief paperwork. I had quit school, later returning for a last class, all the while staying my payments with paperwork to receive interest relief. The paperwork forced you to give excuses why you couldn’t pay, and you had to get someone to corroborate that you were indeed, poor. Living onboard a train meant that was hard to even get mail, and this was before stuff like this really hit the internet. I was working 18 hour days, every day, stopping briefly in different towns and cities across Canada, the US, and at some periods, Mexico. When we weren’t working we were off the train, in restaurants and bars, with only a few hours of freedom until the train left the station. It is around this time that I started ignoring the mammoth debt. I was living everywhere and nowhere. I was hard to wrap my mind around responsibility and finances.

By the time I got the calls from collections, it was around 2006 or 2007, I’m not sure when but I was living in Montreal. I was dirt poor, on EI at the time. The fact that I had let things go with my loan was a distant monster- I had no credit card- but I was living like the loan didn’t exist. When I got the call, I felt like I had been caught. They wanted money and I didn’t have any. After anxiety, tears, and lots of fear, I started paying what I could. I dreamed of the 10 years being up, when I could go bankrupt and be free of the shackles of the debt.

I had been paying a nominal amount until 2012, because my 10 years were almost up. I made an appointment with a bankruptcy lawyer only to find out that the laws had changed at some point. My decision to try to do continuing education at McGill screwed me out of the bankruptcy option; I would have to wait another 10 years. While I had read that continuing education wouldn’t affect my ability to go bankrupt, it turned out that the laws changed and now it did! But the bankruptcy officer was candid with me. She told me that bankruptcy, even at the best of times, was likely not an option.

“They want you to pay, no matter what, so they are likely to deny your bankruptcy.”

I had always thought that this was the only way I would get rid of my debt, since I was so used to making barely anything and having very little. I confess part of the problem is that I don’t have a mind for money, nor have I had very much dough for most of my life. The idea of paying $500, $700 was unthinkable when I couldn’t afford glasses, or at times, food. That mentality- the hopelessness of my situation, is part of the reason I kept my head in the sand. I couldn’t face it. It was so big, and I was so scared.

Then, realizing that I could never run away from the problem, I settled in to accepting that I may be paying it down for the rest of my life. Not paying it was never going to be an option.

Yesterday, I sat in my cubicle with a feeling of overall defeat that lead-weighted me to my chair. I had been crying. Not even my high-stress job could touch me there. Emotionally I was spent. I conquered a long standing fear and finally went to the bank to see if I could get a secured credit card to build my credit whilst I paid off my debt. I was told that until my debt is 100% paid, I can’t get one.  In hindsight it makes sense. Why would they allow me to build my credit when I still owe them money? Tears came rushing down, as I sat in the hopelessness and shame of it. I was so stupid to allow it to go to collections. Why couldn’t I have just dealt with it when it mattered? Nobody (not even the banks) explained to me how any of this worked. The internet was no help either, offering only sales pitches for different options, or options that do not pertain to me. I’m not making excuses. I take full responsibility for the mess I made of my finances, but a lot of that mess was made when I was less confident, less capable, less established in my life. A lot of it was made without really knowing what I was doing, or the consequences of my ignorance. Oh yeah, and I was also poor.

So having been told that the $50K albatross has been fitted securely around my neck for an indeterminate amount of time, I sat with this new reality. Like when the optometrist asks you which is better, and flashes two different lenses for you to look for, things got a little clearer. 36 years old and can’t even get a phone contract. My best friend said “nothing has really changed,” which was true, but it felt as if I’d crossed over into a new place. There was no turning back.

Debt is more of a mental construct than a physical one. There are ways to get around a lack of credit, as I have been doing for years now. The challenge is the mental part of it. I still don’t know how to tackle this. Inside all I feel is defiance. While I worry that I don’t make the right decisions because there is so much I don’t know or understand, I’ve also been forced to be pretty good with what little money I have. I don’t have a lot of financial options (no chance for a loan, or a credit card to dig me out of this rut) except to continue to pay what I can afford. Another moment where I wish I was in a relationship (preferably with a financial consultant.) If anyone is going to get me out of this, though, it’s me.

Truthfully, I don’t know how I’m going to deal with this new awareness of reality. The consolation is that I’m employed and have my health, my friends, my kitty, and am able to have a glass of wine on Feb. 1st. Despite this mental setback, my life- debt and all- is pretty rich.