How one couple paid off $40K of debt in 24 months

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How one couple paid off $40K of debt in 24 months
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Joyce Fondren first accepted that she was in serious financial trouble deep in the heart of the Great Recession.

In 2008, Joyce, then 65, and her husband Don, 67, owed $30,000 on an assortment of credit cards and had refinanced their mortgage to get a lower monthly payment. Just two years later, they owed $90,000 on 15 credit cards — and most of it came from interest charges.

‘I was making payments of $300 to $500, of which only $100 or so was going on the debt, while the rest went to interest’ Joyce told Clark.com. ‘In addition, I was still using my charge card for food and gas. It finally got to the point that there was no money left after bills were paid.’

She and Don were living so close to the financial edge that Joyce would often make a $350 payment just to get less than $100 in available credit — which she would then promptly charge up again.

‘I was robbing Peter to pay Paul.’

Read more: How to protect yourself against abusive debt collectors

Joyce and Don reach out for help

One night, Joyce and Don were driving their 2000 Ford F-150 pickup from their home in rural Chandler, Okla., to Cimarron Casino near Stillwater, where they went on occasion to forget about their troubles.

As fate would have it, Joyce and Don turned on their radio to listen to the Clark Howard Show and serendipitously heard mention of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). Joyce opened her purse, got a pen and paper, and wrote down the website.

How one couple paid off $40K of debt in 24 months

For those who aren’t familiar with the NFCC, the non-profit organization offers free or low-cost debt counseling across the country. The NFCC affiliate that Joyce contacted help set her and Don on the road to paying down their debt in two ways: By negotiating the interest rates on the couple’s credit cards down to 6% or less and put them on a 60-month payment schedule.

The couple was also required to close all their accounts, which is not typically something we recommend here on Clark.com. Though in all fairness, closing down all the accounts assured they could not incur new debt, which is key to breaking the debt cycle.

A Survivor-style requiem for credit

After canceling the accounts, Joyce and Don had to cut up all their credit cards. That was not an easy thing to do for a couple who was relying on credit to buy essentials like food and gasoline!

So they decided to make a major ceremony out of it. On July 14, 2010, each card went into the shredder.

‘My grandson, who was 12 at the time, [manned] the shredder,’ Joyce said. ‘If you have ever watched Survivor, at the end of the show when only two contestants are left, they talk about and remember those who are gone. We did that with each card.’

Their final goodbyes to each card included recollections about how they used it: ‘This card was used on the trip to Indiana to see our son and all the casinos in between’ and ‘This one was used to buy our mattress set.’

‘We would make a comment about the card and then our grandson would send it to shredder heaven,’ Joyce recalls.

The last card was the hardest of all to shred.

‘It was the first card I ever had in my own name. We owed $15,000 on it. It was the card we used to go to casinos in Tunica, Mississippi.’

Ironically, Joyce encountered some resistance sending it to the shredder.

‘It seemed the shredder was worn out with the previous 14 cards. We could also imagine my last card hanging on for dear life to not go down the shredder.  But alas, it also succumbed.’

‘Debt snowballs’ and life after credit cards

With no more active credit, Joyce and Don set about paying down their pile of debt on the schedule laid out by their local credit counseling affiliate.

They began sending $1,897 a month to the affiliate, which took a fee of $35 and would then make payments to each of their creditors at a discounted negotiated rate.

They were paying off cards with the smallest balances first and then working their way up to paying off the cards with the largest balances — regardless of what the interest rates were on each card. It’s a pay-off strategy that’s commonly called the ‘debt snowball.’

In reality, you’ll pay off your debt quickest by focusing on paying down credit cards with the highest interest rates first, rather than by knocking out one with the smallest balances first. This approach is what’s called the ‘debt avalanche’ method.

But the debt snowball approach often gives people a psychological edge. They get inspired to continue the journey as they eliminate credit card bills from their life.

A little more than two years after they began their plan, Joyce and her husband had paid off five of their 15 credit cards and expected five more to be paid off within five months.

Their total debt had fallen from $90,000 to $50,000.

The journey continues…

Believe it or not, Joyce and Don were once a frugal couple whose tidy financial life spun out of control from a combination of medical bills and their love of the casinos.

The couple did not buy things or splurge at restaurants. They drove their cars until they could run no more. They paid their bills on time.

‘Casinos were our downfall,’ Joyce said. ‘They enable you to forget your worries.’

After they paid their bills, they spent their extra cash on gambling.

‘At first we had to travel out of state for the casinos….Then the Indian casinos started popping up everywhere.  If we spent all our cash on casinos then we used credit cards for gas, food, whatever.’

Now there is little to spend on casinos.

‘We still go but now we can only spend a little. We cannot borrow money to get us out of a tight spot.’

But with Joyce and Don’s debt clearing up slowly, there is reason to celebrate. And every July 14 — that’s Bastille Day for any of your Francophiles — Joyce and Don remember the day they shredded their credit cards and took a big step toward a better financial future.

Here are some lessons you can take away from the story of Joyce and Don…

You may need legitimate professional help with your debt

Joyce and Don sought help from a local chapter of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. The NFCC offers free or very low-cost credit and debt counseling through affiliates around the country that are branded locally under different names. Consumer Credit Counseling Service was the local affiliate in Joyce and Don’s area.

One in three people seen at an NFCC affiliate just need simple budgeting help to get their debt under control. Setting a goal of paying down debt in 60 months or less works best for people. Anything greater than 60 months and people tend to lose their focus.

Joyce and Don, however, needed something more than just simple budgeting help — they needed a hardship debt management plan. With this kind of plan, the NFCC affiliate charges a nominal fee ($35/month in the couple’s case) to negotiate a reduced interest rate and lower your payments if you qualify. Visit NFCC.org or call 1- 800-388-2227 for more details.

Consider negotiating down debt on your own

If you don’t want to go the professional help route, this is something that can become a DIY project for you. You’ll need to begin by figuring out what you owe and what you can afford to pay each month. Next, you’ll have to call up your various creditors and say, ‘My total debt is X number of dollars and I can afford to pay you X amount every month.’

Make sure all of your creditors agree to your terms in writing or tell them no one will get anything at all. They’re all scared that you’ll bankrupt out and leave them high and dry, so you have the power in this situation.

When you do agree on a negotiated payoff for all your creditors, make your payments by money order only. Don’t give any creditor access to your checking account or they may help themselves to your funds.

But know this: You should expect this approach to foul up your credit in the short term and you should be prepared to get a tax bill from the IRS for each settlement you get a credit to agree to. But if you’ve reached this point in your financial life, your credit is most likely fouled up already and the end result of this attempt can actually improve your situation over time.

Here’s how the tax bill situation works: Let’s say you owe $10,000 to one creditor and they agree to take $2,000 to settle up. In that case, the $8,000 that’s written off is considered taxable income for you. You’ll get a 1099 form in the mail that’s considered ‘phantom income’ by the IRS.

Use the calendar to your benefit when scheduling monthly payments

Joyce and Don opted for the debt snowball approach. That’s a great way to get the job done, but it’s far from the only approach.

Here’s another option gleaned from the book Invest in Yourself: Six Secrets to a Rich Life by Marc Eisenson: Begin by targeting the card with the highest interest rate. Pay more money toward that credit card and slightly less toward the other cards, until the card with highest-interest debt has a zero balance. Then you move onto the next card, and so on and so on.

Eisenson specifically suggests that you make a separate payment every 14 days to the credit card company. Work these payments around your statement cycle to avoid paying late fees. Credit card interest is typically compounded daily, so this can get you paid off a whole lot faster.

Some estimates suggest you’ll eliminate your debt in a quarter of the time by following the 14-day rule.

Stop pre-approved credit applications from showing up in your mailbox

Dial 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) or visit OptOutPrescreen.com and you can have your info removed from marketing lists for pre-approved credit and insurance offers from the three major U.S. credit bureaus.

It’s OK to enter your Social Security number when prompted for it by the computer system. That’s how they verify your identity and remove you from the lists.

However, calling the number will not stop your bank, credit union or brokerage company from selling your information. For that, you must respond individually to the privacy policy statements you receive from each financial institution in the mail. Or, you must call the institution or company yourself.

Having a positive mental attitude will go a long way

Winston Churchill said it best when he said, ‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.’

You may be deep in credit card debt today, but don’t throw in the towel! You probably didn’t get into debt overnight and you won’t get out immediately either. You’ve got to keep working your way out, day by day and piece by piece.

Read more: 7 things debt-free people never do

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Theo Thimou About the author:
Theo has co-written several books with Clark Howard, including the New York Times #1 bestseller Living Large in Lean Times. As a single widowed parent of two young children, he strives to bring unique savings tips to men and women like him who must face life without their spouses. He can be reached at [email protected]
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