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Dear Penny: A heart attack put me in debt and now I can’t get out

First, talk to someone you trust, the advice columnist writes. It will help prepare you for tough conversations ahead.
[Getty Images] [Getty Images]
[Getty Images] [Getty Images]
Published Sep. 30
Updated Oct. 2

Dear Penny,

I’m a 56-year-old divorced woman. I live by myself and have a full-time job. Last year, I had a heart attack and was out of work for five months. It wasn’t until after I returned to work that I found out that I had qualified for short-term disability.

While out of work, I had to borrow money from everyone I know.

I returned to work, and about two weeks later, my short-term disability insurance provider deposited $5,000 into my bank account. I paid back everyone who helped me. It took every cent of that $5,000.

A month later, I received a letter from the insurance company stating that they had overpaid me by $1,300. I sent them $20 and told them that I would continue paying $20 monthly until I paid back the $1,300.

Over the last year, I had several trips to the ER and lots of doctor appointments and prescription costs.

I fell behind on my three credit cards and had to stop paying the $20 to the insurance company.

Recently, I decided to try something different, so I went to the casino, hoping to win enough to get out of debt. I was at my wits end. This seemed like the only solution. I lost over $400.

Now I can’t afford my car payment, and my car needs over $1,300 in repairs and four new tires.

I work so hard, yet I can’t get ahead. Every week, I’m falling deeper in debt.

I’m too embarrassed to tell my family or my friends, and I definitely don’t want to ask them for more money.

-P.

Dear P.,

If someone you love approached you with a similar story, would you react with judgment? Or with support and a genuine desire to help, even if it couldn’t be in the form of money? I suspect the latter.

Opening up to even one person you trust could provide you with the emotional support you need and deserve.

But the benefit is twofold: When you can’t afford your bills, the only way out is to talk honestly with your creditors.

Having that conversation with a bill collector is intimidating. Explaining the situation to a loved one first prepares you for the tougher talks ahead. If that’s too scary, consider attending a Debtors Anonymous meeting.

When you’re deep in debt, you need to look at each bill and ask yourself, “What’s the worst-case scenario if I don’t pay this?”

For your rent or mortgage and utility payments, the stakes are high, so these are top priorities. Same goes for your car loan if your vehicle is the only way you can get to work, but less so if you can take public transportation.

But medical and credit card bills? If you don’t pay them, they’ll go to collections. Your credit score will take a major hit. They could garnish your wages, but you can appeal that.

These are the worst-case scenarios, though. It’s way more likely that they’ll negotiate with you if you call and tell them you can’t afford payments.

If you still have medical bills, start there because medical debt is among the most negotiable debt out there. Hospital billing departments and doctors offices are often willing to work out payment plans.

Credit card companies often have hardship programs that will waive late fees and even let you defer payments under some circumstances, like a job loss or illness, though you probably won’t be able to use the accounts while you’re not making payments. Some auto lenders have similar programs.

Use any reprieve you’re given to get your car safely running if you truly need it. But let your mechanic know that you can’t afford $1,300 and new tires right now. Maybe some repairs are urgent, while others can wait a few months.

You might also consider credit counseling, which will give you a better sense of options for your specific situation.

What I want most for you, though, is for you to get past your shame.

You got here because you had a heart attack and couldn’t work for five months. Both of these things were beyond your control. The $400 you lost is miniscule in the bigger picture. Treat it as a one-time lapse in judgment that occurred under extreme stress — then forgive yourself.

The thing I want you to remember is that you are so much more than your debt. You just survived a health crisis, and you will survive this, too.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send your questions about debt to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.

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