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Credit card debt transformed into art lesson

Courtesy Eric Leppanen

Eric Leppanen’s story is all too familiar: After being laid off from a major bank a few years ago, his family income is now a little more than half of what it was before he lost his job.

The difference between him and many other Americans is that he says he doesn’t mind so much. In some ways he feels like the layoff was one of the better things that could have happened to him.

“At the time it was shocking, but then kind of liberating,” said Leppanen, 42.

For 16 years, Leppanen was what he calls a “small cog in a big debt machine” as part of the credit card division of the bank where he worked.

Leppanen, who lives in Belfast, Maine, also was an avid credit card user. He frequently used zero percent financing offers and other perks to pay for things and make investments. He says he looked on his credit card habit as research because he used his experience to report back to his own company on ways to get people to bump up their balances.

When he stopped using a card or got a new one, he threw it in a box. That box eventually was filled with 169 credit cards.

“I had, like, amazing credit, plus they were giving them out like candy," he said.

By the time he was laid off in 2009, he was making about $70,000 a year and had amassed about $60,000 in credit card debt.

He and his wife cashed out some of his retirement savings to stay afloat. They were eventually forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

These days, Leppanen and his wife run a home cleaning business, and he earns some money selling art.

He estimates he brings in a bit more than half of his former bank salary, but he says he’s satisfied with the tradeoff. He feels healthier, happier, more connected to his community and more spiritual.

The family shops at Goodwill and tries to get the items such as Leppanen’s art supplies for free when they can.

There are downsides. The family has no health insurance and is carrying about $3,000 in credit card debt.

Still, Leppanen thinks the experience has been a good lesson for his kids, who are now 16 and 9.

“(I’m) trying to teach them that you can make do with what you have,” he said.

Recently Leppanen found the box of 169 credit cards. He used the cards, plus 50 state quarters, to create his own artistic tribute to the boom years of the early 2000s. He calls the piece “Indebted States of America.”

“I was in an environment where debt was like the American way,” he said. 

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