Photo: Marc Royce
Tax debt, garnished wages, zero savings, and a faltering marriage: Repairing this family's finances was anything but simple.
Erin Mason*, 38, may be a Web-search expert, but she and her husband, Jeff, 40, have been feeling pretty lost: "We owe nearly $15,000 in back taxes," she told me last summer. "Our wages have been garnished. We have two liens on our house. We both make good money, but we can't get ahead. We don't know where to start."
Erin wasn't kidding about the good money part—together, she and Jeff, a systems administrator, net nearly $6,800 each month. But they're so far behind on their income tax payments that the state garnishes $800 per month from Jeff's paychecks, and the couple also pays $283 toward federal back taxes each month. These payments are included in their monthly expenses of $5,900 ($2,100 goes toward the mortgage on their Portland, Oregon, home). Despite a $900 monthly surplus, Erin worries about providing for their children: Andy, 16; Meg, 10; and Joseph, 12, whose developmental disability is another financial concern. In fact, Erin has even considered filing for bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy? When you make more than $100,000? I don't think so. The Masons need to fix their own mistakes. Erin seemed ready, but I would soon find out that she and Jeff weren't exactly on the same page.
When Erin and I first spoke, I found myself confused. Despite that extra $900 each month, the Masons had saved very little. "We're scraping by," Erin said. Yet her expense list included $60 a month for pet food and vet care, $125 for meals out, $67 for a YMCA membership, $48 for magazines, newspapers, and books, $200 for Costco runs, and $86 for charitable donations.
They clearly weren't spending responsibly. And there was another issue. Erin told me she was serious about fixing their financial mess, but that Jeff felt differently—he spent about $100 a month adding to his massive sports memorabilia collection. "He has no perception of how much he really spends," said Erin, who estimated that Jeff had dropped up to $30,000 on the collectibles over the years.
I was eager to tell Jeff that selling this collection could be their ticket out of trouble: Even if it brought only $15,000, they could pay off the entire amount due on their back taxes. I had also figured out that the Masons were heading for more tax trouble in the coming year. As an independent contractor, Erin must pay quarterly state and federal income tax, including self-employment tax. Yet she wasn't setting aside what she owed. Finally, I had my eye on Erin's $27,000 soon-to-be-due student loan (she earned her bachelor's degree in June 2010—her job lets her work at home and set her own hours). She starts repaying in January 2011, meaning she'll have another $200 to $400 monthly expense. Unless the Masons made some changes, that payment would be tough to handle.
I told Erin that no matter what happens, it's time for her to make better choices. First things first: The unnecessary spending has to stop. Instead of buying books and magazines, they could use the library. At Costco, Erin must make a list—focusing on needs, not wants. And while charity may be noble, the Masons can't afford it right now.
Keep reading: Suze's plan to turn things around
*Indicates name has been changed.