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ONE COUPLE'S SPIRALING CREDIT CARD DEBT

Mary and Larry Wolniewicz of Clarence Center said they lived a middle-class lifestyle while running up a debt of $336,328 on 58 credit cards.

Bankruptcy Court officials said theirs is one of the largest credit card debts ever recorded locally.

But the couple insisted they have always been careful with their spending. They said they do not live like royalty, never go on shopping sprees or gambling junkets. They almost never go out to dinner, to movies or anywhere else that costs money. They don't own fancy cars.

Where did all that money go?

The Wolniewicz case is a classic -- although extreme -- example of what is going on in America's bankruptcy courts. Middle-class families are getting in over their heads with credit card spending. Then they file bankruptcies to walk away from their debt.

During an interview in their attorney's Amherst office, the couple said their financial problems were caused by hard luck, banks pushing credit cards on them and a never-ending renovation project that turned their old house on Goodrich Road into a money pit.

Mrs. Wolniewicz, 47, a nurse, worked two jobs and made $50,000 last year. Her husband, 49, a former retail store employee, has not held a job since the early 1980s and cares for the couple's three children.

They own a computer, three television sets, four VCRs and 1,500 videotapes.

"That's because we don't go out -- we stay home," Wolniewicz said.

"You have to understand, so many of the things that happened were out of our control," said Mrs. Wolniewicz. "We tried to renovate an older house rather than buy a new one. We used credit cards to buy things like tools and building materials."

"It's the interest rates they charge on these cards," said Wolniewicz, wearing denim clothes and a beer hat. "We've probably paid off what we actually owe two or three times. But with the interest rates, you never catch up."

The couple said they decided long ago it would be best for him to be a "house husband," taking care of their three children. Now that the children are in their teens and the family has serious financial trouble, Wolniewicz said he is looking for work.

"I've never heard of anyone with a credit card debt that large in this area, but I can see how it could happen," said Fred G. Floss, associate professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College. "When you're paying 18 percent interest on your credit cards, a few thousand dollars of debt can get out of hand real fast if you aren't careful."

U.S. Trustee Christopher Reed, the U.S. Justice Department watchdog for the local bankruptcy courts, has been asking a lot of questions about the Wolniewiczes.

In an unusual move, Reed recently asked Bankruptcy Judge Carl L. Bucki to dismiss the couple's bankruptcy. He accused them of "substantial abuse" of the bankruptcy system and said their credit card spending was reckless.

People who so obviously spend beyond their means should not use bankruptcy to walk away from their problems, Reed said.

"You're talking about a debt that is almost seven times their annual income," Reed said. "There is no way they could possibly have had any reasonable expectation to pay it off. . . . This is a test case for this district."

If Bucki agrees with Reed, the bankruptcy will be tossed out of court, and their creditors might sue the couple.

Reed added that he does not dispute the couple's claim that most of their debt is from interest, their home renovation project or their day-to-day living expenses. He sent an appraiser to look at their home and has been examining their credit card receipts.

The banks are also to blame, Reed said.

"One bank gave them 11 different cards, and they ran up about $55,000 on those 11 cards. You have to wonder how the banks let that happen. Don't they check credit reports?" Reed said.

Wolniewicz said banks still send him and his wife preapproved credit cards -- months after they filed a bankruptcy.

The Wolniewiczes insisted they never set out to take advantage of credit card companies or the bankruptcy system.

They said they bought their house on a rural stretch of Goodrich Road 22 years ago. They've spent tens of thousands of dollars on additions and renovations. But the project has been going on since 1979, and the big black-and-tan house is still years from completion. The house is a big one, with 12 rooms, including five bedrooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms, a kitchen, den and dining room.

Mrs. Wolniewicz said the couple bought the house for $22,500. She and her husband took out a $50,000 second mortgage in 1987, and they still owe $45,000 on that.

In a list of possessions filed with their bankruptcy, the couple said they had $75 cash, a $1,500 checking account, $257 in savings bonds, $3,000 in household goods, $100 worth of books, $700 in personal clothing, $200 in jewelry, the televisions, VCRs, videotapes and computer.

Despite their debts, they bought the computer last year for $2,200 and also spent hundreds of dollars on software. Wolniewicz said any family needs a computer to stay current in the 1990s.

Wolniewicz said he and his wife also own a 1988 Chevrolet Caprice, a 1994 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and a large assortment of hand tools, "bought mostly at garage sales," worth $3,469.

Wolniewicz now denounces the banks that gave him credit.

"Who kept giving us this money? The banks," he said. "The banks will give you a low interest rate to take their card. They'll promote using their card to pay off all your other credit cards. Then, after you've had the card for a few months, they jack your interest rate up to 18 or 20 percent."

While not commenting directly on the Wolniewicz case, a Buffalo banker who is an expert on credit policies said it's unfair to blame banks for the actions of people who are unable or unwilling to control spending.

Anyone who uses credit cards ought to realize the bills must be paid, said Matthew N. Schiro, administrative vice president at M&T Bank.

"It's a matter of personal responsibility," Schiro said.

The couple's attorneys, Peter G. Zummo and Louis B. Toth Jr., blame the banks and their clients. The lawyers call it immoral that banks kept giving the couple credit but said they should have better controlled their spending, especially after the debt swelled.

"The credit card is like a knife. If you properly use a knife at the dinner table, it's a wonderful convenience," Zummo said. "But if you abuse it, you're in tremendous trouble."

If the Wolniewiczes are living the high life, their neighbors certainly have not noticed. Two nearby neighbors were amazed to learn that the family ran up such a debt.

"I can't see where they would have spent it," said one woman who passes the Wolniewicz house almost every day. "That house of theirs has plastic over the doorway -- it's like this project that never gets finished."

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