Now 27, Elaine says she had a similar attitude toward money. "When I was 16," she says, "I started managing a Jack in the Box; [I was] a shift leader, opening and closing the store. I was taking home two, two fifty a week. At that age, I didn't save; I was spending it [all]. Because I had it. I didn't have rent. I had tons of clothes. I was into the club scene as a teenager." At age 18 came a boyfriend and the birth of a daughter. Suddenly "it was constant work to pay the rent, work to pay the bills. It was never I've got extra cash in my pocket."

Elaine got a student credit card from Wells Fargo when she signed up for college classes. Her limit was $750. She used the card for books and tuition. After she and her boyfriend were married in 1996, he lost his job. They lived on cash advances drawn from the Wells Fargo card, then on a Montgomery Ward card, and finally on unemployment benefits after Elaine herself was laid off. In 1997, they rented a one-bedroom apartment in Vista. One day her husband lost his wallet, and with it a money order for the rent. The next thing they knew the landlord was serving them papers for rent past due, followed quickly by an eviction notice. This led to a series of court battles, in which the judgment against them totaled $2500.

Two years later they were living in a two-bedroom apartment when her husband lost another job. "We just never got caught up from there," she recalls. They fell $2100 behind on rent, and once again, a landlord took them to court for the money. Elaine and her husband hired a lawyer, who suggested a settlement, but the landlord refused to accept anything less than the full amount owed. Elaine's husband fought on in court, which meant more costs. The total for this judgment was $4000. The bulk of both judgments, Elaine says, were attorney's fees. They couldn't pay either sum.

The first apartment was in Elaine's name; the second in their married names. They moved to a third apartment, which cost $900 per month. Then they bought two cars, $500 a month for both cars plus $120 for insurance. Car loans were surprisingly easy to get. Elaine still had one credit card, the Wells Fargo card, which was maxed out. She also had Macy's and JCPenney cards. All the cards were in her name. Though her husband, seven years her senior, had once filed for bankruptcy at the age of 19, it never occurred to them to file.

They steadily fell behind on everything but their rent. The pressure of it all caused them to separate. "From there it just went down." Elaine moved back in with her parents and worked to pay off her bills. She received no help from her husband, who was himself being chased by a lien holder who was trying to repossess his car. To help him, Elaine took on his car payment. She was responsible for two car payments -- a Mirage and an Eclipse -- for about eight months. Everything she earned went to managing her debt, and she couldn't keep up. The Wells Fargo debt doubled with over-the-limit fees. "It was all fees."

Elaine was making $11 an hour working the graveyard shift at a wireless company, with no help from her ex, "who got away scot-free." She paid the debt down bit by bit, but then her daughter incurred sudden and unforeseen medical costs and "it went right back up."

For six years, Elaine paid all the bills for herself and her daughter with no help from her ex-husband. She says now that she should have fought for more during their divorce. "It's one of my problems. Sometimes you close the door emotionally, but I wasn't ready to go through the whole court process. I needed a fresh start. I've always had to fix everything, pay [for] everything. I go to school full time, I work full time." But she couldn't move out from her parents' home because as soon as a prospective landlord ran a credit check, he'd turn her down.

Next came a lousy experience with Freedom Debt Relief, another credit counseling service. The company signed a contract with Elaine to consolidate her loans into one monthly payment of $300. She was surprised when her creditors kept hounding her; she told them to call her consolidator. Freedom Debt Relief said they'd take care of it. She paid $1800 over the course of six months, which she now understands went to the company for up-front administrative costs. Virtually none of it went to pay her debt. "It made everything worse."

As a consequence, her monthly credit-card bills jumped even higher. Elaine got a Providian card with a $2000 limit. "I maxed that out" right away, she says, mostly to pay for a degree program in accounting at the University of Phoenix, a program that requires regular contractual payments. (She also took out a student loan to defray the costs.) For the next year and a half, she worked two jobs: she delivered newspapers from two to six in the morning, after which she got her daughter ready for school before going to her regular job as a telecom employee. Now earning an extra $1000 a month and facing her last car payment for her Mirage, she decided to upgrade: she bought a used 1998 Ford Explorer for $16,000 -- $500 down and $400 a month for seven years. She says it was necessary for her paper route. "I tell my dad, 'Had I not gotten the Explorer and just kept my car,' " which would have been paid off, " 'I probably wouldn't have had to file bankruptcy.' "

So Elaine sought to wipe out the $27,000 she owed. She paid $200 for the filing fee and $500 for the lawyer, and the bankruptcy trustee discharged her debt: creditors were forbidden to contact her, and they had to swallow what she owed them. For the next year, Elaine paid cash or wrote checks; those things that credit cards ensure (air travel, car loan, concert tickets) were much harder for her to get. Today, she is taking a finance class and learning the ins and outs of credit. "The people who always pay their credit bill each month and bring it back to a zero balance are the ones that never get asked to increase their limit and are always offered more credit cards. It's always the people who have a higher debt ratio who get more credit. Just like me," she says. "But not anymore."

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