GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2005
In the Solution
Facing Your Financial Problems
After yet another night of tossing and turning, John is aware of the first faint light of dawn streaking through the curtains. It is nearly morning now, and yet another night has passed without deep sleep. John crawls out of bed and stumbles to the shower. As usual, he is agonizing over his financial problems. He wonders whether his mind, body, and soul will have the stamina to get him through yet another day.
John is a sole practitioner, and at age 49 he finds himself over his head in debt: credit card bills, mortgage payments, car payments, utilities, student loans, etc. Normally a professional’s professional, John has begun parking his car a few blocks away from home because he has missed some car payments. In order to deal with the bill collectors, he has installed Caller I.D. on all of his phones, both at the office and at home. John cannot believe where he is financially. He describes himself as a frugal lawyer. After a number of harsh life events, however, John finds himself going deeper and deeper into a financial hole. As he put it, “my bills are sticking to me like Velcro; the pawn shop is becoming my shop of choice!” The pressure, anxiety, and tension are straining every aspect of John’s already stressful life.
Money worries can create enormous stress, particularly when they threaten your home, your business, and even your family. Financial difficulties can be created by events beyond your control, such as low income, low cash flow, job loss, litigation, health problems, overspending, and even turbulent world affairs.
Asked which emotions they most often associate with money, 71 percent of the 20,000 people surveyed for Psychology Today listed anxiety. Another 52 percent listed depression, and 51 percent listed anger. (The survey allowed for more than one response.) Those most stressed by money—and they were not necessarily jobless—complained of increased fatigue, insomnia, headaches, and other stress-related complaints.
Researchers are beginning to calculate precisely how much damage is being done by such stress. In November 2004 the Family Credit Counseling Service of Rockford, Illinois, commissioned the Impulse Research Corporation of Los Angeles, California, to survey consumers with credit card debts. Nearly 25 percent of these 1,590 people had debts exceeding $10,000. More than 75 percent experienced some type of physical symptom they attributed to the financial strain. Headaches, inability to concentrate, and nausea were the most common symptoms. Furthermore, nearly 35 percent reported trouble concentrating at work, and 17 percent acknowledged spending time at work dealing with financial troubles. Some credit-repair clients even threatened suicide.
Job loss, low salary, illness, unforeseen life events—whatever the cause, economic upheaval is impacting many within our own legal community. If you are one of those affected, rest assured that digging out of debt is not an insurmountable challenge. The solution begins with an attitude adjustment and a declaration of personal revolution.
Such a revolution can be undertaken in small steps, but it requires a plan, along with persistence, focus, commitment, and vision. By dealing with financial problems head-on, your standing with creditors will improve while you relieve the stress of worrying.
Tips for Working Through the Debts
The tips below are a good place to start when formulating your plan.
• Get help. Discover what services are out there to assist you.
• Prioritize. Decide what things constitute essentials and what are extra. This will allow you to budget for the important things such as health costs, housing, utilities, and food, while delaying or eliminating non-essential items.
• Communicate and negotiate for yourself. Rather than dodging your collector’s calls, negotiate a lower interest rate. Keep records of all communications.
• Don’t be afraid to downsize. Someone will do it eventually, and it may as well be you. Your chattels may be worth cash.
• Consider a part-time job. This allows for additional cash flow. Heck, lots of people work part-time jobs just to get out and meet people.
• Use cash instead of credit. Research has found that people who pay with cash instead of plastic spend 12 percent to 18 percent less whenever they shop.
• Consider bankruptcy. Bankruptcy may be a last solution. As a general rule, it’s probably best not to represent yourself; if you decide to go this route, however, be sure to check with your state’s rules of professional conduct and ethics prior to taking the plunge.
Tips for Working Through the Stress
The way that you cope with financial stress is as important as how you deal with the payment of creditors.
• Take responsibility. You are responsible for your own thoughts, actions, feelings, and decisions—as well as their consequences. Unless you take responsibility, you will not strive to change what can be changed. Rather, you will remain in a cycle of blaming other people or life events for the way you think and feel. You are not a victim.
• Learn acceptance. Accept that you cannot control every situation and learn to be flexible in your thinking. We all have needs, even lawyers, and when these become too demanding we can burn out.
• Manage worry. When it comes to managing worry, the famous “Serenity Prayer” gets it right: Find the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
• Don’t wallow. Rather than feeling sorry for yourself and focusing on what you don’t have, focus on what you do.
• Turn it over. Spirituality, through prayer and/or meditation, can soothe the mind and calm the soul.
• Eat well. Eat a well-balanced diet and limit sugar.
• Get sufficient rest. Rest is imperative to maintain health and stamina.
• Move a muscle; change a mood. Try to include moderate exercise into each day to boost your energy level and improve your mood.
• Relax. Make time for relaxation. Listen to soothing music. Play with your pet. Read a novel. Watch a comedy. Laugh!
• Avoid unhealthy substances. You know the usual suspects: tobacco, alcohol, drugs, etc.
• Ask for assistance. If you are having trouble coping on your own, help is available from many sources. Professional assistance from a counselor or lawyer assistance professional is often necessary. This does not imply weakness. It simply indicates that the particular situation is just too overwhelming to handle on your own, and you need coaching to get through it.
A Winning Scenario
Our attorney John decided to get a handle on his situation using the tips above. Furthermore, John learned to take one day at a time, as well as one thing at a time—he knows that he can’t resolve all his problems at once. Solving one problem at a time gives a sense of control over a situation.
Important also, John kept occupied, active, and involved. Helping others (through volunteer work with local or state bar associations, church groups, or community projects) kept him positive and helped him build feelings of self-worth. For John the most valuable life/business lessons came from facing up to the challenges while planning and implementing his own personal revolution against debt.
You can do it, too.
Carol P. Waldhauser is assistant director of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Lawyer Assistance Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.