Escaping the U.S. Credit Nightmare

  Personal Finance section

Oct. 12, 2008

By Barbara R. Drake

One of the pleasures of moving to Peru last July (2007) was escaping the flurry of credit offers that used to besiege our mailbox in Florida.

Each afternoon I’d grab the stack of new mail and spend a good 15 minutes going through the envelopes. There’d be offers for new credit cards, adjustable-rate mortgages on our home, home-equity lines of credit, cash-out refinances.

I had never asked for any of the lenders to send me the offers; they arrived unsolicited, in droves. Sometimes the offers were very tempting. Once our mortgage company, the illustrious IndyMac, sent an overnight package offering to lend us more than double the value of our home. The letter in the packet urged my husband and me to take advantage of this “special offer” and to “reap the rewards of responsible home ownership.”

The loan sum being dangled in front of us made my eyes swim.

I gulped and shoved the letter into the shredding machine I kept by the front door.

Each month there were more come-ons.

By 2005 we were getting seven to ten mortgage refi offers per week. I spent so much time shredding, I began to resent it. I didn’t have a choice, though; the companies’ letters contained sensitive information I didn’t want anyone else to read.

Ripping up credit offers became a part-time (unpaid) job. And all over the country, millions of people were doing the same thing: ripping up offers or falling for them.

It became an achievement not to take on more debt.

Television began to feature lots of strange commercials during 2004, 2005, 2006. The Ditech people were screaming for homeowners to refinance; sometimes I wondered if there weren’t subliminal messages in the ads commanding viewers, “Go into debt now.”

I also began to see a lot of ads for sleeping aids. Ads with butterflies and drowsy music and assurances that this pill or another would send you into a dreamless sleep. I had never seen so many ads for sleeping pills before, not in the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s.

People in America couldn’t sleep, apparently. The nation was troubled. And the dual panaceas — extended credit and sleeping aids — weren’t enough to keep the nightmares at bay.

Flash forward to 2007 when my husband and I sold our house in Gainesville, packed our stuff on a shipping container and moved to Peru.

Our friends and family didn’t get it. Why Peru? they asked.

The war, the economy, I said. They still looked puzzled. Some friends pitied us. We were moving to a Third World Country, without jobs, to a place where people didn’t speak English. Was this really what we wanted?

I wasn’t sure when we arrived in July 2007. But my immediate sensation was one of relief.

It felt good to be in a country that wasn’t at war. It felt good to be in a country that wasn’t pretending it wasn’t at war. It took moving to Peru for me to realize how heavily the bloodshed in Iraq and Afganistan hangs over one’s psyche as an American.

Soon after, we rented a house in Lima and started receiving mail. It was a trickle compared to what we typically had received in the United States.

The second realization hit me: No more credit offers!

My days of shredding envelopes from Capital One, Citi, AmeriTrust and other greedy lenders are over. It is a great feeling to be free of that American imperative to Spend, Spend, Spend.

Now that the U.S. economy is unraveling and the mortage/credit fiasco is taking other world economies along with it, I am angry and disgusted with the financiers who engineered this mess.

Some people blame ordinary Americans for taking on too much debt and not controlling their spending. I won’t blame the victims. The predatory lending spree took place in an environment with no oversight and little consumer protection. Offers were shoved down people’s throats, and while some people did take on too much debt to finance luxuries, plenty of people used their inflated credit lines simply to pay the bills, buy gas and put groceries on the table.

When 9/11 hit, George Bush told the nation to go to the malls and spend, to prop up the economy. Americans did as they were told, and then we were told to keeping spending.

Now that I’m in Peru and my ears no longer ring with the “Spend” mantra, I can better understand the unfairness of that dynamic.

I am thankful that we were able to leave the United States when we did. And I hope that Americans will be kind to one another and resist the urge to blame the homeowners who are going under. There but for the grace of god go I.

What should be done? I agree with economist Nouriel Roubini that the U.S. needs to create a federal home-owner’s mortgage program to provide massive debt relief to the household section. The US government did this during the Great Depression. My gut tells me this depression will be worse.

Furthermore, emerging economies like Peru should heed the U.S. crisis as a wake-up call. People in Peru don’t need high-interest credit cards. They need jobs, healthcare and security.

Without those basics, in 10 years they could find themselves trapped in their own credit nightmare.

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Barbara R. Drake is an author and freelance writer living in Lima, Peru, where she is studying the effects of climate change on Andean traditions. She formerly lived on Miami Beach (1991 – 2001) and in Gainesville, Florida (2001 – 2007). She blogs at An American in Lima.

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