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“I love personal finance!”

Comedian Maria Bamford is on the phone and wants to recommend a bunch of books before we begin our interview: “Personal Finance for Dummies,” “Earn What You Deserve,” “How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously.” She devours this kind of stuff, she says. It’s like a religion. Bamford, the stand-up comic and co-creator-slash-star of the new Netflix sitcom, “Lady Dynamite,” isn’t joking. In fact, she has faced a share of financial demons that’s as quirky as her distinctive brand of comedy:

  • $5,000 in medical bills.
  • Creditors who wouldn’t stop calling her at home.
  • Credit scores below 500.

And that’s just the beginning. We asked Bamford, 45, to share what she’s learned from dealing with debt and how that informs her series. Here, she speaks candidly and humorously about creepy landlords, how depression makes it harder to get by and why it’s important to talk about money, no matter how ashamed you might feel.

Your character in “Lady Dynamite” is constantly doing risky things with her money: buying a house to win her best friend’s approval and dating men with bad credit, for starters. How much of this is based on real life? 

It’s exaggerated. But I bought my house in 2007, right at the height of when they were kind of giving away mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. I got two mortgages on a house. It worked out. I didn’t get a balloon payment or anything, thank God … I didn’t have to sell it, but it did go underwater and all that stuff. I just kept paying off the mortgage.

Your character also attends Debtors Anonymous meetings. Have you dealt with bad credit yourself?

Oh yes, my goodness. I’ve had bad credit. Twenty years ago, I got into about $5,000 of medical debt and had three collection agencies that were calling me. And I needed to get meds and was going to the county facility here in L.A. … If you’re missing one leg to a stool of stability — like, I have a college education, a family who’d let me live with them, and my mental illness is not severe enough to the point where I couldn’t function — [it’s hard to keep your finances together].

In the show, you also take in an outdoorsy type, played by Dean Cain, who’s got ultra-bad credit (he leased three Jaguars). Did that ever happen?

No! But I’ve dated people who were bananapants about money partially because they weren’t clear about what they had, what they owed and were just mad all the time … Well, if you’re so worried about earning $1 million a year, do you need that second house? Why are you leasing a car? Just, like, all these things. On my first date with my husband, he showed up in his car, which was a 10-year-old Saturn, and I was so glad for that. His friends had said, “You can borrow my car, man.” But I was so relieved when I saw that car. I was, like, “Oh awesome, here’s somebody who’s real.” I have a 10-year-old car as well. It’s the best investment you can have, really.

So you’ve dealt with collectors and guys with bad credit. What would you say was your financial low point?

When I moved to L.A. 20 years ago and I just didn’t know how to have a job, to keep a job and to care for myself. Despite having a 4-year college education, those were not the skills I had developed. That was the most terrifying thing: to not have health care, to have a psychiatric condition, to be living in an unsafe apartment I couldn’t even afford. There were knife fights in the hall; I got mugged and robbed. My landlord accepted sex for rent.

How did you pull yourself out of it? 

The things that really helped me were getting into financial recovery. That really just helped me feel OK to talk about money and to have the willingness to get clarity about how much I need to earn to have a normal life. I just thought, “Oh, you have a college education, you shouldn’t do some kind of work.” It was just ridiculous … And I put my creditors last, actually. If I don’t put my health, food and shelter first, I will never pay them back. I did end up paying them back over 8 years — but I did pay them back. I also have lived without a credit card for 20 years. I just recently got [a credit] card for just my travel agent, and then she charges things, and I pay them right away so I never have a balance.

What puts you off about credit cards?

People don’t read the fine print. I know I didn’t. First you feel like a special person that they’ve chosen. Then suddenly you’re a pariah and they’re mad at you at all the time. “Wait, I was a princess only a few months before, and now you’re so mad at me.” I don’t think they’re inherently evil, I just think that, especially when the income disparity is so bad … it’s a dangerous thing.

Did struggling with mental illness make dealing with your finances harder?

I think it was a combination of things. I definitely had depression but also a feeling of lack of safety and shelter and stability can make people depressed. So it’s kind of hard all mixed together, I think. But I definitely believe that there are new studies coming out that say housing, shelter, support have to come first before anything. People need to feel safe, and I know for me and my own life, that’s been true.

Do you think there’s shame around discussing finances?

I think so, I feel it. My husband and I are now half-millionaires. We have half-a-million in cash assets and then we have our house. And part of me feels embarrassed, like, “Should I even say that?”

But attending the anonymous support groups made you more comfortable with it.

It’s just like, my experience in any support group — and I’ve been to so many — is that there are people who’ve experienced what you’ve experienced. Even if they don’t have information that can be helpful, they have so much experience that can be useful … There are so few places to go for help now that are free … so you know wherever you can get it, emotionally, like to just talk about what’s going on. I think that there’s so much hope in that. I think problems happen when we all stop talking or feel money’s embarrassing to talk about or shameful. And that’s whether you have a lot of it or a little of it.

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Image: Natalie Brasington

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