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It Happened to Me

Whether living a dream or avoiding a nightmare, five people share their financial adventures and make one thing clear: You can't put a price tag on resolve.

One day you're an average citizen, managing the monthly bills, doing the 9-to-5 thing. The next day you stop for gas, scrape away a silver circle on a card, and become a millionaire. Or you call a phone 10 states away and learn a stranger is claiming to be you. What's it like to always leave home without the plastic? Or dream about opening your own cafe -- and then actually doing it? Or take time off and refocus your priorities by listening to a lama? Meet five folks who've encountered financial situations the rest of us only fantasize -- or fret -- about.

Look Ma, No credit cards!
Jennifer LaCroix
32, hairstylist, Braintree
If I saw an $800 Prada purse that I liked, it was mine. I used to buy a new outfit every weekend. But now, if I don't have the money for it, I don't get it. That's reality. Credit cards are dangerous. I loved them before because I never went without anything. Now I need new clothes for work, but I have to save up. I always have cash on me or use my debit card.

I was too young when I got my first credit card, just 16. Back then I didn't have my own bills. And I always thought I'd make more in the future. But you don't anticipate the life stuff. You have to live life as well as pay your bills. There are always things that come up, like birthday gifts or engagement presents. I spend $10 a day on lunch, $8 a day on parking for work, and $70 a week for gas. It adds up. Last week after health insurance was taken out of my check, I hardly had anything left. In October I started saving up to buy Christmas presents. I don't skimp on what I buy, but I don't buy for as many people anymore. And it helped not to have a boyfriend this year; that's where half your money goes. I live with my parents now so I can finish paying off my old credit card bills. I hardly do anything anymore. I don't go out bar-hopping like I used to. Sometimes I'll bring a bottle of wine to a friend's house and we'll all have dinner there, or we'll watch a movie.

At my worst point, my credit card debt was about $16,000. I still owe about $15,000. My consolidated credit card payment is about $370 per month. I used to spend without thinking. It's humbling living this way. I don't have half the stuff I used to have, but I never want another credit card. The best feeling in the world will be to not owe anyone a thing.

From Banker to Baker From Banker to Baker
Ben Lem
50, cafe owner, Jamaica Play
I was in retail banking as a branch manager and was tired of expectations from above to do more and more. Last spring I thought, what's next? At the same time I was turning 50. I had been thinking about opening my own business for some time. I finally said, let's go with the dream, life is short.

I quit work. My partner, Jack Allen, and I took a cruise from Seattle to Alaska and traveled the West Coast as we talked strategy. My dad had run a chain of restaurants called the English Room for 20 years, which closed in the 1980s.

He had one on Newbury Street and two in the suburbs. People loved his homecooked food, lined up for it. His dream was to pass one restaurant on to each of his three sons, but we spent so much time there as kids that we were burnt out.

But that was 30 years ago. I decided to open a dessert cafe, seeing a need for a late-night cafe spot in my neighborhood. I opened Sweet Christopher's last November, naming it after our 6-year-old son. I don't make anything besides coffee, which customers tell me they love. Instead I work with local bakers.

Jack works at IBM, so we're covered for health insurance. I take Mondays to spend with Christopher after school and have some time to rest. I had to build in a day for myself and for family; I don't want to burn out.

I financed the cafe through a combination of savings, home equity, and relatives. I raised about $80,000 in loans. You have to be gutsy and go ask for money. I'm a gutsy guy. I didn't touch my retirement savings. But you have to be a risk taker. I didn't mind separating myself from the safety net of a regular paycheck. It's not for everyone. I used to make about $60,000 a year plus incentives, and I won't come close to that for at least a few years. Right now I'm putting all my money back into the business. My monthly expenses, including rent, salaries, inventory, and utilities, are about $7,000 to $9,000.

I'm working about 50 hours a week, a little less than my banking job. Being your own boss gives you a kind of freedom, even as it is a huge responsibility.

You get to make your own decisions and live by them. I love doing what I'm doing. Jack sees I'm more tired but notices I'm more content. Our son let everyone in his kindergarten class know I was opening a place named after him.

He loves talking about it, and he really loves the desserts.

Who am I?
Who am I?
Michael Bass
41, lawyer, Westwood
It's an ugly story. Fifteen years ago, I was living in Brookline, and just three days before my wedding, I get a call at work from a clerk in the back office of a Florida department store. She wanted to know if I had recently purchased three video cameras, at about $800 each. I told her I hadn't been in Florida in years and didn't have a credit card for that store.

But someone else did, in my name. I called the credit agencies and sure enough, Michael Bass had a Florida address and work number. The thieves even gave me a new job -- in marketing. Thousands of dollars had already been charged in my name, and at the top of the list was an inquiry into a car lease.

I later found out that identity thieves will try to lease a car to test the upper boundaries of your credit limit. Mine was good then. I felt totally powerless, but I called the Miami police and all the credit bureaus and put a stop to all credit cards in my name. I didn't even have credit to use on my honeymoon. It took two months to finish all the paperwork.

Now I'm guarded about what information I give out, and I never give out my Social Security number. And all this was before the Internet. I use Identity Force out of Framingham to help protect me, so I can relax enough to take a vacation. Even though I got everything purged off my record years ago, it still chases me. It comes up every time I do something with real estate. Eventually I learned that the thieves were targeting out-of-state professionals and that they probably found my name on the Florida bar registry. It scares me how minimal the chances were of them being caught; they had crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's. Thank God for that one clerk. Time Out Time Out
Jamie Hunt
26, designer and photographer, Cambridge
In January 2006 I quit my job at an economic consulting firm. I was making about $55,000 a year. The work is exciting if you get caught up in the moment, but when I stepped back I wasn't very passionate about it. I had gone from prep school to Williams College to working, always on a straight line. My family knew this, so they supported my idea to take some time off, to leave behind the crap and live simply.

First I traveled to Cambodia for a month with my cousin. Then I came back to Somerville for a month. I'd kept my room in the apartment I shared. In April I flew to the Himalayas with the National Outdoor Leadership School for a monthlong mountain trek. My whole experience, including the $6,000 NOLS course, cost about $15,000, but I think it could be done for less. I had saved up to do this. My sister was teaching English in Dharamsala, India, so I traveled there after the NOLS excursion. I rented a room from a family way up a hill for about $1 per night. I would wake up at 6 a.m., walk down the hill past the roses growing on the cliff, do three hours of yoga, listen to a lama for an hour, and then learn to play the Indian flute. The lessons were only about $1.50 per hour.

Although it seemed like a pure existence, I wanted something even purer, so I traveled to Nepal to take a course in Vipassana meditation, the kind the Buddha used to gain enlightenment. I caught a $130 flight from Delhi to Katmandu for 10 days of noble silence, doing 10 hours of meditation a day. The course is free, although you're asked to give a donation at the end, and you are given two meals a day. Every day I woke at 4 a.m. and went to bed at 9:30 p.m. It's pretty intense. You can't go anywhere; they take your passport. You just have to deal with yourself. My goal was to remove myself from everything familiar and strip clean to find out what I missed and what I really wanted. I love the environment, design, and teaching. I came up with this idea of being a person of balance. When I came back over the summer, I wanted to incorporate that balance. I took a course to become a yoga instructor and other courses in graphic design. In September I started applying the concepts, doing design and photography under the name Of Balance, doing design projects for environmental and other organizations, and I teach yoga. I balance a long day of work with endurance sports.

Most people think that time off will set you back, but it can keep you at the forefront of creativity and awareness. Winning Big (But Not Big Enough) Winning Big (But Not Big Enough)
John Leahy
54, laborer, paper mill shipping department, Townsend
Last July I won a million dollars. I couldn't believe it when I scratched off those last few spots. My old heart started thumping, and I took the ticket down to the gas station where I bought it. Then I was off to the lottery headquarters in Braintree.

I smile now when I look at my monthly bank statements, but almost all of that first payout -- $35,000 after taxes -- is used up. Eight grand went to the mortgage, I paid off a year on my Saturn, my sisters had helped me out in the past so I gave them some money, and I paid off some of my credit cards. I still owe about $10,000 to $15,000 on them. I can't wait to be done with those suckers. I'm finally, slowly, getting myself out of the hole. Things aren't clear yet, but they're getting better.

Everyone asked me why I didn't quit my job at the mill. I've got at least 10 or 11 years left, and I need the health insurance. My wife, Eva, has MS. Thirty-five thousand a year is like an extra income, but we couldn't live on that. At least now I don't have to work so much overtime, and Eva and I have our schedule on my days off. We watch Love Connection and the Game Show Network and then at 3 p.m. Dr. Phil comes on.

Eva likes to stay close to home, so we didn't go out to a fancy dinner to celebrate, but we did order in a lot. There was no cooking in our house for a while. This year, when the payment comes in on that July anniversary, I'll redo the bathroom and put in those grab bars for Eva. It hasn't been done over in 18 years. I might see what the payoff is on the car loan, and the couch is worn.

I still play the same $10 card every day. You never know.

Janice O'Leary, a Boston-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to the magazine. E-mail her at