Solid advice for those deeply in debt

It's hard not to notice a disturbing trend in the news headlines today: the motive for murder is increasingly fueled by bad debt.

In Middletown, Maryland, there was the heartbreaking story last week of, Christopher Wood, a 34-year-old husband and father, who snapped and then killed his wife and their three kids, and then took his own life. He was $460,000 in debt.

A few months ago, in Santa Clara, California, Ervin Lupoe was at least a month behind on his mortgage, owed the IRS at least $15,000 and owed thousands more on a line of credit. He and his wife had been recently fired from hospital jobs, after allegedly lying about their income in order to try to qualify for cheaper child care. That apparently did it for him. He killed his wife and their five kids, and then, himself.

Earlier this month, in Hanover, Connecticut, an 84-year-old man, Elliott Lewis, in both financial debt and bad health, killed his wife and himself. His debts totaled $40,000.

There's even been some speculation that the Craigslist killer who has recently made news may have had gambling debts, inspiring him to rob, and even though this is speculation, one has to wonder whether the recent suicide of David Kellermann, the acting CFO of Freddie Mac, was related to money, or rather, the stress of not having any money.

But I'm not thinking of a killer with gambling debts or of the tragic death of a CFO. I'm thinking of the poor kids and spouses who were murdered by the person who was supposed to be protecting them.

Common sense tells us that somewhere out there is another husband and father (or possibly a mother and wife, though it almost always seems to be the man) who will soon find his financial life coming apart at the seams and snap. It's probably futile to write what I'm about to write, but for the breadwinners who feel desperate about their debt and means for supporting their family, I'm going to offer some advice, anyway.

First, if you have guns, get rid of them. Seriously. If you're deeply in debt, and you're stressed about it, do yourself and your family a favor and sell your gun or guns. If you can make a little extra income by selling them, why not? But the main reason is that if you come unglued, the last thing you need in a house is a killing machine. Serious money stress and firearms simply aren't a good combination.

Go get help. I'm stereotyping, but one reason moms and wives don't appear in the news is that they tend to have a better network of support. We're fairly deep in the 21st century, but there's still that 20th century mentality among men that we can take care of all of our problems alone, and that we don't need to talk things over.

Well, that's crazy logic, if you think about it. Why should a difference in one chromosome mean that you're fated to keep everything bottled up inside you for the rest of your life? And clearly, for some guys, not talking about their problems does lead to a very short life. One place to go get help, if you haven't already, is the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (1-800-388-2227 for English-speaking Americans; 1-800-682-9832 for Spanish-speaking Americans).

And I know it may be embarrassing to call, or it may seem like a giant generic organization that won't have any clue as to how to help you, they exist to help people in debt, and they've heard every terrible financial tale before. And I'm saying this as someone who knows. Back in 2001, I went to a credit counseling service -- a nonprofit that offered decent help but wasn't part of the NFCC, which I now regret, because it's the gold-standard among credit counseling services. Anyway, I went to one of those services. Yes, it's humbling. But they were able to help me navigate some really massive credit card debt, and more importantly, I fully admit, just taking some action made me feel better about my situation.

You're not the only person to have financial problems.
I really feel for the person who had financial problems back, in, say, 1999 when everyone seemed to be making money, hand over fist, when the Internet bubble was booming. Those people probably truly felt alone, like they were utter failures for not having $20 million in the bank and a cool web site, but the embarrassment and shame factor of being deeply in debt should be somewhat diminished these days.

Not that being deep in a recession makes it any easier to tell a six-year-old that you can't afford a vacation this year, or a new swing set, or even a new toy, but considering that over a million people declared bankruptcy in 2008 and 1.5 million are projected for this year, and 1.6 million for next year, you shouldn't let your money situation affect how you feel about yourself. These are not normal times.

Bottom-line, your family needs you -- not your money. Remember that. Believe that. In bad times and good, that needs to be your mantra.

Geoff Williams is a personal finance journalist who has dealt with just about every lousy experience you can have with money. He is also the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America.

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