Shaking a plastic cup for change on the 16th Street Mall is so 2002. Cyberbegging is a much less time-consuming -- and warmer -- method of making dough. At least for those needy souls with an Internet connection, a little HTML savvy and a PayPal account.
Michael Palmer, his girlfriend, Kristi Laurita, and Andrew Kowalyshyn are just such people, and they're hoping a generous many will point and click them to a debt-free future.
Palmer and Laurita, who have been dating for a year, are $25,000 in debt, the majority of which comes from Palmer's graduate-school student loans, along with $6,000 in credit cards. They both have good jobs -- he works for an Arvada software firm, she's a Denver nurse -- and adequate incomes, but they want to be in the black before they consider nuptials. So Palmer posted www.weddingbills.com, asking people to help them out with a dollar or five.
"Debt is such a difficult thing to get out of. It's hard to get your head above water," says the 29-year-old Palmer. "They say that the number-one thing that couples fight about is financial stress. I come from a divorced family; I don't want to go through that again. I don't want to have this lingering over our heads."
Cyberbegging entered the pop-culture vernacular last summer when 29-year-old Brooklynite Karyn Bosnak posted www.savekaryn.com, asking people to help pay off the $20,000 in designer-clothing bills she'd racked up on her credit card. "Over the last few years I've run up quite a credit card bill -- $20,221.40 to be exact. Maybe it was too many morning lattes that pushed me over the edge, maybe it was the Prada pumps that I bought on eBay," her Web site reads. "Please help me pay my debt. I am nice. I am cheery. I didn't hurt anyone by spending too much money. I was actually helping out the economy. Give me $1, give me $5 -- Hell, give me $20 if you feel like it!"
In less than five months, she collected $13,323.08.
Despite Bosnak's windfall, Laurita wasn't so easily sold on the idea. "I was quite hesitant," says the 27-year-old. "I'm not a lazy person. I am working hard to pay off my debt. I didn't want to deal with the criticism that we both knew that we'd get. "
But the couple went through with it and have received more than 300 hits and $300 since the site went up in mid-January. "I cut up my credit cards a year ago, and we both have consolidated our debts to get a lower interest rate," says Palmer.
Kowalyshyn is going through a similar experience since he converted his year-and-a-half-old site, www.mailmeadollar.com, from a merry prank (he wanted to see if anyone would actually send him a dollar) to one dedicated to reducing his $23,000 credit-card debt. "It was pretty much the whole getting-out-of-college, getting-a-job, now-I-have-money thing," says the 26-year-old. "It was the whole social trying to fit in and be cool. Plus, I was in a long-distance relationship with a girl who was very superficial, and I was trying to impress her."
The acoustical engineer is also selling off the trappings of that lifestyle, which he says was never his true character. He's offering up a mint-condition collection of 1980-2003 Playboy magazines for $2,000, his Burton Floater snowboard for $875, and a date with him for another two G's. "I went with $2,000 because it's the limitation on transactions PayPal accepts for non-business accounts," he says. "I'd have to put up a serious amount of money to go beyond that."
So what's this Denver bachelor got in store for his lucky suitor(s)? "Whatever they're willing to pay for."
And people are willing to fork over money for a lot of things. A bald guy from St. Louis posted www.shinynoggin.com and has received $142 toward the $10,000 he needs for hair replacement surgery. A 22-year-old self-proclaimed geek who still lives with his parents is hoping for $100,000 at www.helpageekgetlaid.com. He's gotten $114.40 toward buying his own place so he can finally get a little love. (Bosnak felt for him and donated $9.41 after paying her own debt.) And www.saverob.com is looking for $28,000 to pay off Rob's medical bills from being hit by a San Francisco cab.
Most of the sites are posted on www. cyberbeg.com or on Yahoo, which has had a directory for e-panhandling since 1996. But because most sites were spoofs rather than actual pleas for cold hard cash, they were listed under "Humor." Last fall, Yahoo finally changed the heading to "Poverty" after seeing a large spike in the number of searches on the topic. "We realized that they weren't just humorous joke pages. People are really taking this seriously," says Michelle Heimburger, senior lead surfer for Yahoo, which lists more than seventy such sites. "And even though it's been around for a while, it's definitely a new trend. We're really seeing a lot of traffic."
Which is exactly what Palmer and Kowalyshyn plan to capitalize on. "There seem to be new links popping up like this every day," Palmer says. "It's definitely on the rise, which is why I wanted to try and get a jump on it now, while it can still be profitable."
It has yet to be for Kowalyshyn. So far, only his brother has given him a dollar -- two, to be exact.
J. Michael Faragher, dean of the school of professional studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver, studies Internet trends and warns that not everyone will have Bosnak's luck. "This is just one more example of the entrepreneurial American spirit," he says. "But what is going to happen fairly quickly is that so many of these sites will pop up that they'll max it out, and nobody will make any money. What worries me is that people will get sucked in by scam sites. This kind of thing always draws people just looking to make a quick buck. There is no way to tell if these pleas are legitimate."
Palmer and Laurita swear that they're good people who just need a little help. They've even made a pledge to live more frugally while cyberbegging, including cutting out Laurita's weekly manicures. "We both gave up Starbucks, and we haven't gone out drinking or to eat in months," Palmer swears. "There are so many things that we wasted our money on over the years, but we are definitely not living large now."
Kowalyshyn also promises he's a good guy who just who got caught up in the "whole being-hip-in-Denver thing" after moving here in 1999 from Connecticut, where he went to college. He's rediscovering his culinary abilities and is entertaining himself at home instead of at the Bluebird Theater. "I always liked cooking, but I was just lazy," he says. "I'm also trying to work on my drawing skills, especially figure drawing."
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The three hope their sacrifices will make potential donors feel better about giving to gainfully employed twenty-somethings instead of recognized charities. "I understand that there are so many great causes out there," Palmer says. "All I'm trying to do is pay off my debt. If you have a dollar to spare and you don't want to give it to me, fine. But give that dollar to someone."
It did not, however, make message-board users on www.theknot.com, a wedding resource site, feel any pity for his and Laurita's plight. After Palmer posted a message about weddingbills.com on January 22, other Knot members spent the rest of the day flaming the couple for their audacity. "You are pathetic," wrote LaBelleFemme. "My friend declared bankruptcy because he accumulated so much debt. Why don't you consider that? Or better yet, just pay your bills? You both are apparently financial idiots, so no matter how much money people give you, you will never be able to 1. appreciate it 2. spend it wisely. I hope that one of you gets a clue so you won't be living in perpetual debt. Good luck."
Kowalyshyn has gotten better responses, with most people just lamenting, "You bastard, you thought of it before I did," he says.
But the still-cynical Laurita isn't counting on luck or do-gooders, preferring to save the old-fashioned way. "My goal is to have my credit cards paid off by this December, no matter what," she says. "I want it to be done so I can move on with my life."