Chapter One How Did We Get Here? Twenty-five years later, I still remember the day I got my first call from a collection department. I was a young stay-at-home mom. Our income had gone from sporadic to almost nonexistent in the recession of the early '80s, and the bills were piling up. By the time any money came in, it was spoken for many times over. I made a little cash watching two other babies along with my daughter. If I went to the grocery store with a twenty-dollar bill from babysitting, I thought I was really flush. I dreamed of being so rich someday that I could go to the grocery store any day of the month. When the phone rang that day, it was a collections officer of a national department store. She asked me why we hadn't paid our bill. I told her that the construction business was slow right now. "It's been slow for a long time," she scolded. "Why did you buy things you knew you couldn't pay for?" She went on, asking me what I had bought and reacting with scorn to each revelation. When she found out that I wasn't working full-time, she wanted to know why. The fact that I had a baby was to her just more evidence of my irresponsibility. Trying to be cooperative, I answered all her probing, personal questions. When she had ridiculed me enough, she hung up. I had never felt so humiliated. I didn't think of myself as poorI just didn't have any money right now. I lay across my bed and cried, wondering how it got this bad. Unfortunately, that phone call was only the beginning. In the following months, I learned to dread answering the phone. I left stacks of mail unopened. I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach all the time. I promised myself that I would never again complain about having bills to pay, if only I had the money to pay them with. I wish I had known then what I know now. I felt alone with this embarrassing problem, and I couldn't see a way out of it. Nobody told me how many other people find themselves in the same predicament, let alone how anyone manages to cope and get through such a situation. In my fear, humiliation, and hopelessness, I felt trapped. Eventually, I learned some lessons about managing money, and things began to slowly improve. We moved across the country for a steady job, and I was able to finish my college degree. We made a financial plan, and we paid off our debts. Nowadays when the phone rings, it's probably a friend. I am rich by the standards I set back then: I can buy groceries any day of the month! Still, I haven't forgotten how it felt to have bills I couldn't pay. Unbeknown to me, I had plenty of company in the hard times. The average American family owes over $8,000 in credit card debt, and the national savings rate was negative in 2005. Over a million and a half Americans declare bankruptcy every year,* and many more are struggling to survive from day to day. One of the following circumstances is enough to cause a financial crisisand a combination of two or more can be disastrous: Divorce. Some experts say that family breakups are the number one cause of poverty in America today. It's hard enough for two people to raise a family. A suddenly single parent can find the job overwhelming. Catastrophic accidents or illness. Medical bills not covered by insurance can devastate a family's finances. Even good health insurance may not cover all the expenses of a serious illness, such as travel and time off work for family members. Families reeling from a tragHerigstad, Sally is the author of 'Help! I Can't Pay My Bills Surviving A Financial Crisis', published 2006 under ISBN 9780312359287 and ISBN 0312359284.