When Francine "Franny" Bostick looks back at where she was six years ago, she shudders at the memory. She not only faced financial ruin, but also was on her way to a potentially catastrophic health crisis.
"My blood pressure was soaring and almost impossible to control," Bostick remembers. "Honestly, if I hadn't gotten help with our credit card debt I probably would have had a stroke."
At the time, Franny and Jim Bostick had accumulated more than $120,000 in debt on 13 credit cards. The amount had accumulated during more than a decade of spending beyond their means.
Bostick says they simply got in the habit of buying anything they wanted. "We spent money on eating out, new appliances, new clothes and gifts for our kids," says Bostick. "We went on vacations and used plastic to pay for everything."
The Not-So-Golden Years
At an age when most people should be preparing to retire, the Bosticks were worrying about paying the next month's bills. Bostick says their finances were so precarious that they had started using credit cards to pay for their groceries and utilities -- and even using one credit card to pay the bill for another.
Unfortunately, while the Bosticks' debt was extremely high, it's not unusual for older Americans to carry a credit card balance.
According to a Demos.org study in 2012, "Older Americans have the highest average balances of any age group, with those 65 and over holding $9,283 in credit card debt."
The Turning Point
Bostick says she was never late on a payment and so creditors hadn't started coming after them. Still, she spent many sleepless nights worrying about how they would pay off the balances on their baker's dozen cards.
In addition to her stress over the mounting bills, Bostick was dealing with another source of stress: Her husband was in the early stages of dementia. His illness meant the burden of handling their financial crisis fell primarily to her.
She says she and her husband never considered declaring bankruptcy because they knew they had used the money for their own pleasure and felt obligated to pay it back.
Because she was embarrassed by their level of debt, Bostick says she waited for almost a year after learning about the Housing and Credit Counseling agency in Topeka, Kan., before making an appointment for counseling.
"I used to joke with my kids that the only thing they could fight over after we were gone would be who would pay the credit card bill. But they never knew how bad it was until after we had paid it off," says Bostick.
The Reality of 'Working It Off'
The Bosticks put themselves on a tight budget and paid $2,496 per month for nearly five years to pay off their credit card balances.
Jim Bostick was able to work 30 hours per week delivering auto parts to contribute to the household budget. Franny Bostick has been working at Kansas State University for 30 years, currently as a custodial supervisor.
On top of an already long work day at the University -- 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. – Franny took on a part-time custodian job in order to bring in additional income to pay off their credit card debt. For four hours a night, four nights a week, she cleaned buildings in the local school district.
On top of those two jobs, Bostick started an Avon business.
"Someone with a really good Avon business moved and gave me some of her customers, which really helped me get that business going," she says. "Now I've brought my daughter on as a partner to keep up with the customers."
Balancing Act II
After three years of working at all three jobs, the success of her Avon business and a promotion and raise at the university enabled Bostick to give up her night job.
Still, despite the income boost, the Bosticks looked for more ways to cut their spending wherever they could.
They stopped eating out except for an occasional hamburger, eliminated vacations except for a trip in their camper to a nearby lake, and cut back on cable TV and Internet services. "I learned to clip coupons and to bargain shop," says Bostick. "I started shopping in stores that I wouldn't have been caught dead in a few years ago, and you know what? They have just as good products as the fancier stores."
The Bosticks now have a rule that if they want to spend more than $50 on anything, they have to go home and think about it. "We usually realize it's something we don't really need," she says.
A Bittersweet Future
Now that their credit card debt has been paid off for more than a year, Bostick says she has been able to build an emergency fund. And not only is her health better, but her credit score has improved by about 100 points.
Unfortunately, her husband's dementia has worsened over time, so Bostick says he doesn't fully understand the relief she feels and the depth of their accomplishment in overcoming their debt crisis.
However, soon Bostick will be able to spend more time with her husband. "I always thought I'd have to work until I was 80, but now I can actually retire," she says. And she's already set the date: 12/12/12.
Michele Lerner is a Motley Fool contributing writer.