Bankruptcy filings are plummeting

Becky Billings and Joel Hagen. Plymouth, MN (a Twin Cities suburb).

If being in a terrible financial situation is a precondition for bankruptcy, Joel Hagen and Becky Billings were pretty good candidates for it.

In 2012, the couple, who live in Minnesota, wanted to declare bankruptcy. They had suffered through several years of rotten job prospects, which came courtesy of the lousy economy.

"We've been together for almost 6 years now and about 90 percent of that one of us has been either unemployed or underemployed," says Hagen.

They also have piles of debt. Joel started their relationship with about $30,000 in credit card debt, plus a roughly $100,000 mortgage. Becky had that and more from graduate school.

"I come with student loan debt," she says.

Becky and Joel managed to dump their mortgage through a short sale. But they still wanted to discharge some of their other debts in bankruptcy. The problem was they couldn't scrape together $1,300 to pay a lawyer. And they didn't want to waste money filling on their own in case they botched the paperwork.

You've heard of too big to fail? Becky and Joel were too broke to file.

As we talk about all this, Becky falls silent.

"I guess I'm going to cry about that a little," she says, wiping away tears. "It was hard."

For Becky and Joel, avoiding bankruptcy was not some big financial victory. 

Melissa Jacoby teaches law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She says it's easy to assume bankruptcy filings are down by about a third since the recession because Americans are better off now. But she says that's not necessarily the case.

"We don't always see a perfect a perfect alignment between good times and low bankruptcy filings," Jacoby notes.

Jacoby says if the economy were soaring, bankruptcies might actually spike. Credit standards would loosen and people would take on more risks -- and more debt.

"Some of the highest peaks of bankruptcy filings occur in very prosperous times. That certainly happened in the middle of the 1990s," Jacoby says.

Right now student loans are the only kind of consumer debt that's been rising steadily since the recession. But good luck discharging that kind of debt in bankruptcy.

Becky Billings says that's one reason she and Joel Hagen can't get any relief from bankruptcy today. "You have to keep the student loan debt forever and ever and ever," she says.

Becky and Joel are both working now. He does copy writing, she does marketing, they both judge high school debates. But their finances are still precarious. And student loan debt will hang over them for years to come. 

About the author

Annie Baxter is a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.

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