How four young Americans handle debt

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Here are profiles of four young adults who vary in their financial situations. One is doing well, two have major debts and few options, and one is in bad shape right now, but the outlook is hopeful.

“We don’t have creditors calling”
Amy Patrick, 27, says she and her husband, Ryan, are doing “average to above average.”

The couple in Syracuse, N.Y., has a mortgage, a car loan, credit cards and a student loan, and have no trouble paying the bills on time and setting aside some for savings. Usually, they pay off the credit card balances every month, but recently they carried over a balance on one card. They plan to pay it off over the next two months.

She’s a big believer in setting financial goals, such as buying a house by age 25, “so when you want to purchase something, you can say, ‘I can’t buy this because I’m saving for something more important.’ ”

Patrick sees some friends make the mistake of not understanding the big picture — “living just for today and not planning for mistakes or unplanned events.” These friends use credit cards to buy home decor and to go on trips to fashionable places.

Which, come to think of it, are mistakes that the Patricks made when they married in 1999. They splurged on a honeymoon to Cancun (“somewhere we didn’t need to go”) and bought new furniture (“we didn’t need to do that”). But the mistakes weren’t disabling: “We don’t have creditors calling,” she says.

Patrick is big on distinguishing wants from needs, something she learned from her parents. They set up savings accounts for the children and talked about the importance of saving money. They lived within their means, and as far as Patrick knows, her parents never got a call from a bill collector.

When she went to college in 1992, her parents sat her down and helped her draft a budget. She had a credit card in college and used it for emergencies.

It has taken quite a bit of financial planning for the Patricks to meet their financial goals: getting married, buying a house, saving enough money so Amy could take a four-month, unpaid leave from her job as an information technology manager after her son, Gregory, was born.

“It was tough,” she says. “But we had planned for that and saved for it before he was born.”

Debts and the city
Ingrid Douglas and Tamara (“Please don’t use my last name”) both live in New York City. They both skate on the edge of financial trouble, spending about as much as they earn.

Tamara’s situation is slightly better: She lives by herself in Manhattan and works for the municipal government, so her job is secure. Douglas lives with her mother and works for a successful software company.

Tamara, 29, lives on her own by the grace of New York’s rent stabilization laws. She hesitates to divulge the rent on her studio on the southern fringe of the East Village because it is so low. After some prodding, she names the monthly price: $570.

If you know about Manhattan real estate, take a moment to pick your jaw up from off the floor.

“There’s no way I could live here if my rent were market value,” Tamara says.

She owes about $23,000 in student loans, about $20,000 on her credit cards and says “my debt ratio to earnings is a lot higher than that of my friends that I speak to.”

She says her parents would kill her if they knew the extent of her debt. “They’ve asked before. I said I’m in the hole, that’s all I said. They said they’d help me out as much as possible, but …”

But they’re probably not prepared to help a daughter who owes $43,000.

“By fully disclosing it to my parents, they probably would look at me in horror,” she says, adding that every time she visits her parents in upstate New York she thinks about coming clean about her debt. But she doesn’t: “I just don’t want them to worry.”

She says her parents use their credit cards sparingly and “set a great example. They always pay off their balances. I would have loved to be able to follow their example.”

But they don’t live in Manhattan, and it’s a lot easier to live frugally when you don’t pay Manhattan prices and you don’t feel Manhattan peer pressure.

Tamara accumulated the credit card debt during her first three years in the city, charging basics such as food and transportation. In five years or so, her income has almost doubled and she refinanced her student loan so she’ll pay it over 15 years instead of 10. That lowered her monthly payment from $320 to $198.

Credit cards pose more of a problem than the student loan. Her minimum payments total about $600. She tries to pay more when she can, but she’s a captive to the credit card companies. “I’m a gold mine for them because I pay basically the minimum,” she says. “They like me. They keep upping my credit limit.”

One of the best things about being young and single in New York is that there is so much to do. For the credit-crunched, that’s one of the worst things, too. A mere movie ticket costs $9.75.

She feels pressure to spend in ways that people from other places might find rather frivolous. To save money, Tamara is thinking about getting a manicure a month instead of every week. She might stop smoking — not because of the health benefits, but because of the money savings.

The manicures, the smokes, the clothes — “It’s trendy,” Tamara acknowledges. “You think, ‘I have to have that to fit in.’ It sounds kind of shallow, but you just see it around you.”

Tamara says she thinks a lot about her financial situation. “I get frightened,” she says. “I think, ‘What am I going to do? What is my future going to be like?’ I keep trucking along and try to figure out what I’m going to do.”

A long way from a condo
Douglas, her 25-year-old fellow New Yorker, knows exactly what she wants to do: buy a condominium. She lives with her mother in Brooklyn and wouldn’t mind buying a condo in that borough. She wants to buy in about six months, but it’ll be tough to meet that goal.

“My problem is just that I shop way too much,” she says. “Basically, all of my money goes to paying off the bills I have.” In addition to the $15,000 she owes on student loans and $5,000 on four credit cards, she has bills for commuting, lunches, cell phone, a gym membership and entertainment. After paying all those expenses, she saves about $100 a month, plus putting aside a small percentage in a 401(k) and a stock-purchasing plan.

Financially, “it’s not where I want to be now, but it’s not overwhelming,” Douglas says. “Because I’m not paying rent and utilities and things of that nature, my problem is I’m working ardently to do that now because I won’t be able to get a loan until I clear those down.”

She calls herself “the queen of the balance transfers” and is adept at negotiating lower interest rates and talking issuers into refunding late fees.

Douglas’s mother is from Jamaica. When Douglas was growing up, she didn’t hear advice from her mother about credit cards because her mother wasn’t familiar with them.

“If she was born here and it was something she was used to dealing with, she would have informed me better,” Douglas says. “She’s coming from a smaller island, and there, if you have any money, all you do is save it. That’s what she always told me, always save your money.”

So that’s what Douglas does, saving money for retirement and an eventual house down payment while slowly paying off a student loan and credit card debt.

Mom to the rescue
Jason Weatherly, 19, of Toledo, Ohio, was sinking into debt trouble, but his mom has stepped in.

Weatherly, a freshman at the University of Toledo, has a $7-an-hour job at Pet Supplies Plus and owes $1,400 on two credit cards. He lives at home and puts his money in CDs (the kind you listen to), video games, movies, clothes and dining out.

“I like to spend money,” he says.

He got his first credit card, a Verizon Visa, shortly after he graduated from high school. At first his limit was $500. Then it was $850. Then $1,200. Not long ago he exceeded that, running his balance to more than $1,300. He got a bill for almost $200 — an over-the-limit charge plus the usual minimum payment ($15 or so) plus the amount he had charged over the limit.

That’s when his mother stepped in.

“She took away my cards and said she’s going to help me figure out how to get out of debt,” Weatherly says. “It shouldn’t take too long. I’m looking for a new job. I make $7 an hour — I need more.”

It’ll take a while to whittle the debt, but Weatherly is confident that he will. Meantime, he says, he’ll be forced to live by his mother’s credo:

“Don’t spend more than you have in the bank.”