BELFAST, Maine — When Eric Leppanen graduated from college in 1993, he jumped feet-first into the corporate lifestyle as one of the first 25 people MBNA hired when the credit card giant first expanded into Maine.
He wore a suit, climbed the corporate ladder and was a cheerleader for credit card sales.
“What was our goal? To put the world into debt,” Leppanen, now 42 and a Belfast resident, said this week.
He didn’t leave his passion for credit behind when he left work for the day. Leppanen signed up for scores of credit cards for himself, in part with the thought of doing market research for the company and in part because his credit was “amazing.” He used those credit cards to do work on his Northport house, to finance vehicles and to obtain cash advances that he invested in the stock market.
“I always paid my bills, but I was heavily in debt,” he said. “It seemed like free money at the time … You always convince yourself you’ll get out of this debt.”
But when Bank of America, which bought MBNA in 2005, laid him off in early 2009, he knew he was in trouble.
Leppanen, who had a wife, Linda, and two children, totaled up the figures and realized he was more than $50,000 in debt. The more than $25,000 he had invested in the stock market had declined in value to almost nothing. He took $50,000 from his 401(k) retirement account to live on and pay the bills. By the time the Leppanens saw a financial advisor later that year, they discovered their only option was filing for bankruptcy.
“The last thing I ever wanted to do in my life was admit failure,” Leppanen said. “Especially when you work in the finance world.”
The average credit card debt of a U.S. household in November was $7,194, according to the Federal Reserve. When only U.S. households with debt are considered, the average debt load increases to $15,422.
Jennifer Hayden, a partner with Molleur Law Office in Biddeford, focuses on bankruptcy. Her office, which primarily represents debtors, has been staying busy, she said Friday.
“Playing the bankruptcy card is a sacred legal right that should be reserved for the worst of times because it has so much power to [change] someone’s life,” she said. “It’s often that filing for bankruptcy, as long as all the ducks are in order, can help folks… I see people all the time and they always feel badly about filing. Filing has nothing to do with not wanting to pay.”
Leppanen was one of those people who didn’t take bankruptcy lightly. He worried about the judgment of his family, friends and neighbors as the family had to sell their home and investment property. They downsized, rented a home in Belfast and embarked on a very different lifestyle.
But then Leppanen started to feel something unusual: freedom, as the weight of all that debt and worry was taken off his shoulders.
“Everything changed, my whole outlook on life,” he said. “It’s like going to hell and back again.”
‘Indebted States of America’
Leppanen and his wife cooked up a plan when Bank of America began laying people off. They figured they could start a cleaning business with just $500, and did.
They called it “ aNeatNook: home cleaning and property care,” set up a website and began to find clients, beginning in 2009.
In each of the last three years, the business has grown by 20 percent, and he and his wife are now at “max capacity.” They travel as far as an hour for work, but try to keep their base of clients close to Belfast.
“We can’t take on tons of new work,” he said. “But we can be more selective about what we do.”
The Leppanens earn $30 an hour cleaning the homes of local artists, retirees and summer folk. It’s not a fancy career, but that’s okay, he said.
“It’s how we support our family,” he said. “I couldn’t be more thankful.”
That wasn’t the only benefit of being laid off. When Leppanen lost his job, he was inspired to pursue art, a longtime passion of his.
Using old paint his cleaning clients give him, Leppanen makes works of abstract impressionism. It has become more than a hobby — he calls it a second full-time job. He paints at night, with his finished work displayed at a Rockland gallery, Asymmetrick Arts.
Recently, a shoebox packed with nearly 300 of his expired credit cards — a legacy from his former life — inspired him to make a different kind of art. In one frenzied night of painting and assembling, he turned about half the collection into a version of the American flag he calls “The Indebted States of America.”
He painted the plastic cards red, white and blue, adding stars with the fifty state quarters he ordered from the Franklin Mint. He traded his cleaning services for the frame, which is made with gold leaf.
The piece was on display in the Rockland gallery when it caught the eye of Trevor Hughes, president and CEO of the New Hampshire-based International Association of Privacy Professionals. Hughes decided he wanted to use the artwork in his discussions about privacy issues.
“I have always found it difficult to convey some of the more complex ideas in the field to audiences and students,” Hughes wrote Friday in an email to the BDN. “‘The Indebted States of America’ does something that mere words struggle to convey — it suggests, in a very personal and understandable way, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the aggregation of data. This is clearly a privacy concept, and Eric’s piece gives clarity to the issue.”
Hughes said the piece of art forces students to think about the places their personal data exists in today’s information economy.
“Consumer credit is certainly a flash point, and we increasingly see our credit information as a source of vulnerability,” he wrote. “But at the same time, we rely heavily on the ease and power provided by the credit made available to us. Privacy exists in that balance — between the legitimate use of data and the concerns over misuse of our information.”
Leppanen said he is glad to have his art and experience used to help educate others. As for his own journey, although it wasn’t the one he thought he was embarking on when he signed up for his first credit card in college “in exchange for a beer koozie,” it has taught him lessons he wouldn’t give up.
In exchange for a corporate hamster wheel, he now is his own master.
His family lives debt-free. They do have two credit cards in order to re-establish credit, but those cards have $500 debt limits, and the Leppanens pay them off in full every month.
“I want to teach my children that you can do more with less. I shop at Goodwill. Things are handed down. And yet, I think I have an abundance in my life,” Leppanen said. “I hate to go to hell and back — but now, I’m in heaven.”