The Sad Tale of Clarence and Evita

by Joe Plemon on April 26, 2010

Been here before!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Let Ideas Compete

Clarence and Evita (not real names) came to see me recently for financial counseling. As they entered my office, I noticed that Evita walked slowly, with a noticeable limp. Clarence, white hair with matching full beard, offered friendly banter. After introductions, I asked them what their short term financial goals were.

Short Term Goals

They looked at each other, then Clarence offered, “Get our bills paid.”

“What kinds of bills?” I asked.

“Well, you know…house payments … car payments.”

“Is that all?”

“Well”, Evita spoke up, “credit card bills too.”

“OK” I said, “we will come back to that in a minute. How about your long term goals?”

Long Term Goals

Clarence said he would like to retire from his maintenance position in two years. Evita added that she would like to get their house and credit cards all paid for in five years. I learned that Clarence is 60 years old and Evita is 59.

“Sounds like good goals” I commented, mentally noting that I would like for them to have the house and other debt paid off BEFORE retirement. “Let’s dig in.”

Crunching numbers

So we dug. Evita produced a spreadsheet printout intended to show their situation. I commended her for her initiative. Although I normally use my own software to help gain understanding of clients’ situations, I decided to honor Evita’s efforts by examining her numbers. Unfortunately, they were unorganized, sketchy and incomplete. I learned that they had $23,000 in credit card debt and were current on their payments. After asking lots of questions and adding the numbers, I determined that they had more money going out than coming in…and groceries were not even listed.

I stopped, took a breath and stated, “You are using credit cards to buy your groceries with, aren’t you?”

They looked at each other then Evita said, “Yes…but how did you know?”

“You are spending more than you are making and we haven’t even factored in your groceries.  In order to stay current, you have to be paying your bills with your income and then using credit cards to buy essentials with. This means you are going deeper in the hole every month. Am a right?”

Clarence seemed surprised by my assertion, so he looked at Evita, who simply said, “Yes.”

I will not go through the rest of the interview, but here are some things I learned:

  • They are digging a deeper hole every month.
  • They are sometimes making their 30 year old daughter’s $350 car payment.
  • Clarence co-signed for the daughter’s car loan.
  • They also make their daughter’s cell phone payment for her.
  • Evita is on Social Security disability.
  • They are upside down on two older cars.
  • They have very little equity in their house because of a Home Equity loan.

My advice

When a couple is spending more than they make, they either need to spend less or make more. First, I told them to stop using credit cards, reasoning that if some don’t get paid, the late fees and interest would not be as bad as continuing to create more debt each month. I suggested cutting out their satellite TV ($89/month) and selling one of the cars, but Evita, being homebound most of the time, balked at both ideas. I challenged them to have a heart to heart with their daughter, explaining that they simply can’t help her any more. I looked Clarence in the eye and asked him, “Are you going to have this discussion?” He nodded and said, “Yes I’ll do that.”

We then discussed the possibility of generating more income. Evita thinks she can take on some baby sitting. Clarence is pretty sure he can get some part time work at Wal-Mart. We ran the numbers…if they could balance their budget and bring in an extra $1000 each month, they could get the credit card debt paid down in a couple of years. I told them to get back with me once they start bringing in more income. Clarence said, “OK. We will be back in touch.”

We stood, shook hands, and Evita and Clarence walked out of my office. I don’t think I will ever see them again. I hope I am wrong, but I have this feeling that our discussion was all niceties. Unless they change and change quickly, they are headed for financial disaster. It makes me sad.

Summary

My purpose here is not to pick on Clarence and Evita, but to point out some mistakes that I hope you can avoid.

  • Lack of communication.

It seemed to me that Clarence was pretty oblivious to the depth of their problems. Evita was carrying the stress alone.

  • They didn’t have a plan.

They wanted to retire in two years, but had made no realistic plans to make it happen. Yes, they came to me for help in formulating a plan, but they waited too many years before seeking help.

  • Home equity loan.

They put their home up as security for a loan they can’t afford. Not a good idea.

  • They enabled their grown daughter.

Co-signing a loan, making her car payments and making her cell phone payments not only taught the daughter irresponsibility, but also made Clarence’s and Evita’s hole deeper.

  • Misuse of credit cards.

This has already been discussed, but I don’t think they realized their misuse until I challenged them about it.

This story could still turn out all right, but right now Clarence and Evita’s future seems pretty bleak to me.

I hope you can learn from it.

From what you learned  about Clarence and Evita in this post, what would you recommend that I didn’t think of.  Any suggestions are appreciated.

email

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven and Debra April 26, 2010 at 10:19 am

Thanks for sharing the story. You were in a difficult situation, as a counselor, as there is a delicate and fine line between providing a reality check to your clients and dashing their hopes and dreams. You were polite and attempted to reach them where they were at, but also realized that you will probably never see them again. They will probably seek another advisor who will speak to them smooth things (Isaiah 30:10).

In hindsight, you probably had nothing to lose by expounding on the consequences they face if they don’t start bringing home an additional $1000 a month in income. In other words, if they don’t increase their income and decrease their overhead, they will never retire and will eventually become wards of the state.

Reply

Ted April 26, 2010 at 10:25 am

My parents were able to help us out from a position of wealth. I appreciate their help beyond belief.

But I would never let them pay for something regular. They bailed us out when our debt became too much and I couldn’t get ahead. Now that we are ahead, we can pay off our debt in a few years and go forward with life. Too many times, parents enable by paying for regular bills instead of helping their kiddos get ahead and stay ahead. And then cutting them off.

Its so tough. I wonder how many Clarence and Evita’s are out there.

Reply

joeplemon April 26, 2010 at 2:39 pm

@Steven and Debra,
You are right about that delicate balance between the reality check and dashing hopes. Of course if I am not serving them well if I give them false hope. My hope is that my hunch is wrong and they will become proactive on the things we discussed.

@Ted,
Of course there is a huge difference between helping children from a position of wealth and one of poverty. Too much help from either can be destructive for the children, but in the case of Clarence and Evita, it was also destructive to them.

I too wonder how many Clarance and Evitas are out there. Maybe that thought is what made me sad.

Reply

Ryan April 26, 2010 at 3:04 pm

I have seen similar situations, and it’s sad because they probably have enough income to pay for things if they hadn’t been living beyond their means for so long.

I hope they take this meeting to heart, but it may be too ingrained into their habits to make much difference now.

Reply

joeplemon April 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Ryan,
It isn’t like they were extravagant, but they were clearly living beyond their means and had been for some time. And they had fooled themselves into thinking everything was all right when it wasn’t.

Your last phrase, “too ingrained into their habits to make much difference now” is exactly how I felt while meeting with them. We were discussing the problem but it seemed like the reality of the problem just wasn’t sinking in. I hope I am wrong.

Reply

Guy G. April 26, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Hey Joe,

I have a similar story my mom told me once. She works in long term care at the hospital and had an older gentleman come in to visit his wife and was so excited. She asked him why and the long story was that this seventy-something year old man had just finished paying off his mortgage. 70ish!

Is this what the world is coming to? That we work our whole lives to end up in our first job (handing out buggies at Wal-Mart) just to pay bills during retirement?

Well done with this couple Joe,
Guy

Reply

joeplemon April 27, 2010 at 7:26 am

Guy,
The way you put that is probably another reason the meeting with these two made me sad…even if Clarence gets the job at Wal-Mart, it is as you say: ending a career by going back to your first job in order to make ends meet.

Reply

ChrisFM April 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm

I know a few Clarence and Evita’s myself, and it is sad. The fact of the matter is that people in this position are stuck, and short of some incredible changes in how they handle money, they’ll stay right where they are.

One thing I notice most Clarence’s and Evita’s count on is being able to work. It’s an afterthought for Clarence to keep going to his maintenance job; but what if he gets sick or hurt? The results would cripple them.

To me, the saddest commentary here is the enabling of their daughter. It just ensures her of falling into a state of arrested development, because so much responsibility has been taken off of her. What happens when her mom and dad aren’t around to help her pay bills?

Gotta tip my hat to you, Joe. There was no easy way to handle this one.

Reply

Nigel July 14, 2013 at 10:00 am

Hi Joe, I just read this and wondered if they had evrer been back?
Do you know what they did?
Great blog by the way!

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: