Dear Mrs. Riches:
You couldn't ask for a friendlier guy than my kid brother, "Joe." The baby in our family at just 20 years old, Joe could be counted on to be the life of the party, to take care of our mom (he lavished her with flowers and gifts), and to say, with a grin, "How about some Outback?" What we didn't know was that all the little expenses added up; at the time of his death by suicide, Joe owed $14,000 total to three separate credit cards. While he didn't leave a note, we found a box of past-due statements and collections threats by his bed.
Now that he's gone, I'm angry. Angry at myself for never questioning, angry at him for not asking for help, and angry at the credit card companies for not saying "no" to someone without the means to take on that kind of debt. Can you please get the word out to folks that credit card debt is no laughing matter?
-- Grieving Sister
Dear Grieving Sister:
I am so sorry for the loss of your brother. Stories like yours are a sobering reminder that credit card debt can have incredibly serious consequences, well beyond a damaged credit rating. Just watch the film Maxed Out, James Scurlock's documentary about the politics and pressures of credit card debt. You'll see several more families grieving the loss of loved ones whose debt led them to commit suicide.
But in sad cases like these, knowing you're not alone doesn't make it better. It just reminds us that there is something very wrong with how reliant we've become on our plastic, how little we prepare our nation's youth to assume such buying power, and how poorly lenders treat the most vulnerable among us; allowing people to borrow beyond their means is less a gift than it is a crime.
Losing someone you love never gets easier, but working for a cause in his memory can at least help you cope. Think about other ways you can get the word out about your brother. Encourage your school system to teach kids about the perils of credit, the pitfalls of compounding interest, and the benefits of saving as part of their math classes. Contact your legislators about laws and initiatives that could help put the lid on dubious lending practices.
As for the rest of us, it's important to be aware that a friend or family member may be at risk for cracking under the weight of too much debt. Don't look the other way when you see spending that's out of line with someone's income. While asking questions and offering help may not change a thing, at least you'll know that you did what you could.
Worried about someone you know who may be drowning in debt? Check out the FTC's website for helpful information on consumer rights, credit repair, and ways to find a reputable debt-management counselor.
We also have a number of resources right here at the Fool for understanding credit and handling debt. Try:
Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. The Fool has a disclosure policy.