Ever had the phone disconnected?
Known the anxiety of early-morning calls from disgruntled creditors?
Opened the "insufficient-funds" letter from the bank when the "float" didn't work? Discovered that the $2 overdraft will now cost you $7 in bank penalties?
If the answer is yes, then Budget Director Bert Lance's current troubles with credit and overdrafts may not seem so special. After all, living on credit has become an American way of life. But unlike Lance, ordinary folk don't have bankers for friends and their financial highwire acts often end quickly in high drama or not-so-hilarious comedy. Not many people can float more than $26,000 worth of overdrafts and sleep in ease and security. Indeed, the average Joe probably can't even get that kind of money.
When he can, it's usually from a bookie and bookies are notoriously good at collecting their due.
"I remember going along when some bookies went to collect," recalls one man. "They looked like juke-boxes wearing sports jackets, but they were only going to make a warning stop. They ripped the wires out of this man's car and told him they expected him to pay the 'vigorish' (interest on the loan) on the next Monday or they'd be back to rip something else up."
Some uncharitable people might say that Lance's position is different because he's a politican, but being a politican has little to do with the ability to keep a balanced checkbook and a line of credit. Out on the campaign trail last year there was a horde of politicans, but political visibility had no sway in the hustings as Rept. Mo Udall (D-Ariz) discovered when he attempted to sign a luncheon check in the hotel.
"No charge," said the waiter to Udall. "Twenty-nine dollars or I take the food back."
Udall paid the cash and was left with only two dollars.
For the campaign-advance people the credit situation could be event worse. Democratic National Committee staffer Carroll Ann Rambo worked as an advance person for both the Humphrey and Mondale campaigns. During the 1968 Humprey campaign, Rambo recalls that things got so tight "I had to walk to Western Union in L.A. with the money in my hand to send telegrams. They wouldn't take the charge over the phone."
Working with the Mondale campaign last year, Rambo says she arrived in Denver once only 40 cents and had to call another advance person who was already in the city to meet her cab and pay for it. "We got paid every two weeks," says Rambo, "but the checks were always being sent when you weren't. They were vouchers drawn on an Atlanta bank and once you got them, the local banks wouldn't cash them. It got so that we called the stuff 'funny money'."
Shortage of the real, live bills is the reason most of us use to justify the need for credit cards. But then who needs an excuse for a pocketful of vinyl. Advertising says it all: Don't Leave Home Without It," or "Relax You've Got Mastercharge."
"The more you use it, the more they'll give you." says a Washington artist who accumulated his Plastic when he owned a restaurant. "One minute the credit card companies are sending you these notices to pay up. So you pay them a little and the next thing you know you're getting this letter that says, "Due to your incredible credit, we're extending you more."
"It's sad, but it's the way the country is run. Who knows, though, maybe it's not such a bad thing. Suppose the U.S. had to pay the national debt tomorrow?"
Most of us aren't responsible for the national debt, however, and sooner or later, the financial splurge catches up. When it does, it can be embarrassing, as one Washington free-lance writer discovered when she tired to use a major credit card before she'd paid the balance.
After lunch at a Chinese restaurant with a friend, she slapped her card on the bill and waited. At the cash register, a knot of people gathered as waiters and hostesses in slinky Chinese gowns milled around the manager. There was a lot Chinese conversation before she was motioned over to the desk. The manager explained that her card had been voided, then used scissors to mince it into chop suey. The friend had to pay the bill.
"That's the biggest problem." says Richard Sarna, manager of the Credit Recovery Bureau, a Washington collection agency. "A lot of people don't feel they have to pay the bill, especially if they owe to a large corporation or hospital.
Their logic is that the hospital will always be there or the corporation makes big profits. They don't think that the people who pay their bills are also paying for the people who don't in higher costs."
Sarna says that most of Credit Recovery's business is done over the phone and that the first thing they do when contacting a reluctant bill payer is "ask them when they can take care of it. We try to help them work it out some way, either borrow the money or make some payment on a bill."
Sarna says that most people reaction to a phone call from a collection agency is defensiveness. "They feel it's unfair for us to call them. They tell us 'I mailed it yesterday' or It's in the mail."
Sarna said that for his first year on the job he was embarrassed to tell people what he did for the living because they would ask how he could do that to people.
"After eight years in the business, I don't feel like a bad guy. I'm just trying to help people out on a spot. Most people who overbuy on credit cards aren't criminals, they've just mismanaged the household finances. Less than one-half of 1 per cent of the cases involve credit criminals."
Actually, the hard-core credit criminal is not that pervasive, according to Sgt. William Harrison, an officer in the Check and Fraud Squad of the District police. The division deals with bad checks, false pretenses - either drawing checks on a closed account or using stolen checks - and forgery.
But when the intent is to defraud, Harrison says, it's usually in a big way. He recalls a recent case in which a man, who presented himself as a businessman, kited checks (wrote drafts on funds that did not, and would not, exist) between an out-of-town bank and a local bank. Using a deposit-withdrawal system, the man had ammassed $200,000 before the authorities caught up with him.
But sources in the business say that most people don't intend to violate criminal statues when they have the occasional overdraft and bounced check.
A spokeman for a local bank says that overdrafts account for less than 1 per cent of the roughly 90,000 individual transactions the bank has each day. The overdrafts, he says, are the result of miscalculations in checkbooks, a deposit based on another bank, or a bank error.
Floating checks - writing a check on insufficient funds, knowing the money will be there by the time the check clears - is, however, done by a large portion of the population. Former President Ford, once asked by White House reporters how he'd paid for a Vail vacation and some clothes when his bank account was too low, said."Why, that was my next paycheck. Haven't some of you ever done that? You have these bills the end of the month, so you go ahead and pay them, and then you deposit your paycheck a few days later to cover the checks."
Most of us can understand that, since who hasn't floated a few. The judgement is still out on Bert, though.