A monkey off their back
How four Americans tackled their huge credit-card balances. Second of two parts.
Danielle Rhoades still remembers the taste of debt: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tuna fish.Skip to next paragraph
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That's mainly what she subsisted on for a year - after living more extravagantly during her first year in New York and racking up a $10,000 balance on her credit card.
Even with a $40,000 annual salary, she could barely afford the $650 minimum monthly payment on her card. In her early 20s, Ms. Rhoades found herself plunged into a place that's become all too familiar for at least 6 million Americans: a deep hole of credit-card debt. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the interest charges on Danielle Rhoades's credit card.]
For that small but growing group of people, Rhoades's story and the other profiles below offer hope. The debt monkey can be tamed and even eliminated by taking basic steps and sticking to a plan. The road is often difficult, but these consumers - debt-free or about to become so - say the rewards more than make up for the hardships.
Feeling the squeeze, Rhoades sought help from a credit-counseling agency. But after a few months, the agency failed to keep its promise to lower her payments because the debt was with a single creditor. By then, her interest rate had hit 24 percent.
So Rhoades gathered the courage to tell her father. In January last year, he let her transfer the balance to a card in his name that offered zero interest for a year. Setting a goal to pay it all off in that year, she drew up a budget. "A debt seems overwhelming until you lay it out on paper," Rhoades says in a phone interview.
Her spreadsheet listed her rent, other fixed expenses, and monthly debt payments; it also spelled out how much she had left for food and other living expenses. "I would carry that chart around and look at it whenever I wanted anything," she recalls.
She often had to live on less than $300 a month. "One month it was negative $80, and [my parents] gave me $200," she says. "They were very generous, but they very much wanted me to feel the pain and remember it."
The winter months were the roughest, because she couldn't afford to dine out or take in a movie. But some aspects were positive: "When you don't have any money to spend, it's amazing how much more time you have.... I took up running; I lost weight; I learned how to knit; I made my Christmas presents.
"By last November, I was almost ecstatic." Her debt had dipped below $2,000. "I was never so proud as the day I paid it off," she adds. "It was March 15 when I actually had my whole paycheck to spend. I took my money and bought a plane ticket to see my boyfriend in England - and I spent it all!"
Still, Rhoades has learned a few lessons from her year as a pauper. She sets a strict limit when shopping for clothes. She doesn't spend money for a social outing more than once a week. And if she gets a new credit card, she insists she'll cap it at $500.
"I'm terrified of being in debt. It was so difficult that I think it's going to always stay with me. I feel like one of those old people who tell you about the Depression - about eating a carrot even though it's too limp."
Vige Barrie recalls the endless phone calls from collectors. They were coming after the $60,000 she owed on more than 10 credit cards. The worst part: She hadn't even been the one saying "Charge it!"
Her husband had made and lost millions of dollars, she says, and during the last few years of their marriage, she let him use her cards because he had declared bankruptcy. "His line was always, 'I'll make another deal and pay this off in one fell swoop,' " she says in a phone interview from Clinton, N.Y., where she works as a media consultant for colleges and nonprofit organizations.
"I felt like I was going to be an indentured servant for my life to those credit cards," Ms. Barrie says. Living in Dallas at the time, she knew that many people were declaring bankruptcy. But she didn't feel right about walking away from the debt. (Since that time - the mid 1990s - the annual national bankruptcy rate has risen from about 1.4 million to 1.6 million.)
Barrie negotiated with some creditors on her own at first. Then a friend recommended the local Consumer Credit Counseling Service. She thought it would be humiliating, but found that the counselors "were very graceful and very caring."
After examining her income, expenses, and debt, "they tell how much you're going to live on, which is vaguely horrifying," Barrie says with a laugh. They also negotiate with creditors to reduce or eliminate finance charges.
For five years, starting in 1996, she made a monthly payment of $1,500 to $2,000. She cut coupons, bought clothes at second-hand stores, and read books and magazines from the library.
"You learn what you can and cannot do without ... and things become less important," she recalls. "When I went out to dinner with friends, I'd order a cup of soup, and I know they thought it was pitiful, but for me ... the real issue was not eating food but getting together with friends."