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Lori Esch, like a lot of people these days, let her credit cards get away from her.

She bought things she needed -- appliances for her apartment, clothes for work, repairs to her aging car -- but soon found she had hit the limit on her credit card.

So she got another one, with a better interest rate, and used it to pay off the first. When she hit the limit again, she got another card and paid off that one.

Before long, she found herself in over her head. Combined with student loans she was still paying, a divorce and a checking account wiped out by a former boyfriend, the Cheektowaga woman was a prime candidate to take a trip to U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

But unlike thousands of other Western New Yorkers -- 6,021 last year, a record -- she chose not to file a bankruptcy. It would have wiped out her credit-card debts, or allowed her to pay, at most, a few pennies on the dollar.

Instead, Ms. Esch went to a credit counseling service. She worked out a plan that requires her to carefully budget her earnings and pay off every cent of what she owes.

Ms. Esch, 30, said filing a bankruptcy would have been the easy way out. She could have erased her money problems with a few strokes of a pen. But she didn't feel right about that.

"I kept thinking, 'I got myself into this, I'm not going to drop it on someone else's shoulders,' " she said. "The debt was mine. . . . I should pay it back."

So Ms. Esch called Consumer Credit Counseling Services in Buffalo. The free service, which is the largest of its kind in Western New York, is funded
by the United Way and the credit industry to help people pay debts.

John Y. Pax has been the agency's only executive director since 1965. He is proud of the work it does, but he wishes more consumers would use his program instead of bankruptcy. While local bankruptcies have doubled in the 1990s, Pax's caseload has risen only slightly.

If high-profile bankruptcy attorneys like Jeffrey Freedman are the front men for bankruptcy, Pax is his counterpart for paying.

"If we have a bias, it's that we are against unnecessary bankruptcy," Pax said.

What does Pax have against bankruptcy? Let him count the ways:

Bankruptcy erases debts, but it doesn't teach consumers anything about how to budget their money and avoid spending more than they can afford.

Having a bankruptcy on one's credit record can make it more difficult to get a mortgage, a car loan or other credit in the future.

When someone files a bankruptcy, they're essentially passing the bills they can't pay along to other people -- who pay higher interest rates to cover unpaid debt -- rather than solving their own problems.

It hurts local businesses when people in the community don't pay their bills.

"In the Buffalo area, most people don't want to go bankrupt," Pax said. "It's not a native Buffalonian's style."

Half the 400 to 500 people helped by his agency each month are able to work things out with some financial counseling, Pax said. Some can't be helped at all, and they wind up in bankruptcy court or on welfare.

But more than a third of his clients go on debt-management plans, like the one he worked out with Ms. Esch. Debt payments are spread out for up to four years, the creditors are notified, and the collection agencies usually stop bothering the debtors.

"We help them get a fresh start without bankruptcy," Pax said. "And the creditors get 100 percent, not two cents on the dollar.

"If you owe Sears $2,000, I say 'OK, Sears, you're going to get your $2,000, but it's going to take some time,' " Pax said. "But our clients are going to pay what they owe."

When Pax first started counseling clients 32 years ago, most people had no more than a department store credit card, perhaps two. If they needed money, they went to the bank and took out a loan.

Now, with the average person carrying seven credit cards, he's seeing people come in carrying credit card debts of $100,000 or more.

"Downsizing and the loss of jobs are the biggest problems locally," he said. "Instead of readjusting to their new income, people use their credit cards to maintain the same standard of living.

"Most of the problems we see are self-inflicted," Pax added. "It's not usually catastrophic, like medical bills. I can't say they're all like that. But most say the same thing, 'The credit was easy to get.' Once they got it, they couldn't pay it back."

Pax's agency not only helps people straighten out their finances. It helps creditors get back their money, between $7 million and $8 million last year.

As impressive as that might sound, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of debt people walk away from in Buffalo's Bankruptcy court.

Ms. Esch, who works as a cook and waitress, almost became one of those people. She found that the plastic waves of credit gave her a quick, slippery ride to the bottom.

She was also falling behind on her student loan payments. A computer mistake somewhere led to her receiving 74 delinquency notices on the same day.

It was all falling in on her at once. When the dunning telephone calls started, they never stopped.

"I'd have Visa calling on one hand, saying 'we need to get at least $50,' " she said. "Then Master Card would call, saying 'we have to have $60.'

"I had them calling me at work, at home. It was getting bad. I'd be getting calls at 8:30 in the morning and 9:30 at night."

Those who have gone through these financial nightmares say the stress is unbearable. Every time the phone rings, they think it's another bill collector. They dread trips to the mailbox.

"We didn't know what to do," said Shirley Hart of Killbuck. She said the pressure built on her and her husband, Daniel, after he became disabled and lost his steady paycheck. "I said, we just can't go on like this. We'll be in the poorhouse."

Like more than a million other Americans last year, the Harts could finally take no more. They swallowed their pride and filed for bankruptcy.

Lori Esch, however, has paid her debts. She is newly married and living on a budget. But as she scrimps and saves to make ends meet while she repays every penny, she often wonders why she was going through all this.

"Bankruptcy has been made so easy for people," she said.

Once she paid the principal she owed, she found she also had a large chunk of interest to pay.

And she also discovered that despite repaying all her debts, her previous poor credit record will stay on file with the national credit bureaus for at least seven years from her final repayment. Those who file for bankruptcy keep that on their credit records for seven years from the day they file.

"The good side of me wants to say 'pay your debts,' " Ms. Esch said. "The bad side says, 'why bother?' "

She knows she took the right route for her, but it wasn't easy.

"People are given enough knowledge to make their own decision," said Pax. "Everyone is looking for a quick fix. Bankruptcy may seem like a quick fix, but it isn't always."THURSDAY: Who pays for bankruptcy?

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