Off the Shelf

by Lynn McKeown

A. M. Harris, The Broke Man’s Survival Guide, 2005, Amhar Publications Group, $14.95.

We’re hearing many news reports these days about the widening gap between the rich and poor. There are changes going on in the economy (as we in the Galesburg area know very well) that bring job-loss to working men and women. We are also hearing of the problems of middle class people when they face crises of divorce or illness — we’re well aware that medical bills can be financially catastrophic.

There are many circumstances, not just careless spending, that get people into money trouble. The Broke Man’s Survival Guide, subtitled "50 Clever Strategies to Use When You Are Unemployed, Underpaid or Just Dead Broke and Can’t Pay Your Bills," aims to provide assistance to people who have hit the wall financially.

The book is made up of 50 short, pointed chapters, a page or two in length, giving "strategies" about dealing with extreme debt. The author (an African-American woman, if it is of any relevance) says in her introduction that this is not a book on economical cost-cutting and "debt rehab." Rather it deals with the urgent daily realities of being without money — or enough of it — to exist with a modicum of decency, especially how to deal with collection agencies’ harassment.

This reviewer has never been in quite the extreme position The Broke Man’s Survival Guide aims to help, but this book was eye-opening about the way people in debt are hounded by debt collectors. Harris relates a story of a divorced woman trying to pay off a huge credit card bill left by her ex-husband and taking a call from a debt collector who said: "’Look, fat lady, it’s obvious that you could stand to skip a few meals. Just send me your food bill for one week to wipe out this debt!’ The lady was horrified — not so much by his remarks because she was accustomed to the debt collector being rude to her over the phone — but by his comment regarding her size. How did he know she was overweight? Had he been stalking her?" Harris doesn’t claim all debt collectors are this malicious, but it’s apparently not an extreme rarity.

The author is rather negative about both "debt counselors" and bankruptcy lawyers. Harris believes that those in debt can manage their own problems with a little thought and effort, without paying the debt counselor’s fee. And she is also negative about bankruptcy, especially since it creates a bad credit report for many years. (The book was obviously written before Congress’ current bankruptcy-tightening bill, which makes the process even more difficult.)

Harris details the way collection agencies can be at best a nuisance and at worst obnoxious and deceitful, and about the various tricks and strategies of collection agencies and car repossessors. Like sending a notice you qualify for a free oil change — then when you bring in the car, it’s repossessed. She also urges people in debt to get familiar with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which is supposed to protect debtors from the more extreme form of harassment, insults and deviousness that some debt collectors employ.

Many of Harris’s "strategies" are themselves rather devious, though she stops short of anything outright illegal. She suggests, for instance, that debtors change their phone number, get caller ID and take other steps to avoid the harassment of collection agency phone calls. She also suggests strategies for avoidance of repossession of a car, such as hiding it or switching cars with a friend. Many of the "strategies" are less extreme but ones readers may not be aware of, such as dealing with creditors to make payments over time or reaching a written agreement to settle for a lesser amount.

Most of The Broke Man’s Survival Guide is concerned with practical "strategies" for dealing with the problems of debt — only near the end does the author give some more general advice and morale-boosting, accompanied by her own debt problem experience and how she dealt with it. (As a college student she fell into the common mistake of obtaining many credit cards and overusing them.) There are a few minor misprints or editing lapses in this book, but it still struck this reviewer as a good investment even for someone short of funds.

Some would say that many of the author’s "strategies" and the book itself are unethical. To that, one could answer that the bankruptcy bill now on its way through Congress is also unethical, seeing as how members of the Republican-controlled Congress have received large campaign contributions from credit-card companies, while that same Congress has resisted tighter regulation on such companies.

The Broke Man’s Survival Guide is available from the publisher (P.O. Box 735, Matteson, IL 60443; add $3 shipping after May 1st) and may be available in some libraries and bookstores.