Benjamin Anastas has been through a lot. Ten years ago he was a young novelist lauded by the New York Times and a regular writer for several national publications. Then the freelance work started drying up. Editors weren’t returning his calls. Publishers weren’t interested in his books. Not to mention that his pregnant wife left him. Before long he had racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt and was being hounded by collectors.
Today, things are better. Anastas has gotten his debt under control, and last month he published an acclaimed new memoir, Too Good To Be True, about his downward spiral and slow redemption. While it’s no personal finance self-help guide, there are some lessons to be learned from Anastas’s missteps. The writer explains why he got $85 haircuts with unemployment checks, how he evaded crafty creditors, and what he’s doing to make sure he never repeats his money mistakes.
You’ve clearly experienced some very serious issues, but you said being broke was the most embarrassing. Why?
As a writer, you have to get used to being broke at times, just because you wait months for advances and years for royalties. I was used to living from paycheck to paycheck. But this was a new kind of being broke. I had never faced difficulty like I was facing during the time that I was writing the book. All the freelance income that I had counted on in the past had dried up. I was getting paid less and less to teach. When you’re really broke, it’s hard to see your way out of it. It’s hard to imagine that things are going to get better.
Did things take a downturn when the recession hit?
Some of it had to do with the end of my marriage. I had a full-time teaching job in Maryland at the end of my marriage and I gave that up to try to save my marriage. But it failed. So I left what was a good teaching job in order to come back to New York and be a freelancer. That was when the recession was hitting. I was writing a lot for a magazine called Men’s Vogue, and they disappeared. So yeah, the recession had a lot to do with it.
You mentioned in the chapter “Going Broke” that you had 90 cents in the bank, $3 in singles in your wallet and some change on your dresser. Not to fact-check you, but is that true?
That was literally true on the day that I wrote that. Literally true. And if I had written that a week later it would’ve been worse, because instead of having 90 cents in the bank it would’ve been minus $330 or something, however much my bank had let me go into overdraft.
You had some very crafty creditors calling you from local numbers. I hope you didn’t think I was one of them.
I knew you were calling. They have all kinds of different strategies that they employ, and I’ve seen them all. When I was having trouble paying my credit cards, I would get phone calls from these really strange area codes, like Livonia, Michigan. Different places in Pennsylvania. But there were some creditors that would call me using 917 and 646 numbers (both New York area codes), which was crafty. But I knew better. I was under such an onslaught of creditors at that point that I knew better than to answer my phone. I just never picked it up.
How many calls were you getting a day?
Three or four. That was probably the most.
How did you get through the day? I imagine there were days when you just didn’t want to get out of bed.
Well, I knew that I had to change things. I couldn’t go on the way I was. I had just moved in with a girlfriend who I was really crazy about. I actually wanted to marry her. I wanted to buy an engagement ring. I have a son who I needed to feed and clothe and pay for. I had child support I needed to pay. Not getting out of bed was just not an option. I had to change my life. But there were some days when it was tough. Even when I was working on the book, I would wake up at 4:30 in the morning and I would spend sort of the sharpest hours of the day when it was still dark working on the book, and then I would go online and troll the job listings. I was wasting two or three hours a day applying for these jobs that I never heard back from.
Any kind of job that was even vaguely connected to writing. I applied for medical writing jobs. I applied for technical writing jobs. I even applied for a job to write catalogue copy.
Did you hear back?
I never heard back.
How much debt did you rack up?
Quite a bit. I’m still paying it off. As I say in the book – to use Fitzgerald’s phrase: “terrible small debts.” It’s not as if I was underwater on a $1.3 million apartment or something. Compared with the kind of debt stories that you hear about, it’s not so bad. I would say if you added it all up, about $80,000.
Did you use any personal finance tips or strategies to get your debt under control?
I did do a little bit of reading on personal finance stuff. I probably should’ve done more. I had a fear that if I did read them I would know immediately what the advise would be, which would be to save money in all these ways I wasn’t saving money. Like get rid of the iPhone. Stop spending so much money on haircuts. There were times when I was living on unemployment. I was getting a check every week for $192.63. And if I knew that I had a publishing party to go to, I would go and get an $85 haircut, which is completely ridiculous.
Why do you think you accrued so much debt?
With my first novel, I had a full-time job that I quit as soon as I got my contract, which wasn’t for much money. It was for $30,000. And granted, it was the late ‘90s, but still, who quits a job for $30,000 in New York? And then with my second book, which I finished a couple years after that, when I got the contract for it, I also quit a job that I had. And that was for a little bit more money — $55,000. But who quits a job for $55,000? If I was really careful, I could live on that for a year. I just had this very romantic idea that money would somehow take care of itself. And the important thing was to write. But in retrospect that was really stupid, and I’ll never do that again. When I got the contract for this book, I actually redoubled my efforts to find work.
So how are you doing these days?
I’m making my credit card payments. I still have a lot of debt to pay back. I owe money to people. I owe money to institutions. I have a lot of hospital bills I need to pay from when I didn’t have health insurance. I’m still in the hole.
But you’ve gotten things under control.
Yeah. I’m on the visiting faculty at Bennington College. And I’m also teaching in the graduate program at Bennington, and then I’m teaching at Columbia, so I have a lot of work.
Are creditors still calling you?
Yeah, unfortunately. I had some medical stuff I had to deal with before my health insurance kicked in. So I am getting calls for medical bills.
Do you have any advice for people who find themselves in a similar situation?
The thing that really helped me crawl my way out was just realizing that what I needed to change my life was a regular paycheck. And if that meant lowering my standards in order to get it, if that meant doing something like fact-checking, which I felt was something that I would’ve done 10 or 15 years earlier, then it was totally worth doing it. I had to find something that paid well, and it really didn’t matter what it was. As I say in the book, I could no longer afford the luxury of my own self-regard.