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A debt repaid, a life restored


Monday, 7 December 2015

Mark Weir describes his lowest point as the time he went to the checkout to pay for his groceries and his credit card declined. And then his next card declined. And the next. And the next.

“I put them back in my wallet and said something like, ‘I guess I’ll have to go to the bank. Something must have gone wrong,’” said Mark. But he knew what was wrong. And he never went back for the groceries.

They’d run out of money. Or, more to the point, they’d run out of credit. And Mark and his wife Rachel were having a lot of trouble paying it back.

That was five years ago. Mark and Rachel were over $78,000 in debt. They were paying off their credit cards with other credit cards. And they were running out of time.

“Everything was out of control,” said Rachel. “Our finances, our lives. We fought so hard to keep it in control.” They didn’t like to ask for help. Rachel describes them both as “very proud, me in particular.”

Mark and Rachel got married in 2001 and quickly had their first child, Ethan. He has autism and a genetic disorder that caused a lot of health issues as Ethan grew. Two years later, Emily was born. She too was diagnosed with autism. Neither Ethan nor Emily spoke until they were almost four years old. Doctors suggested that Ethan might never speak.

“I just thought, this isn’t going to work,” said Mark. “How were we going to live?”

“There were a lot of medical bills,” said Rachel. “Speech therapy, occupational therapy. Ethan had several surgeries. And we went down to one income for a while, so one of us could look after the kids.”

“We were living on credit. We’d pay down the cards as much as we could, and then have to use them to buy what we needed to live so they’d go right back up again. And with the interest rates so high, we just sank further and further.”

Mark was working as a locomotive technician and Rachel as a case manager for a government department. But Mark suffers from depression and was spiralling down quickly. Sometimes, he couldn’t work. Other times, he would work as much as possible, taking on extra shifts and not getting enough rest. Rachel says that just made the depression worse. They argued a lot. And they were still dealing with their kids: finding schools, coping with their intellectual disabilities and medical issues.

Through her work in government services, Rachel stumbled upon Christians Against Poverty (CAP), a not-for-profit organisation that helps its clients manage budgets and debts.

“I didn’t tell Mark that I’d made an appointment for a debt manager from CAP to come to our house until the night they were going to show up,” said Rachel.

That night, the debt manager made Rachel and Mark cut up all their credit cards.

“I just thought, this isn’t going to work,” said Mark. “How were we going to live?”

Their debt coach helped the Weirs create a budget. They’d pay their mortgage, budget for what were ‘essential living expenses’ like food and utilities and the rest would go towards paying off their debt.

What they considered “essential” to live changed entirely. And Rachel says that’s a good thing.

“It was hard for me to actually accept that someone would genuinely help you just because they wanted to help.”

“All of the things we deemed essential, so much of it we realised we didn’t actually need,” she said. “I think it taught us the difference between want and need, and showed us this desire we had for instant gratification. We know we can wait for things now.”

After that first meeting where they had to cut up the credit cards to stop them spending any more than they were earning, another thing happened immediately that changed Mark’s life: the phone calls stopped.

“It was relentless,” said Mark. Creditors called him at work at all times of the day. But the phone calls soon petered out. Creditors called the Weir’s debt manager instead. Major bills sent to the Weirs were put, unopened, into other envelopes and sent to Christians Against Poverty, so Rachel and Mark – already stressed enough – didn’t have to deal with threatening creditor notes they still couldn’t repay. CAP doesn’t pay the debt off for their clients, but it helps negotiate repayment schedules and interest and fee freezes during times of hardship, and the Weirs provide them with the money to keep chipping away at the debts.

It took Mark almost six months to believe that the debt manager from Christians Against Poverty – and the organisation itself – wasn’t trying to trick them.

“It was hard for me to actually accept that someone would genuinely help you just because they wanted to help. Not for any other reason. All through my life, help has been more of an exchange. ‘I’ll do this for you, you do this for me’. So this was like, ‘huh’?”

When the Weirs got their first statement from CAP, after six months of negotiations with banks and consistently paying down their debts, they were overwhelmed. A few thousand had been struck off their debt already. It was the first time Mark thought that maybe the web was starting to untangle.

“We’ve laughed together and cried together, and we’ve prayed together, too.”

Rachel and Mark developed a close relationship with their debt manager, Jodie, who has been with them since 2010, though until last month they’d never met in person. Jodie says that she doesn’t often seek face-to-face contact with her clients, preferring to stay as impartial as possible so she can negotiate fairly for both the creditors and the clients. But the Weirs were different, says Jodie. She spoke with them often. The high needs of Ethan and Emily meant new budgets had to be made a lot – every time Rachel or Mark had to stop work or work part time while they cared for the children. “They’ve been dealt a bad hand,” said Jodie.

“We’ve laughed together and cried together, and we’ve prayed together, too,” she said.

Five years later and the Weirs have gone from $78,000 in debt to just $8000. Not too long now, and their debts – aside from their mortgage – will be gone. With credit cards no longer hanging over their heads, their mortgage doesn’t look nearly as scary. And the Weirs say they’ll never have a credit card again. They’ll live off what they earn, and they’ll save money for things they want, for the first time in their married lives.

The Weirs don’t go to church. Both Rachel and Mark were brought up in Christian homes but they’ve never had a church family of their own. That doesn’t matter to CAP, which says it doesn’t discriminate with the help it offers. In fact, what seems to stick out to Rachel and Mark the most is that the people who changed their lives – and who Rachel credits with saving their marriage – didn’t want anything from them. Rachel says the help came “sort of like magic”.

Or maybe it was grace.

Rachel says she’s been seriously considering taking the family to church now.

“I think we’ve been through this journey for a reason. I’m just not sure what that is yet.”

But she’s searching for it. It could be, as she says, that she’s supposed to be looking for ways to do good for other people now. Or it could be that she’s looking for God. But that’s not the reason why Christians Against Poverty get people out of debt. And it’s not the reason why in only a few months time the Weirs might get their final credit bill and it’ll say $0 owed. It’s up to Rachel and Mark, and it’s always been up to them to accept the help that was freely offered. And that’s grace, too.

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