Around the time my husband Larry and I had been married for more than 30 years, we finally faced the reality of our financial situation: We owed $88,557 in credit card debt.
We had been living from paycheck to paycheck because my husband was switching careers and had been looking for work for about a year. Even though I was working, we had to use our savings to cover our living expenses, and eventually relied on credit cards to make ends meet. We even had to take out a payday advance loan once or twice.
We weren't behind on any payments and we weren't thinking about bankruptcy or anything like that. But we were tired of living hand-to-mouth.
The debt just kind of crept up on us. We'd always used credit cards, but using them more for that year sent the balances up high. My husband was doing the budgeting and bill paying the best he could, and I really wasn't engaged in the process for a long time.
I don't blame him at all for the situation, though, because I should have been more responsible about our money and looked into what was going on.
It wasn't any one thing that sent us to get help, it was just that we didn't want to live from paycheck to paycheck anymore and we could tell we would never pay off our debt by making the minimum payments. We went to ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a nonprofit credit counselor, for help. Some of the debt was in my name, some in his, and some in both of ours. They negotiated with our creditors for lower interest rates and set up our debt management plan.
But then it got more complicated because we separated. It wasn't the debt that caused our marriage problem; it was that we weren't communicating with each other.
We lost our house to foreclosure during this time because once we separated, neither one of us could afford the house payments.
However, we both were really committed to the debt management plan, so we set up a system where I deposited my part of the payment into his account and the funds were transferred to the debt management fund. Our payment was around $2,800 a month.
Thankfully, we were both employed by the time the debt management plan started in 2009. As soon as we got on the plan, our payments were lower than they had been, so that helped. But we knew we had to make changes because we had mismanaged our money for a long time.
The biggest thing was that we downsized -- a lot. I moved into an apartment that was half the price of the first one I found, and Larry moved into a small place, too.
We sold a lot of furniture when we split up, and I got rid of my car and drove a car my mom sold to me instead. I made interest-free payments to her. I got rid of cable TV and just learned how to live within a budget.
While we were separated, I took Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace class and that was another positive life change. I learned to manage my own budget carefully while we were separated, figured out which bills to pay with each paycheck and how much I had to live on after making the debt management payment.
We were separated for about 20 months and then we reconciled. My husband went to Dave Ramsey's class with me, and together we learned to be intentional about our finances.
Recombining our households also made it easier for us to find money to pay down what we owed.
We finished paying off all our debt in May and now all of the money we used to spend on the debt management plan goes into our savings and retirement accounts. We've been living only on cash and an ATM card from our bank since 2009 and we never intend to use a credit card again. (We don't want one at all because we don't ever want to be tempted to use it and accumulate debt again.)
Building a New Future -- Together
Best of all, we were able to buy five acres of land with our grown kids. They live in a house on the property and we're slowly building a home for us on the land, too. When it's ready, we'll sell the mobile home we're living in now. It's like a dream come true.
I can't say it was easy, but four years came and went and we survived it -- paid off our debts -- and it was well worth the effort. On top of all that, we recently celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary.
10 Real People Who Are Winning Their Fight With Debt
How We Paid Off $89,000 in Credit Cart Debt and Saved Our Marriage
Who she is:Smith is an ex-small business accountant who dedicates her time to helping entrepreneurs manage and make more money.
Her debt wake-up call: "Three years ago ... I started thinking about what my life would be like as I got old and grey. I [had] just finalized a painful divorce and found myself with a mountain [$14,000] of debt. Not exactly what I pictured for myself at 25 years old," she says.
How she paid it off: She started by tackling her credit card debt, as it carried the highest interest rates. For motivation, she made a timeline of her progress and used the free debt payment tool www.readyforzero.com to come up with a payment plan she could handle. Then, there were sacrifices: Giving up cable, a gym membership, tanning/salon visits, vacations, dining out, and going to the movies. To up her income, she freelanced as a writer.
Who she is: Kari, 30, lives in the greater New York City area and works at a nonprofit.
Her debt wake-up call: "When I finished graduate school, I was in student debt denial. When the first bill arrived, I stuck it in my bill basket and pretended it wasn't there for a week ... For several months after I got that first bill, I paid the $350 minimum payment. With each electronic debit from my checking account I hated myself and hated my decision to take out student loans. Being in debt made me miserable!"
How she paid it off: Gordon will be the first to tell you there is no secret to paying down debt. She broke her debt down into more manageable amounts and made a strict budget. With time, she was promoted at work, and took up extra work babysitting, filling out online surveys and freelance writing. She also got a roommate, started cooking meals at home, and got rid of her car.
Who he is: Grayson, 29, lives with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.
His debt wake-up call: "After the economy took a plunge in 2008, I decided to get out of my business. It was taking a toll on my personal life and my health. ... Though I was done with my business, I was not done with the damage that it left behind. Four years of personal and business related expenses went onto my credit cards. My ending balance was hovering around $50,000. Seeing this balance made me sick to my stomach. I never knew I could accrue so much debt and have so little to show for it."
How he paid it off: Together, Bell and his wife canceled cable and got their Internet with an over-the-air antenna. He worked freelance jobs and kept track of his progress on a whiteboard. Rather than rely on pricey central air conditioning, he bought a window A/C unit, which cut their bill by 40%. To help with his credit card debt, he capitalized on balance transfer offers between credit cards.
Who she is: Cait, 27, of Vancouver, British Columbia is the managing editor of a startup.
Her debt wake-up call: "When I was 25, I found myself totally maxed out. I had $100 in my bank account and maybe another $100 of wiggle room on my credit card and all of it had to last me 6 weeks. The feeling of being maxed out sparked something in me. I knew I couldn't hide from it anymore and that I had to make major changes."
How she paid it off: No 20-something wants to move back in with their parents, but Flanders bit the bullet and spent six months living rent-free with Mom and Dad. "There were no more dinners out, drinks with friends, weekend getaways, shopping trips, etc. I basically sat at home and occasionally went for a $5 coffee date with a friend," she says. "And I can't lie -- it sucked! But I paid off $10,000 in those 6 months, so it was worth it to me."
From there, she moved back out and stuck to a hardcore budget, tracking her spending for three months. Luckily, she was also able to commit two sizeable income tax refunds to her debt. She's been debt-free since May 21, 2013.
Who he is: Joe, 30, of Austin, Texas, works as a pricing analyst for a tech firm.
His debt wake-up call: "I graduated from Harvard Business School with my MBA and $95,000 worth of student loans ($101,00 including accumulated interest) in 2009 at the age of 26. Since graduation, I've made 21 monthly loan payments at $1,057 each. After paying $22k towards my $101k of loans, the balance stood at $90,717. It [was] absurd."
How he did it: Joe took a two-pronged approach, decreasing his spending and increasing his revenue. He got a weekend gig as a pedicab driver, started a landscaping business with his friend, bought a flask to skimp on booze spending, got a roommate for his Austin home, temporarily stopped his 401(k) contributions, and did the usual lunch-eating, restaurant-skipping money-saving tricks. It worked. In under a year, he shaved off his entire debt-load.
Who she is:Jordann, 23, is a marketing professional living in Atlantic, Canada.
Her debt wake-up call: "I grew up with the misconceived idea that I would go to university, get a killer job right out of school, and spend the rest of my life traveling, buying whatever I want, and generally living 'the dream.' Unfortunately, due to something called reality, that lifestyle is not an option. Even though I've made the 'right' decisions, I've still ended up in a pile of debt, which has put my ideal lifestyle out of reach."
How she paid it off: Brown lucked out when she found out the Canadian government offered debt relief for students who graduated on time. That erased $16,000 of her debt right off the bat. A cushy tax refund helped chip another $5,000 off the balance. The rest was a lot of hard work. She took a side gig as a freelance writer and made some money off her own blog, while also extremely cutting her expenses. She still managed to contribute to her emergency savings and plan her wedding in the meantime. Not too shabby.
Who he is: Mario (last name withheld), 32, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He works as an analyst and owns several rental properties.
His debt wake-up call: "In January 2013, I was a single guy living in New York, watching as my debt approached $0.5 million, and decided that I had had enough. Broken down, there was about $35,000 in credit card debt across three cards, $129,000 in student loans, and $305,000 in two mortgages."
How he's doing it: He made several New Year's resolutions, including paying all of his $35,000 credit card debt within two years, and looking into options for repaying his student loan debt when his deferment ended in June. Since January, he's managed to pay $3,000 a month toward his debt, partially due to extra income from his rental properties. He also decided to turn "impulse buying" into "impulse student loan payments." He tracks his progress on his blog, and is now down to $139,800.
Who he is: Johnny is a U.S. Marine, and a husband and father of two from Burnie, Md.
His debt wake-up call: "I jumped into the middle class ranks in a not-so-standard way, as I spent the first few years of my adult life with minimum wage jobs, and a sizable debt. Things changed for me when I decided to do something with my life and enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. ... 7 months [with my now-wife] in Iraq helped us both in realizing that there are few things in life that you need: food, water, shelter, air and love. Money helps too."
How they paid it off: With two young girls to raise, it was no small feat to erase $60,000 worth of debt. Johnny and his wife put all their finances on the table before they were married and used a debt calculator (Unbury.me) to come up with a plan that worked for them. Then they sold junk online, took on a family cell phone plan, learned how to cook, and seriously cut back on expenses. Now that they're debt-free, they've started a 7-year plan to retire early. So far, so good.
Who she is: Wendy, 29, of Vancouver Island, Canada, is a teacher.
Her debt wake-up call: "Unfortunately, the only way for me to go to University was to take out student loans. Fast forward 6 years later and 2 Bachelor's Degrees: I was over $45,000+ in student loan debt as I was entering the 'real world.' Along with my student loans, I also have about $13,000+ in credit card debt. It's shameful to admit, but I was a shopaholic."
How she's paying it off: Six months into her debt diet, Wendy has shaved more than $7,000 off her original debt balance. She's taken on a roommate, lowering her rent from 31% of her income to just 19%. Extra cash came by way of selling odds and ends online, including clothing. She admits to a little splurge every once and again. (Debt diets can be exhausting, OK?)
Who she is:Bridget Casey, 27, is a young professional from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Her debt wake-up call: There was no 'ah-ha' moment for Casey. She just wanted to attack her student loans as soon as possible after graduation.
How she did it: "Despite my small income, I threw $50 or $100 at the balance whenever I could. I was lucky and found a great full-time job within a few months, and a regular salary let me attack my debt more aggressively. I made the decision to go without a car and live in a small apartment so I could free up more money for debt repayment. While I did have some lifestyle inflation post-graduation, overall my everyday spending has been fairly modest ... Whenever I received a cash windfall, like my income tax refund, I always used the bulk of it towards debt. On life after debt: "When I think of paying off over $20,000 in two years it seems daunting, but honestly, I just got used to making huge payments every month. It was challenging to balance saving with my debt repayment, as I'm absolutely terrified of not saving enough in my twenties for retirement, but you learn to make sacrifices elsewhere and prioritize where you want to spend your money. With my debt-free date in sight, I'm looking forward to switching gears to building wealth-and maybe finally getting a car!"