The woman who paid down $120K in credit card debt in five years

Francine Bostick racked up six figures in debt before deciding it had to go. Here's how she did it. 

Richard Drew/AP/File
In this May 2012 file photo, a Visa credit card is tendered at opening of the Superdry store in New York's Times Square. Credit counseling is a great tool in tackling debt problems, but admitting a problem can be the hardest first step.

Francine Bostick keeps her monthly bills in a basket on her desk at home. Also in that basket is a clear plastic sandwich bag containing 13 cut-up credit cards – a reminder (and a warning) of the decades she spent racking up $120,000 in credit card debt.

She cut up those cards only five years ago. Today, she’s debt-free with a modest savings account.

“I have to look at that bag all the time,” says Francine, a custodial manager for a Kansas university. “I see it every time I pay my bills.”

That sandwich bag was just one of the tactics – big and small – that Francine used to pay off her six-figure debt. The biggest was swallowing her pride, admitting she had a problem, and seeking credit counseling. For her accomplishment, she and her husband were honored this month as “Clients of the Year” by the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).

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Two weeks ago, Francine flew on an airplane for the first time in her life and accepted the award at an annual convention of credit counselors in Charlotte, N.C. Her husband didn’t make the trip.

Francine was afraid to fly, but that was nothing compared to the fear of seeking credit counseling.

“It took me a year before I could walk in there,” Francine says of the Topeka-based credit counseling agency she worked with. She was 57 at the time, “and it was very hard. I was embarrassed that at my age, I didn’t know better than to get in debt.”

But with a little help, she figured out a way to get out. Her story is both motivational and educational for anyone crushed under credit card debt.

Here’s what she told Money Talks News last week…

Going broke isn’t always obvious

Francine and her husband, Jim, didn’t look like they were in debt. They had no fancy cars or fancy clothes. They’ve never owned a flat-screen TV or the latest smartphones. Neither was laid off or faced a medical problem before Jim’s dementia. And they suffered no addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or even shopping.

“I really can’t point at one thing,” Francine recalls. “We just didn’t realize we were spending $400 a month on groceries. If we wanted something, we just bought it. If it cost $200, we didn’t think about whether it should cost $50.”

So the Bosticks went boringly broke. With none of the typical warning signs – a mansion, Porsche or exotic vacations – their debt grew steadily and quietly. It was so unnoticeable to family, friends, and even themselves (at first) that Francine describes it now as “easy.”

Older isn’t always wiser

Francine, now 62, is careful not to blame anyone else for her financial faults, but she says her parents didn’t help – because they were too thrifty.

“My mother never had a charge card, so I wasn’t raised knowing about credit,” she says. “If she didn’t have cash, she didn’t buy it.”

But Francine grew up in the era of increasingly easy-to-get credit, and that led to 13 cards and no self-control. “It just got easier and easier,” she says.

Her own children – a 42-year-old son and a 36-year-old daughter – have learned from both her mistakes and her advice. Still, “One of them I’m a little concerned about, but the other one doesn’t want to go where his mother has been.”

She prays her three grandchildren and one great-grandchild fare better financially. Her hope? “They start teaching this stuff in high school,” she says. “That’s when they need to learn” what she didn’t.

Credit counseling is easy – and hard

For a long time, Francine knew she was in trouble but did nothing about it.

“I was not sleeping, trying to figure out how I was going to pay my bills,” she says. “One morning, I just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and called.”

She knew credit counseling could help – and she had learned from her research to be wary of for-profit counseling services but to seek out nonprofits.

She settled on HCCI, a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. NFCC was founded in 1951 and is the nation’s largest and oldest national nonprofit credit counseling association.

“I thought I was going to feel really stupid going in there,” Francine says. “But when I came out of my first meeting, I felt like weight had been lifted.”

It wasn’t easy, though. The hardest part was walking into a meeting with “a big fat folder” of all her bills. “You have to admit there’s a problem,” Francine says.

Then you have to get to work. The counselor urged Francine and Jim to draw up a budget. It took three tries to get it right.

“We had to keep coming back because I wasn’t realizing I needed to give up 100 channels on my cable,” she says, “especially when I was only watching four. I didn’t quite understand the concept.”

Even worse, “I didn’t know how much debt I had – because I didn’t want to know.” She wouldn’t let the counselor tell her, either. Instead, the counselor wrote it on a piece of paper, and Francine looked at it when she got home.

Saving is hard – and easy

And then, somehow, it just clicked. Francine started saving and budgeting – and as mysteriously as her debt accumulated, it began to disappear. Of course, her success was no mystery to her credit counselor.

“The remarkable thing about the Bosticks is their total commitment to repay their debts,” says Bob Mackey, president of HCCI. “For five years, they worked second jobs, lived on a very lean budget, and paid $2,496 each month toward their debt repayment plan.”

That’s right – Francine went from “buying a new purse for $120 when I could’ve got it for $60” to working four hours a night for four nights a week for her local school district – as a janitor. On the weekends, she ran an Avon business. Meanwhile, even though his dementia was slowly taking over, Jim worked 30 hours per week delivering auto parts.

While they were both busy and exhausted from the extra work, they were also too busy to spend more money.

“During those five years, I got used to buying just what we needed,” Francine says. Another one of her novel tactics: “If something costs over $50, we’d go home and think about it for a few days. Lots of times, we never went back for it.”

And then, miraculously, it got easier.

Francine is happier than she’s ever been, and she insists her standard of living hasn’t diminished – much.

“We don’t go out to eat as often as we used to,” she says. But she savors the experience more now.

And, she says, “You have to have a little splurge.” For her, it’s purses. But now, she never spends more than $50.

The happy ending

With her debt wiped out and a modest savings account, Francine knows she needs to rebuild her credit – and ironically, credit cards are the easiest way to do that. She also knows they have other advantages. So she recently got a cash-back card. But she’s a little nervous about sliding back into old habits.

“I’ve been using it like a debit card,” she says. “Every time I buy something, I automatically deduct it from my checkbook.”

So what happens now? She doesn’t know. But she knows this much: “I was afraid because I didn’t want to have to work till I’m 80.” Now she knows she won’t have to.

Michael Koretzky is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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