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From Credit-Card Junkie to Internet Beggar

When she found herself $20,000 in debt after overspending and losing her job, she got the idea for a Web site. But condemnation comes with the cash.

November 17, 2002|Lukas I. Alpert | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — After an 18-month bacchanal buying Manolo Blahnik, Gucci and Prada, Karyn Bosnak found herself unemployed with more than $20,000 in credit card debt.

When Bosnak, 29, spotted a sign in a supermarket with an odd request -- "Wanted: $7,000 To Pay Off Debt" -- it made perfect sense. The television producer launched a similar appeal to a much larger audience: the World Wide Web.

Internet panhandling was born.

Now, more than 3 1/2 months after launching www.savekaryn.com, Bosnak has received more than $13,000 from hundreds of donors worldwide. Coupled with the online auction of the high-ticket items that drove her into debt, plus earnings from a new job, as of Nov. 10 she was debt-free.

"At first I figured it wouldn't work, but I could collect some stories out of it and maybe I'd write a book," she said. "But it must have struck some sort of a chord because people just started sending me money.

"I guess many people can relate to debt."

But for every person who feels her pain or simply admires her creativity, there is another who condemns her method. One angry e-mailer wished that she would die of cancer.

And there's the Internet backlash, with anti-Karyn sites like www.dontsavekaryn.com, which promises to "waste your money in inventive and creative ways."

Or www.savekarynnot.com, which asks people to donate money to charity rather than finance Bosnak's "bikini wax binge and Prada party."

"I never thought I would offend anyone," she said. "I guess I was wrong."

Still, the venture has been an undeniable success, landing Bosnak in People magazine and on NBC's "Today" show. Even better, the money she collected was tax-free -- considered a gift, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Bosnak says she has even been approached by a publisher for a possible book deal and a producer about selling the movie rights.

"It's an issue of timing and a great concept, and of course great word of mouth," said Frank Catalano, author of "Internet Marketing for Dummies."

"Stuff like this is not easily replicable. It utilizes the water-cooler factor," he said. "But really, it's an inspired anomaly."

He said he doesn't find the bipolar response surprising.

"If you're going to stand up in public and flash people, some folks will take photos and others will throw ice water on you," he said.

Bosnak's financial troubles began when she moved to New York from Chicago in May 2000, near the end of the economic boom. She had just taken a job as a producer for King World Productions on a short-lived reality courtroom program called "Curtis Court."

Earning "well over $100,000 a year," Karyn rented an expensive apartment in midtown Manhattan within walking distance of Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale's.

"I didn't know that many people here, so I just walked around checking out the city and I'd end up buying things," she said.

Which meant charging $400 Prada sling-back shoes, $500 Gucci purses, pedicures and $150 trips to the hair salon on her six credit cards.

"In my mind, I was making a lot of money, so I should live like I make a lot of money," she said. "Spending $500 on a Gucci purse didn't seem like a big deal."

But after the failure of "Curtis Court" and a stint with the even shorter-lived "Ananda Lewis Show," Bosnak found herself out of a job and faced with an enormous debt in the shaky post-Sept. 11 economy.

"I got really depressed," she said. "And then I snapped back into reality."

First, she moved from her midtown digs to a more modest, shared apartment in Brooklyn. For the next four months, she was unemployed and living la vida frugal -- no more trips to the beauty shop, no more nights on the town.

In April, she finally got a job on the Animal Planet show "Dog Days," but took more than a 50% pay cut. After doing the math, she figured that it would take 40 years to pay off her debt. Then she saw the sign in the supermarket, and the rest is history.

Bosnak says any money she receives after clearing her debt will go to charity.

"Also, if this movie thing should happen, then I'll match whatever everyone gave me and give it to charity," she said.

But has she really learned her lesson?

"Oh yes, definitely," she said. "Becoming the face of consumer debt was not necessarily a situation I wanted to find myself in, and I certainly would never want to find my way here again."

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