INTERVIEW


Maxed Out on Personal Debt


James Scurlock's documentary Maxed Out was released nationwide on DVD in June.

KIPLINGER'S: Why make a movie about debt?

SCURLOCK: I'd wanted to do a film about fast food and why Americans are so overweight. But after I saw Super Size Me, I realized that film had been done. What's the other addiction we all have? Debt. Every New Year's we resolve to lose weight and get out of debt. I thought the film would be funny, a romp through consumer culture -- McMansions, BMWs, designer clothes.

That's not how it turned out? No. We met one family in Indiana, for example, whose mother had disappeared. After getting calls from debt collectors the next day, the family found out she had a secret life, funding a gambling addiction with credit cards. It became clear then that debt is a very dark topic. On the one hand, personal finance is just numbers and math -- academic. But it also goes to the core of who we are, how successful we are, who our friends are -- our identity. Having a high net worth defines our success, and if people are broke, it's hard for them to admit they've failed.

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Most people aren't buried in debt, right? Maybe not. But the point I want to make is that lenders discovered years ago that they can make more money by getting people to spend rather than save. It used to be that a preferred customer was someone who paid bills on time and paid down debt. Now a preferred customer is someone who floats debt, pays interest and pays fees. That's very different from a generation ago. A lot of lenders have taken advantage of customers' ignorance of how the system works and how it's changed. You've got credit cards with terms and conditions that can change overnight and exotic mortgages that most customers can't understand.

Are you a cash-only guy? I think credit cards are wonderful. I travel, get airline miles. They're convenient. I'm even happy to pay an annual fee as long as I don't pay interest or penalties. But I canceled a card with a major bank four months ago because it kept sending "convenience" checks. Right afterward I got two offers for the same card in the mail. After about a month, I had eight preapproved offers. That's just maddening.


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