Paycheck to paycheck: A clean break from credit

Balances out of control, he fell into the trap of fees and higher rates. Now his life is weekends working doubles and full-time school.

By JOHN PENDYGRAFT, Times Staff Photographer
Published December 28, 2007

Ruben Masas, 38, looks like another Monday morning has been personally beating him silly with an ugly stick. He's wearing a wrinkled white T-shirt that only a bachelor could love, light blue hospital scrub pants and elasticless tube socks that fall unevenly around his ankles. He attacks Mondays back with everything in his kitchen arsenal: two cups of coffee, a Mega Man max performance supplement, a hit of Noni juice, a multivitamin, and oatmeal with banana slices. All his weapons working together can't get his eyes to open more than halfway, much less get him out the door of his sparse north Tampa apartment on time.

Actually, Mondays can't take all the credit. Weekends do most of the damage. Masas works a full 40 hours Friday through Sunday as a patient care tech at Sabal Palms Health Care Center. Two doubles and a graveyard shift leave him feeling rough, but clear Monday through Friday for a full load of classes in medical lab technology. One of which starts in 10 minutes.

His mind is on the fact that he's broke.

"Being broke isn't too bad," he says. "What you don't want to do is use credit cards for necessities. You don't want to start using your credit card for groceries."

He speaks from experience. Last year, money got tight. He started charging routine expenses on two credit cards and has been playing catch up ever since.

His debt grew to over $6,000. When he couldn't make the minimum payments, late fees, over-the-limit fees and increased interest rates pushed the balance further out of reach.

Feeling helpless, Masas turned to American Credit Counseling Services in Tampa. He cut up the cards, and is on a five-year payment plan negotiated between the banks and his credit counselor.

His situation is not uncommon. In 2007, the median amount of credit card debt carried by Americans is about $6,600, according to Cardtrak.com. In 2006, $2.03-trillion was charged on credit cards over the year, $850-billion of which was unpaid at year's end. Some say the problem is getting worse. According to a recent Associated Press analysis of data from America's largest card issuers, the value of credit card accounts that are at least 30 days late jumped 26 percent between October 2006 and 2007.

In the next few years, Masas plans to finish his degree and hopes to one day find work in a crime lab. "Like CSI," he laughs. He hopes to re-establish his credit and own a home, but he knows those dreams are harder than they were when he was younger.

"I think it's cultural. It's harder to live the American dream than it was when I was a kid. Things are different now. It's getting to the point where everyone has to have two jobs," he says. "It used to be one was enough."

About this feature

Two out of three families in the United States say they live paycheck to paycheck. American savings are in the negative, the lowest level since the Great Depression. In the Tampa Bay area, the financial pressure for many is acute: Average wages are lower than comparable Sun Belt cities, and median home prices have doubled in a decade. Add a related surge in property taxes and insurance bills (not to mention higher gas prices) and the challenge to make ends meet is quickly becoming pervasive. It's not a fringe problem. It's your neighbor; it's us. Times photographer John Pendygraft is seeking stories that put a face behind the phenomenon.

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