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Commute with a view

On Consumer Protection, Consumerism, and Mindfulness

As a consumer protection attorney, I attract a lot of interesting questions, such as:

"I've heard that if you pay a lawyer to send a letter to the credit bureau, you'll get a better credit score. Is that true?

"Should I pay small debts first, or higher-interest debts first?"

"I've heard that you won't get a job if you don't go to a big-name private university back east. I can go to school for free in the one cow town but that sounds lame. Should I take out student loans for undergrad? It's only $80,000 per year, and with the special dual degree program I think I can be done in five years."

"Does 'charge-off' mean the credit card people decided that I don't owe the money anymore?"

"Should I lease a car so I can make money as an Uber driver?"

"Can I pay off my student loans with Bitcoin?"

"I've heard that people who watch more cat videos have better credit scores. Is that true?"

"My Airbnb guest spilled marinara sauce on my white linen couch. I cry every time I see the stain because that couch was expensive. Is my case worth a Brazilian dollars?"

Ok, well, some of that is made up. 

I explain that I am not a CPA or a financial planner, but that I can give legal advice about consumer credit topics. 

I can tell you that your case is probably not worth a Brazilian dollars. (I haven't checked the exchange rate lately.)

And since this is my blog, and my blog is not legal advice, I can tell you what I really think you should do to avoid needing a consumer lawyer. I said "avoid," not "prevent."

Are you ready for the advice of the century? Here it is.

If you don't need to buy something, don't buy it.

If you do need to buy something, buy the cheaper one.

And when you buy the cheaper one, don't take out a loan for it.

If you must take out a loan for it, take out the smallest loan possible, and pay it off as quickly as you can.

Keep records of everything you buy and borrow. We cannot control when some "system" is going to lose our paperwork. 

We cannot control how and when laws may be gutted so someone else's pockets will be lined by the person least able to afford it.

We cannot control if someone else has a similar social security number or name to ours.

We cannot control that there are sloppy companies, data breaches, thieves and scoundrels.

We largely cannot control if we get injured.

We can control if we have savings in the bank. We have a great deal of control over how much we save.

We can control how much food we put in our mouths and how much money we spend.

We can respond quickly if we learn our data may be vulnerable to a thief -- see, www.identitytheft.gov.

If the choice is offered to us, we can choose to live in a one-cow town or go to college while living in our parents' basements.

We can live in the basement apartment in the city instead of the expensive high-rise with all the "amenities" that is the same exact distance from our work. (Don't those amenities make it sound like a retirement home for young people anyway? Ugh.)

We can drive an older car.

We can live in a smaller house.

We can go hiking a few miles from home and enjoy a cheap beer at the summit instead of going out for craft cocktails that cost as much as half a tank of gas.

We can own fewer things.

We can choose to be mindful.

Mindfulness is not a "fix it and forget it" thing. Mindfulness is choosing each day to be wiser than the consumerism gland that lives in the brains of most of us that makes the distinctive smell of a Nordstrom store so compelling.  (See, e.g. Chicago Tribune on scent branding.) The consumerism gland is what makes people literally act like they're stoned walking around Whole Foods or the Apple Store.  (See, e.g. New York Times on decision fatigue.)

The marketeers know all this stuff, and play us like violins. Don't think it is just in retail consumer goods. Payday lenders don't have mean thug debt collectors in their commercials. They have a happy family who looks like they would never in a million years need a payday loan smiling on the front porch of a nicer house than houses inhabited by half the lawyers I know. And, I am quite sure I have seen the same smiley stock photo I call "headset girl" on the website of approximately one in three collection agencies. Wow, headset girl is like Santa Claus! Everywhere at once!

Mindfulness is when we choose to hear, but not act on that voice that hisses, "you deserve a new car...a 'college experience'...and the latest cute outfit." Mindfulness is the choice to stop and re-center ourselves in our hearts where our real needs are calibrated and our true desires are stored.

Listen to that voice, and eventually you'll spend less, save more, and have fewer junk drawers in your kitchen. 

So yes, I do consumer protection law, I believe in a fair and honest marketplace, and I am so bothered by how unfair and deceptive sellers of credit, credit information, and tangible stuff can be that I have built my career on holding them accountable. But I am the first person to tell you that the first line of defense is yourself.

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