When your life mirrors a reality show about debt

A TV camera taping

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Has your debt gotten out of control? Are you constantly fighting with your partner over money? Well then maybe -- just maybe -- you'd qualify for the reality show "'Til Debt Do Us Part."

It's a financial makeover show produced in Canada, airing here on CNBC, for couples at risk of breaking up over gigantic credit card bills and overdue car payments. And as fate would have it, someone behind the scenes has been struggling with some of the same issues.

Sean Cole explains.


Sean Cole: I should tell you a little more about the show first. It's hosted by the money guru Gail Vaz-Oxlade. Every week she meets with yet another couple buried under an Everest of debt. Lovingly, she yells at them.

Montage of Gail Vaz-Oxlade clips from show: $57,000 in debt! If you can't come up with the money to make the payments on the couch, why'd you get the couch? Every month you're overspending by $2,755. Can you see why I think you're both morons?

Couple: Yeah. Yeah.

Then she lays down the rules.

Vaz-Ozlade: For the next month this couple will learn to live on a strict cash budget. No more credit cards. They'll complete weekly challenges to tackle their money and relationship issues. And if they're willing to change, I'll reward them with thousands of dollars to pay down their debt. No changes, no money.

And a lot of them do change. They make a budget. Stop overspending. They even get more cuddly with each other. I wanted to get behind the scenes somehow, just to see how it all worked. And then, I was out at dinner with a new friend I met at a party -- Mia Macdonald -- and I said, "What do you do for work again?" "I work for a reality show," she said.

Mia Macdonald: O.K. tell me who you are. Name, age and occupation.

Tracey Heron: Tracey Heron.

Macdonald: Maybe make it a bit more personable like "Hi, my name is..."

Turns out Mia's been casting director of "'Til Debt Do Us Part" for almost two years. She pre-interviews the couples over the phone and then auditions them at their homes on camera. Sort of a screen test.

Heron: Since we started fertility treatments years ago, we've accumulated approximately $120,000 in debt, if not more, but we're not really keeping track anymore.

Macdonald: How does that number -- when you say it out loud -- how does that feel?

Dan Heron: It's kind of scary how much you can spend in a situation.

It also turns out Mia's distinctly well-suited to this job.

Macdonald: And if I ask questions, just know I'm not judging you guys. I have my own debt.

Tracey Heron: O.K.

Macdonald: Like a lot of it.

An awful lot of it. And since Mia is always recording couples telling their debt stories, I thought I'd record her telling hers.

Macdonald: My debt started with student loans.

She didn't really need them since she had scholarships and governmental aid. But everybody was taking out loans.

Macdonald: It was a $45,000 bar tab.

She graduated into film work in Vancouver as a personal assistant to big Hollywood types. She leased a Mazda she couldn't afford, rang up dinners and vacations on the MasterCard.

Macdonald: Not just the MasterCard, it was the MasterCard and the Visa.

Cole: Oh O.K.

Macdonald: And the other Visa. Luxury department store card.

And then work slowed down. This is all contract work, by the way -- no benefits. And finally, she was driving with two friends on a movie set and smacked into a production vehicle in front of her.

Macdonald: I just remember saying to my two friends, "Are you guys O.K.?" and they're like, "Yeah. Are you?" And I'm like, "No. I think you better go in." And then I just sat sobbing and sobbing. I had no credit left. I didn't have money to fix the car. If I relied on insurance, my rates would go up; they were already exorbitant. I was screwed. By October of 2005, I was $70,000 in debt.

It's fluctuated since then -- down to $25,000 at one point, back up to $50,000 due to unpaid taxes. Right now she's hovering around $30,000. But to Mia's boss at the show, all of these liabilities were a weird kind of asset.

Macdonald: She thought that because I had struggled with debt myself so much, that I would be very good in casting because I really can't judge them. I mean, I'm just as impulsive.

And impatient and optimistic. Of course there are a lot of different stairways into the basement of debt. Take Tracey and Dan Heron who you heard auditioning earlier; they probably wouldn't be in debt if it weren't for all of the fertility treatments. And finally, a surrogate mom.

Tracey Heron: We thought we'd be pregnant the first $15,000; $15,000 is nothing we can go get pregnant and then move on.

Macdonald: Optimism.

Tracey Heron: Optimism exactly.

Macdonald: I'm telling you.

Dan Heron: Yeah.

Macdonald: Since I've become more pessimistic about the future and cynical, I'm doing a lot better.

But Mia's also managing her debt better simply because of working on the show. For one thing, it pays pretty well and for another, it's a show about how to manage your debt. She can't help learn on the job. And yet, in one way, all that learning can make it frustrating to audition people who are still in the dark.

Dan Heron: We really don't know what the best avenue is to do.

For example, Dan and Tracey Heron bought some land north of Toronto, built a cottage on it, then mortgaged the cottage to pay for the fertility treatments. And now they wanna keep the cottage.

Dan Heron: Cottages aren't getting any cheaper. So for us to sell the cottage we basically -- not that it'd be for sure -- but it'd be unlikely that we'd be able to afford it later.

These people are $120,000 in debt. At this point even I'm thinking, "Sell the frickin' cottage!" Mia always wants to jump in at moments like this with her own advice.

Macdonald: And I bite my tongue. Because that's Gail's job, it's not my job, but it's just that I've learned a lot and I watch the shows and by no means am I an expert, though clearly I wish I could be on the show sometimes.

But she doesn't qualify. She's single. Speaking of which -- and this'll give you a sense of how much debt has pervaded her brain -- Mia was on a date last month, a first date, at a pretty expensive restaurant.

Macdonald: And when the bill came and I saw it I was like "Oy!" And he's like "That's O.K, that's what credit's for." And I had to really check myself from going, "You know, that's the kind of attitude that got me into trouble."

Cole: You, like, almost turned into the casting producer on your date.

Macdonald: It is hard to work on a show like this and not become that nag.

Except, not long after I interviewed her, Mia's contract ended. And she signed on with another reality show in Toronto -- a show about lavish, unapologetic spending.

In Toronto, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.

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