By Mandi Woodruff
As a successful software engineer living in the suburbs of Minnesota, Travis Pizel never had an income problem.
Together, he and his wife, Vonnie, pulled in a cool six figures each year, more than enough to provide for their two children and still take the occasional weekend getaway. And if they couldn't afford something when they wanted it, Travis knew exactly where to turn.
As tales of debt often do, his began with one credit card that eventually became two credit cards, then three, and so on. A few years into his marriage, Travis had 13 open lines of credit and was officially hiding the bills from his wife each month.
"I just stopped talking about how much [debt we were in]," Travis said. "Everyone else would go to bed at night and I would be trying to figure out how to move credit balances around, get new credit cards ... whatever it took to keep our finances going."
Within a decade, he had amassed $109,000 worth of debt.
A Tumbling House of Cards
It was the summer of 2009 when Pizel hit rock bottom. Chase announced a higher minimum payment requirement, and he was suddenly staring down the prospect of hundreds of dollars more in payments each month. It was money they didn't have. His house of cards was on the brink of collapse.
"Marriage is built on trust and I didn't do a good job on that," Travis said. "[My wife and I] had a frank discussion on how we got there ... and when it was all over, we started looking for solutions."
Determined to avoid filing personal bankruptcy -- "We felt really responsible for the debt we racked up," he explained -- the couple hit the Web for alternative options.
They decided to enroll with a debt management company.
When Travis found a debt management company online, he was dubious at best. The entire concept of paying a company to manage debt was foreign.
Debt management companies aren't exactly the golden parachute their name might bring to mind (and if a company portrays itself as one, it could be a scam). They negotiate a low-interest payment plan with lenders on the consumer's behalf. In return, the consumer agrees to pay off their debts within a certain window of time, typically three to five years, and the company disperses a monthly payment across all proper channels. The fees for doing so are typically around $20 a month, though the Pizels pay $50 with their service.
After several hours-long conversations with company representatives, the Pizels signed up for 57 monthly payments of $2,489 each.
There was also a catch: Once enrolled in the service, all of their credit accounts were frozen.
"That was a big commitment to say we weren't going to use credit cards anymore," Travis said. "Even when we enrolled in the program, we had no idea what kind of lifestyle changes we would have to make to make it work."
Living Within Their Means
Plastic-free life was a gradual adjustment. They made all the usual cuts like cable, landline phones and fancy dinners, but it took a year before they started to hit where it really hurt.
"For the first year, we still had a 500-gallon hot tub sitting in our backyard," Travis said. "You start thinking, 'What are we doing here?' "
They almost entirely halted their contributions to retirement savings, and the weekend getaways ended. They got used to $1 movie rentals and family nights, and made extra cash from garage sales. Christmas lists were trimmed to three presents per child.
Little by little, they made headway.
Four years into the program, they have paid down $82,000 of their initial $109,000 debt load and have 13 payments left before they're debt free. Travis now chronicles his journey out of debt at Enemyofdebt.com.
"It's exciting to see the end of that tunnel ... I just wish I would have figured it out earlier," he said. "It's a lot less stressful to have a partner and not trying to shoulder that all by yourself."