Ted and Giselle: When Debt Overwhelms

Sitting before me is a couple in their late 50’s.

They were referred by a friend who told me that they had some financial troubles and could really use a professional’s ear.

They are in a financial mess. Their work situation is unstable and they have amassed a large amount of debt. They are both working part-time—Ted in a job he dislikes intensely, Giselle, as a contract worker in an industry that needs her when it needs her, which is not nearly as often as she had hoped. To put it bluntly, their situation is dire; too much debt, not enough income.

Their mood today reflects the state of their finances. In front of Giselle leans a tall stack of papers enumerating each and every aspect of their financial woes. She is looking at all the numbers. Ted is looking at nothing. His expression? Defeated.

I start the meeting the way I do each new encounter, by asking: “How can I help?” My job now is to sit back and listen. What I hear from Ted is a long and self-blaming tale of defeat and about how he single-handedly failed his wife and now grown children. He places all the responsibility for their hardship on his own head. If there was a club nearby he would have bludgeoned himself senseless.

After a solid ten minutes, I interrupt Ted’s self-flagellation and ask him to pass me a plastic-wrapped biscotti from the canister in the middle of the conference room table. My request baffles him, but he hesitantly complies. I take the biscotti from him, lean forward and use the biscotti to tap him on each shoulder. Looking him in the eyes I say, “I absolve you of all your sins.”

Confused, he glances over to his wife and then at me. I smile at them both. “Now that you have been absolved, are you ready to change your view from dwelling on the past to thinking about the future and possible solutions?”

Finally, they both smile.

“Absolved? I am absolved?” he asks with a faint trace of hope in his voice.

“Yes, my son, absolved! Now, can we talk about what we can do to turn things around? The past is interesting to understand and we can clearly see the present. We need to focus on the future.”

For the first time since they walked into my office, they audibly exhaled. I even heard a tiny wry chuckle. I can see that my little joke has helped them realize how caught up they’ve been in the vortex of past mistakes and problems. It is now time to focus on solutions and a future that was debt-free and filled with choices.

By the end of our meeting, we have mapped out some strategies, isolated some questions that required research and prepared a plan to end the madness.

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