With dread, I dialed the debt relief number and waited, fidgeting, as it rang to parts unknown.
A click. I held my breath when the automated voice announced that this call might be recorded for quality assurance.
Big Brother was listening, and I should avoid swearing.
A moment later, a man with what sounded like a New Jersey accent warily said hello and asked the purpose of my call. I thought (again) that this was a mistake, but since I was already uncomfortable, why quit now?
After a breath, I gushed about the poster on the break room wall at West Virginia Public Broadcasting and what I was doing.
The number which had brought me to him, I explained, was part of a list of phone numbers offering free financial services for everything from child-support enforcement and mortgage payment assistance to student loan relief and credit score improvement.
I didn’t need those. I’d paid off my student loans years ago and nobody owed me child support.
I told him I’d looked at the poster a million times and I wasn’t sure if debt relief was something I even needed, but I wanted to hear more about it.
“OK,” he said, kindly. He had a couple of questions first.
Looking at some of those extra expenses
After speaking with Death, Sex & Money podcast host Anna Sale about the difficulty of talking about money, I’d had some conversations with myself on the subject.
Over the past year, I thought I’d made some steps in the right direction. I’d paid down and cleared some debt, and modestly begun to save a few bucks in hopes of warding off the occasional catastrophe.
I get a good catastrophe every six months or so — fate tends to schedule it right before Christmas and then again somewhere between the middle of June and the middle of July.
My heat went out in December. I look forward to a sink hole developing in my backyard or a meteor strike near West Virginia Day.
Paying down debts and putting a little bit aside was good. Everybody said it was, but was I really doing enough?
I didn’t really have a plan, so I started making a list of the things — debts, utilities and then services.
A lot of it seemed immutable. I could do next to nothing about the mortgage, the car payment, or the required insurance, minus scaling back to a covered wagon and a yak.
I planned to continue using water and electricity, though not at the same time, generally. But yes, I had a few non-essential expenses, including a handful of streaming services, a subscription to the New York Times and a gym membership.
I briefly considered paring back my digital services. I pay for Netflix and HBO Max and get complimentary access to Hulu and Disney through my phone company.
I also pay a yearly fee for Amazon Prime, which is offset, I think, by what I save in shipping, time slogging through crowds and travel costs.
Walmart is a 30-minute drive from my house. Even before the pandemic, my enchantment with the place had waned somewhat. Sometimes you just don’t feel like being judged for buying waders, fishing hooks and 5 pounds of gummy bears while in your pajamas.
And people judge. Even at Walmart, people judge.
It’s a lot of TV, but I rationalize having all of those the streaming services because I don’t have cable television. My hours in the evening tend to be irregular and following a network program schedule would be impossible, plus I’m spoiled.
I’d rather watch a show when I want to than wait until Thursday night at nine.
Besides, online access is a utility now, a necessity, and streaming is a less expensive alternative to cable bundles.
I also pay to stream music and have satellite radio in my car. I enjoy both services, but they also help me try to stay somewhat aware of new music, particularly new artists coming to West Virginia.
There’s been less of that lately, obviously.
With the gym membership, I go. It’s as simple as that. I haul my scruffy, bleary-eyed self to CrossFit WV four or five mornings each week to complain, sweat, strain and gradually improve.
Some people can stay in shape by working out in their living room. That hasn’t worked for me.
With the New York Times, I get the beejesus scared out of me at least twice a day — sometimes three.
Occasionally, there’s a cool recipe.
Some of that was negotiable. I called customer service and got a discount on my digital newspaper and the satellite radio provider. This saved around twenty bucks a month, not exactly a fortune, but twenty bucks is twenty bucks.
I also decided to put Amazon Prime on the watch list. If I ordered less stuff from Amazon, maybe I would cancel the Prime service when the renewal came around again in the fall.
Weight loss and the wallet
Really, the place in my “budget” with the most wiggle room seemed to be my groceries.
After the fresh food in my refrigerator vanished, I’d been making do with beans, pasta and rice — foods I’d come to avoid a few years ago, after I started watching what I ate.
As I’d learned a bit about nutrition and portion sizes, I’d almost abandoned some foods which had been staples of my diet because they were calorically dense and easy to overeat.
Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, zucchini and salmon replaced the white rice, beans and noodles.
But rice, pasta and beans are a lot cheaper than fresh veggies or fish.
While my meals have tended toward bland over the past month, they’ve also been significantly cheaper.
I missed the crunch of a good apple, but I could see that if I balanced my diet a little better, ate a few more bowls of rice, I could probably cut my grocery bill — if that’s what I really wanted.
Food has been a funny thing during this month. Because I’m not buying groceries, friends have worried about whether I was eating and have kindly offered to take me out to lunch or bring me groceries.
I’ve generally declined offers for groceries, though Bill Rainey offered to drop off another fruitcake and there was no way I was turning that down.
Also, my friend Autumn sent a care package containing spices I’d run out of and a bag of coffee after I mentioned that my supply would dry up in a few days.
Nobody wants me without coffee. I don’t want me without coffee.
But I was managing fine, otherwise.
After I explained why I’d called, the man with the Jersey accent asked where I was calling from. I told him Charleston, West Virginia.
“Oh,” he said. “We’re not licensed to service West Virginia.”
“Sorry,” he said. “We don’t service West Virginia.”
Then why would the poster be in the break room?
“What states do you serve?” I sputtered.
“Other states,” he told me.
I had nothing. Finally, he just told me, “Good luck.”
After a search, I found an alternative to the number on the poster: the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which could maybe help someone restructure debt and set up a consolidated payment plan.
I fumbled around on the site for a while, found some useful online tools for setting budgets and calculating money spent on things like meals out and entertainment, but decided that debt wasn’t all that interesting to me.
I was distracted. Valentine’s Day was coming up and what was I supposed to do about that?