Friday, October 12, 2007

"Maxed Out" by James D. Scurlock

Before we begin, no, this is not the "Super-Size Me" guy, although it's easy to see how one could think that. That was Morgan Spurlock; the names are eerily similar, aren't they? In any case, Scurlock also investigates what he feels are evils done to the common man, in this case by the financial industry (there's a documentary film of the same name; the book is intended as a companion piece).

The book is both frightening and hopeful. The set-up is pretty simple: each chapter details an individual/family going through a rough time with some sort of financial institution (Scurlock seems to have an especial hatred for the credit card industry, something I'm sure most of us can relate to). The stories are all similar in the sense that the people having the problems never truly believed they'd get to this point. People who are in danger of foreclosure having weekly yard sales in the hopes of garnering just a bit of extra cash, spouses who are trying to come to grips with not only mounting debt but the lies they've told to cover up the problem, and college kids maxed out on credit cards they obtained despite their lack of earnings. The tales of suicide are the most difficult to read; I've been in debt (and still am) but I cannot imagine things getting so bad that I would consider killing myself as a solution. Yet Scurlock states that people this financially bad off do just that and on a frighteningly regular basis.

There are no real revelations in the book, yet I would still recommend it to anyone who has had or still has debt they're trying to deal with. Why? Well, this work won't tell you how to get yourself back on the road to financial security, but it does give you a sort of support system while you're going through it. I know I felt better reading about people who were dealing with situations much the same as mine, a sort of "misery loves company" feeling, if nothing else. And while Scurlock rails against pretty much everyone in the financial world, he does make one excellent point, one that I think really needs to be considered. A lot of the debt that is being OK'd by lenders and credit card companies is done based on a person's FICO score, not on their earnings and ability to pay, which is the way it used to be done. Granted, there were a lot of people turned down in the old days who might have been a bit risky but would have done a great job paying off a loan, but these days it's almost a free-for-all; dogs can obtain credit cards, as can the dead. Sadly, the credit card industry still preys on college students, especially freshman, a dangerous combination. Imagine being away from home for the first time, living on "your own", AND having a piece of plastic to make purchases. Who wouldn't be tempted to go a little crazy?

I hope that if nothing else "Maxed Out" gets the right people talking about how to get Americans out of debt and back on the saving track. I doubt change will happen anytime soon, though. Face it, as individuals we are encouraged to spend, spend, spend. And as a country? Well, I think our deficit speaks for itself.

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