Tessa: I know what I'm supposed to do in terms of how to have a stable financial life and building a future that you want. I can even just give that advice to other people, but when it comes to trying to compute it and apply it, my brain just won't do it.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
and need to talk about more. I'm Anna Sale.
A few weeks ago, a listener we're calling Tessa got a text from their sister.
Tessa: She was asking me how my day was going. I just was frank with her, I'm like, I'm feeling really hopeless right now.
Tessa is 27 and for the past few years, they've been keeping a secret about debt.
Tessa: It's around $16,500-ish. All credit card debt.
Tessa graduated from a prestigious university five years ago… but has had trouble finding full time work. They’ve held a series of part-time jobs…last year, Tessa told me, they earned about 22-thousand dollars. Their mounting debt… was usually something that Tessa avoided talking about.
Tessa: But that day I was like, I am a wreck. My sister was just like, "How's your day going?" I'm like, "Badly," and she was like, "What's going on?" I'm like, "I just feel really down on this debt." My sister was like, well, I know you. This was just over text, but she was like, "I know you don't necessarily want my help but I'm here. If you need it, I'm here." I thought about it all day, then I finally sent her this really long text where I was like actually I'm not in a position to refuse your help if you're willing to offer it.
Anna Sale: Why didn't you call her? Why did it feel better to write a long text later that night responding?
Tessa: I guess I'd been thinking about it all day, like how much should I tell her? Or what should I tell her? Or should I actually concretely ask her for this help? Because basically, I just was rereading that last part of if you need help, I'm always here because part of me does want to ask her potentially for concrete financial help, but I'm like, I don't feel good doing that. I just didn't want to feel like I was using her.
Anna: Oh. You wanted to make sure you could trust yourself if you took her help.
Tessa: Yes, and I didn't want to make her feel that's what it was going to be, that I was using her because I barely wanted to tell her at all. I'm sorry, that was a turkey.
Anna: I just want to acknowledge, I'm hearing so many birds.
I talked with Tessa on a video call as they sat on their back deck in the spring sunshine, birds chirping around them. They live in the Bay Area. It’s beautiful...and one of the most expensive places to live in America.
Tessa’s rent is $2400 dollars a month, but their partner covers most of it, because he’s got a better paying job.
Tessa sent us a message when we asked for stories about borrowing and lending money during the pandemic. Their troubles started with credit card debt back in college, when their dad co-signed a credit card with them. Tessa quickly got into debt…opened more credit cards…and their debt kept on climbing. Even after they got an unexpected windfall a few years ago.
Tessa: At one point, I had credit card debt that was closer to $18,000, $19,000. Very unexpectedly, completely out of left field, I ended up part of this really random lawsuit with a place that I used to work and it got settled and I got a $15,000, I don't know, enhancement award or something because I had to do a deposition.
Anna: Did you put all of that towards your credit card debt?
Tessa: Yes, I did all of it at once, one fell swoop.
Anna: One payment, you just clicked and made that deposit.
Tessa: Yes, and it was gone.
Anna: Was it your intention when you were making that payment, were you thinking I'm never going to go back here? This is a new relationship to debt that I'm going to have.
Tessa: I was like, dang, I wish this were a little bit more so I could have knocked out all the debt completely at once because it did cross my mind I'm like, I know getting rid of most of it is great and it's so much closer to me having a new, fresh start than ever before but at the same time, I am worried that I am going to mess this up and end up exactly where I was before except now there's no magical lawsuit. There's no magical windfall money that comes out of nowhere, I'm just going to be in it, and that is what happened. It ballooned back up to $16,000 in less than a year.
Anna: How did that happen?
Tessa: When I realized I need to really stop spending and I clearly, despite my best efforts do not have the self-control to not do it, I just cut up all my credit cards, and that - it was something so simple that people talk about doing, and it worked so effectively. I was like, God, I wish I'd done this years earlier. Then out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, it's almost like my creditors knew that I cut them up or something. They were like, "Oh, here, we're just going to send you replacements," or, "We updated our chip technology so here's a brand new card," and they all came around the same time and I didn't cut them up immediately. I knew even at the time when they arrived, I should and I didn't.
Anna: What do you spend money on?
Tessa: [sighs] Well, um. God, I was thinking about before this phone call, what's the question I don't really want Anna to ask but I'm sure she's going to? And I'm like, oh no, it's this. Assuming that we're not just talking about maintaining the minimums on credit cards, which I was doing for a while, I just spent it on all sorts of things. There were some very small portions of the debt that I felt were warranted. Like my teeth being super messed up and needing fillings and at the time not having dental insurance, but the majority of spends would be whatever my interest was at the time. I tend to get really, really consumed by and really hyper-fixated on passing things. It would just be what's the thing of the moment. Concretely, let's see, one time I got really into slime, the thing that the kids like.
Tessa: I know, and believe it or not, there's the gross-looking slime that your kids can make, and then there's designer slime that people like professionals on Instagram can make.
Anna: Okay, boutique slime. You got into the boutique slime corners of the internet. Okay. [chuckles]
Tessa: Instagram really got me there. They predicted things that I would like too well, unfortunately. Let's see, boutique slime. I really, really like jewelry, even though I don't even, I don't know, I don't wear it that much because I feel like I forget to accessorize in the morning.
Anna: What's the most expensive piece of jewelry you've bought? How expensive was it?
Tessa: Oh, crap. I got a custom, really fancy opal ring that I made the decision to also get done in 18K gold I think, and that cost like $3,000. I just remember the package came and I'm like, it's so beautiful and I also have to hide it and I can never really wear it, not because I don't love it and not because it's not pretty, but I'm like, I know I shouldn't have bought this.
Anna: You felt ashamed of buying it.
Tessa: Yeah. My mom also has a huge spending problem and I always promised myself I wouldn't be like her. In particular, my mom had a great affinity for QVC, Home Shopping Network, TJ Maxx, anything she thought was a good deal, and then she'd buy it, and then she wouldn't let go of it. I think also while I was in the middle of these different spending sprees, I'm like, okay, I know I'm spending money that I don't have. I know how the credit card works. I know what my dad warned me not to do, but I'm buying good things. I'm buying things that I think are much better than the things my mom bought. [chuckles] I still think that but I'm still in the same predicament, so it doesn't matter if the things I bought are "better" by my standards. It doesn't matter.
Tessa has struggled with depression since they were a teenager, and their debt was really starting to weigh on them. So after texting back and forth with their sister... Tessa decided to go ahead…and ask for some help.
Tessa: My sister works in tech. She's at a really great point in her career. She's really financially savvy. I know that she is making good money and that she's on track to meet her financial goals.
Anna: You had an idea that she had extra.
Tessa: Bottom line, she could very well have money lying around and I could ask her just straight up to help me with this in whatever way she's comfortable if she's comfortable with it. Also, I was just like, I'm in over my head. I don't know what I'm doing. She looks like she knows what she's doing. I'm in trouble and I just also need to tell somebody about this because nobody knows. It's been a year, I'm about to crack so I might as well just do it.
Anna: When does that, like when you get on the phone together and start talking about what this is going to mean, who clarified first that money could be part of her helping you?
Tessa: I clarified because my sister just asked me point-blank, what kind of help are you asking for?
Anna: What'd you say?
Tessa: I was like, in that moment, I wanted to say, can I borrow $8,000 because that's like half of the debt. I felt like that was the most I could potentially ask to borrow without completely hating myself, and even that felt like too much to ask. What I said instead was, let me tell you what's going on. Let me just explain what's happening first.
Anna: Did you ever say, can you loan me $8,000?
Tessa: She offered more than that. She offered pretty much the full amount.
Anna: What did it feel like to have someone say to you, I hear you're asking me for help. I can hear you and I want to actually open up a conversation where I help you even more than what you're asking me to do?
Tessa: I feel like if I was asked this question, but without a specific context, I'd be like, it's a relief. It was not a relief. I just felt like I really failed. I just felt like I really let down a lot of people even if they don't know it yet and here's the first person to know that. I just really screwed up again.
Anna: It reinforced for you the feeling of shame that you were feeling that you needed help, that she was willing to help you more?
Tessa: Yes. I felt like it would have almost maybe felt easier if she was like, no, or berated me or admonished me or just been like, "Tessa, how did you--" Why or how, or like, how could you, or just no. When she was just like, I can, I have the means to and I'm willing to do it, I just felt so low. I was just like, I'm a fuck up. I'm so ashamed.
Coming up, I talk with Tessa's sister about making that offer and about what she and Tessa decided to do next.
Rose: I had been talking with them about giving them the money, but I was also like, are there other options?
You've been sending in your stories about some of the hardest conversations you've ever had. We've heard about coming out to your family, confronting a parent about an affair, telling a partner that you were leaving the relationship.
LISTENER: We were standing on the deck behind our house and it was freezing cold and dark. I just said it and I can't remember that much about the conversation after those first few sentences that I said and I can't remember that much about how he responded. I think it was mainly just shock. Even 11 years later, I'm still shocked A, that I made that decision, and B, that I had the courage to sit down and have that conversation.
As we get closer to the release of my new book, Let's Talk About Hard Things, we want you to keep telling us about the hardest conversations you've ever had. Record a voice memo or write an email and send it to us at email@example.com. So far on this one, we've heard mostly from women. Men and non-binary people, send in your stories about hard conversations too.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
About halfway through my video call with Tessa, another window popped open. It was Tessa's older sister.
Rose: It's me.
Tessa: Oh, crap. Is that unnie?
Unnie is Korean for older sister. We're calling Tessa's sister Rose. She's two and a half years older than Tessa, lives not far from them also in the Bay area. She called in during her lunch break to talk with us about when she got that long text from Tessa one night a few weeks ago.
Rose: It was a surprise and it wasn't a surprise. And I mostly just wanted to know what is the magnitude of the situation? They told me, "Hey, the debt that I had ballooned back up and I'm in over my head and I need help." When they told me the amount, I was like, okay, that is basically the upper limit of what I was willing to loan you in terms of doing all this.
Anna: Tessa was just telling me that hearing you say you know what, I can help you pay the whole thing off, to hear you say that, just how many feelings that came with, including even more shame than they already had because you were willing to, is that how you would put it, Tessa?
Tessa: [exhales] Yeah, I mean, we've talked about this where I - when you told me that you could pay it all off, I just was like, wow, [chuckles] I really suck. I suck so much.
Tessa: I suck $16,000 worth of my sister's disposable other money that she could be doing so many other things with.
Anna: Rose, Tessa's said that to you before?
Rose: Yeah, I mean, obviously, I'm not in Tessa's position but I could totally imagine what that's like. I also told them part of the reason that I don't, it's not that I don't have feelings, but I don't have negative you're a bad person feelings towards this is that, I don't know, I just don't feel like shame - shaming other people is not a great motivator to get them to open up and actually seek help.
A few days after they initially talked about Tessa’s debt, and Rose had agreed to lend Tessa 16 thousand dollars, Tessa brought over a watercolor painting that they’d bought from a local artist.
Rose: They basically gave me a tiny piece of collateral being like, "Hey, this is definitely not even close to what it is and honestly, on the open market, it's probably not actually worth that much, but it is something that's very valuable to me. I'd like you to hang onto it until I pay the debt back." And I was planning on telling my partner about me loaning the money to Tessa even, and part of it is more as a heads up because we keep our finances separate, but he was like, "What's going on? That was weird." I was like, "Well, I wasn't going to tell you about it until afterward, but here's the situation." He looked at me like, "You two are so dumb, there are other options." And we, and like -
Anna: Wait, did he say that? Did he say that, like, those were the words?
Rose: Yeah, those were the words to me. This is after Tessa had already driven away and left and he's like, "Think of it this way. If you loan the money to Tessa, what, $16,000, yes, that's $16,000 today but how long do you think, like - let's assume that Tessa can pay it all back, how long do you think that'll take? I said, "I guess, optimistically, five to seven years." He says to me, "Okay, so you think of it as $16,000, but if you invested $16,000 just using average stuff," and he did the calculation for me, he was like, "you're basically giving them $32,000." He was basically like, you guys are not thinking with your brains right now.
Rose started to look at other options for Tessa. They started texting back and forth about debt consolidation, and debt settlement. And then, Rose brought up bankruptcy.
Tessa: She was texting me and my sister made a point to be like, "I will still keep my offer of $16,000 on the table, but I would like us to consider another option that we think might be better." I was like, "Okay, what is it?" I knew what she was going to say, I was at work texting her and she was like, "Bankruptcy," and I was like, my heart and my stomach and all my other organs just dropped out of me and I was like, [chuckles] "Oh, okay." [chuckles]
Anna: Wait, everything dropped out of you because of like, just that like hit or like a -
Rose: The word.
Tessa: Yes, because it just seems so scary to people, I don't know. I think a lot of it comes through the stigma around it, not just in general, but I feel like people talk about bankruptcy is the worst thing you could ever do. You should just avoid being in that situation at all costs.
Rose: I also want to mention that part of the reason why it came up, that this might be a better option for Tessa in particular when I was talking with my boyfriend was that he brought up a good point, which is something that I had also been thinking about and brought up with Tessa, which is that yes, if we pay off the debt and all of that, what mechanisms are there that would prevent this from happening again? My boyfriend's response to it was like, well, if you loaned them the $16,000, there's no guarantee that you get it back so you need to think of that money as gone, one. Two, what happens if they end up in this situation again because their credit and all this other stuff didn't take a hit so they still have all these things open? That doesn't address the issue. Then three, if it were to happen again, then what? Let's just take it a step further. We're not going to give them more money and all this other stuff, so what does it sound like? They probably - and if we were to continue this thread, they could end up in the same situation, if they do, then they would... I was like, probably have to look into bankruptcy. You might be right. Because the biggest thing here too is that, and Tessa and I've talked about it and we agree that it's like, there needs to be some guardrail there to help them as they're like learning to cope and manage their finances. While we could do that manually, that actually means that I have to be there and get more involved with their personal finances.
Anna: It's your responsibility.
Rose: Yes, absolutely. This way, it actually gives them the, what is that word? Not responsibility, but the - it gives them the -
Tessa: The agency?
Rose: Yes, thank you, the agency to move forward and take everything from there, with all these guard rails built-in for them.
Anna: The guard rail is losing access to credit.
Anna: Who's paying for the attorney?
Rose: I'm paying for the attorney. They don't have enough money that they could pay for it, and if they were to save up, it would take them months to do it. What I told them was, "Hey, I understand that the attorney fees are going to be somewhere between $1500 to $2,000. Instead of loaning you the $16,000, I'm just going to give you the money for the attorney. You don't have to pay that one back."
Anna: And Tessa, when you talked to the attorney and said, "Here it is, here's the debt. Here's where I am, here's how much I earn, here's how much I owe," what did the attorney tell you were the trade-offs for you, of declaring bankruptcy?
Tessa: I would close out my credit cards, my credit score would take a huge hit. Also, it would probably be difficult for me in future years, if I was trying to get a mortgage, it's like I can't even apply for different types of loans for a certain amount of years. Even then, even when I am able to apply in 2, 3, 4 years, depending on the type of loan, the interest rate and the terms are going to be worse. That was a very hard thing to reconcile and talk to my boyfriend about who also didn't know about my debt. I told my sister first and then I told him second, and we were probably hoping to maybe own something and apply for a mortgage in the next 10 years. I have completely tanked a lot of our options, or just even just the fear of we're going to have probably worse terms and not be able to get much or even maybe get a loan at all because of me.
Despite those trade-offs, Tessa decided to go ahead with the bankruptcy process. But as Tessa and Rose have been talking together about next steps, they've also been wondering if Tessa's financial problems aren't just about poor money management.
Rose: It entered my mind that some of these, um, kind of impulsive purchases and having struggles with money has more to do with, um, Tessa's mental health issues than what we first thought. That it was just, oh, they're not good with money or, they just need to try harder. We were just obviously texting back and forth and out of nowhere, they're just like, oh, yes, I've been reading these articles about being a death doula. I was like, "Okay," and they were like, "Maybe I'll be a death doula." I was like, "Okay, I'm not trying to shit on your parade, but I don't know what's going on." Then they're like, "Oh, yes. I've also been thinking about doing this other thing, like, selling animal bones that I've cleaned and stuff on Etsy despite having -
Tessa: Whoa, whoa, whoa, I did not say I was trying to sell those. Hold up.
Rose: Okay, but you made it sound like it even if it was a joke.
Tessa: [chuckles] Okay, but I wasn't trying to - do you know how much work that is?
Rose: It was a lot going on but also, like, we have another friend who has bipolar. I used to live with her and she mentioned to me, "Oh, by the way, if I ever seem manic, you should probably call the hospital." And then it suddenly popped in my head again, I was like, hmm, what does mania look like? I started looking into it and the way that Tessa was coming across through texts just seemed weird, just weird. They are already impulsive but weirder than normal. I pointed it out. Like, "Have you ever considered that maybe you have potentially hypomanic episodes?" We started just sending articles back and forth describing what mania is like, and what bipolar could look like. We were looking at it and more and more of these things started ticking the boxes.
Anna: Tessa, did that feel okay to have your sister bring up? Is that something that's ever occurred to you?
Tessa: Yeah, I've definitely considered and asked my doctor and therapists that I've seen if it's possible that I might have bipolar. I've had a diagnosis of major depression disorder since I was 13, 14, so about half of my life at this point. I noticed in the last 7 or 8 years, it felt like the nature of my mental illness, it felt different. It felt markedly different than when I was younger. It's just like, my sister and my boyfriend, in particular, had just noticed, especially lately, that it seemed like my interests were, I was rapidly cycling through them and with a fierce intensity even faster than usual. My boyfriend didn't say it upfront, but he was just like, I could tell he was exhausted by like, okay, what's the next thing Tessa is going to get into? How long is that going to last before the next thing? He even brought up, he's like, is this going to be the new slime again?
Anna: Oh, the slime, we heard about the slime before you got on the line, Rose.
Rose: Oh, yeah.
Anna: You know, it makes me think, as we talked about your financial situation, it's very clear that you feel a deep sense of shame about where you've ended up. I wonder if thinking about it in the context of mental health and mental illness, does it loosen that feeling of failure for you at all?
Tessa: It does. It does by a lot. I mean, it's still hard but I recognize even before my sister brought bankruptcy to the table, that if she gave me the $16,000 upfront, that wouldn't actually change my core problem. Even all the things that I bought with all this money that I didn't have, it was never about the things, it was about the rush of buying the things. It was about coveting something that I wanted, and then I had it and then I just moved on. It was easy for me to buy these things and it was just as easy for me to give them away. I've always known that I have an addictive personality and I've dealt with other types of addictions that were coping mechanisms for better or for worse, that I think just over time, it was easy to shift those dilemmas that I was having to just move it onto this.
Anna: And Rose, do you think, if you hadn't been talking about this current money crisis and trying to problem-solve around that, you would have been thinking about, oh, maybe there's something really big underlying this? Do you think Tessa asking for help opened up this broader conversation about maybe there's an underlying mental health condition that we need to focus on?
Rose: If this was the first time we had talked about them having a pretty large debt load, it would have been like, okay, this is a thing that happened to you, but because it was you had all this money, you threw the money from the settlement into this debt. Then the debt just went all the way back up basically to the same point that it was before you threw the money in there, then it was kind of, okay, what is going on? So I would say that probably you're right, that it is because we were already talking about money that this became more noticeable in the first place.
Rose: Because we've been talking a lot about the fact that Tessa has very poor impulse control, and it's like, but why? Why do you have such poor impulse control? Is it you, is it something else?
Tessa: Yeah, unnie, I think something that's interesting about what Anna asked you about, my sister and I, I can tell we talk a lot more frequently in general because of all of this, because of the bankruptcy discussion.
Anna: You're dealing with something together. You're making a plan together.
Tessa: Well, yes, it's about that. We've had a lot of conversations about that, but even just innocuous, random, everyday talk. We just talk a lot more, period. My sister and I, we didn't get along as kids 'cause she was a jerk and she'll acknowledge that.
Tessa: [chuckles] We got closer when we got older, but even when we got like maybe college age, there were times where was like I just feel like my sister is preaching to me about her views or in ways that would be a little bit ageist. Like, "Oh, when you're my age, when you're two and a half years older, you will understand the life experience that I have had that will lead you to the same conclusion that I have had," and I'm like, what the heck? I didn't feel comfortable in particular talking to my sister about really sensitive or touchy things. My sister was just the last person if even I think about the list at all that I would go to about anything. I admittedly kept aspects of our relationship, very surface-level because I was just like I don't want you to talk at me or tell me how to do these things or take care of me or whatever. Just in light of all this, I actually have felt genuinely closer to my sister than before.
Anna: There's going to be some hardship that comes from declaring bankruptcy for Tessa. Do you think that's going to be good for them?
Rose: It's funny because when we were discussing the specifics of the bankruptcy, they also asked me, "Hey, I know this is a lot to ask, but would you be able to help me pay this one debt that I do need to keep?" I countered and I said, "Hey, given that that's the one debt that you have to deal with, and it feels like it's within reach for you since it's the one thing, I actually think that it would be better for you to work on that," because that debt, in particular, is the one tied to our dad's credit.
Anna: The cosigned card.
Rose: Yeah. It's a conversation we need to have with our dad anyway. What's funny is that there's actually a Korean proverb, the actual wording in Korean I can't remember, but it's basically that, even if you have to pay for it, a little bit of hardship is good for your life. That really resonates with me, that having this one debt that's not going to be wiped away and that it's something that Tessa really cares deeply about paying and dealing with because it doesn't only affect them is going to be good for them because it means that this is a responsibility they have not to just themselves, but to other people who will now know about it. It is going to be that opportunity where it's like, "Okay, you're going to mow down this debt, and then because it's a cosigned card, you're going to shut it down."
Anna: Rose, do you still have the painting?
Rose: I do still have the painting. It is still here.
Anna: When are you going to return it? What's the terms of when that gets returned?
Rose: Honestly, at this point, it's up to Tessa. I can hold it for them until whenever, if it feels like a symbolic gesture. I can also give it back to them since I didn't give them the $16,000, to begin with.
Anna: What do you think, Tessa?
Tessa: I don't know. I think I want her to keep it for now because it was a symbolic gesture to start with. Clearly, it's not worth the liquid cash she was about to infuse into my dilemma. Also, I still have that piece as it was shipped to me. I never opened it and I am hoping that when I'm in a better financial situation that I could finally get it framed. So, it makes sense for my sister to hold on to it for now.
That’s a listener we’re calling Tessa and their sister, who we’re calling Rose.
This week, Tessa told us they had a psychiatric appointment, and are starting new medication. They’ll be getting regular counseling going forward.
If you're looking for resources about managing your consumer debt, there's a link in our show notes to a page of resources and information.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Katie Bishop. The rest of our team includes Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, Yasmeen Khan, and Andrew Dunn. The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
You can find me on Instagram @annasalepics, P-I-C-S. The show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Thank you to David Crowfoot in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join David and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
Tessa told me their dad now knows about their debt—he got a notice in the mail, which forced the conversation. And, just a few days after we talked, Tessa officially filed for bankruptcy.
Tessa: I just want to have enough money to not only be able to meet future goals, but I want to just treat people to nice things every once in a while. Maybe kind of, um, impulsively... but...
Rose: Oh God.
I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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