Climbing out of the credit card vortex

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Forty-six years. That’s the amount of time Molly Stillman, a working mother of two, realized it would take to pay off the $36,000 she owed on credit cards if she continued to scrape together just enough to make the minimum payments each month. “Learning that was such a painful moment,” she says. “I was one year out of college, earning $30,000 as a high school English teacher, and I owed more than my entire annual salary in debt.”

As impossible as the debt seemed, it had also snuck up on her: a dinner out with friends here, a cute new shirt there. She didn’t charge lavish items, but with a 25 percent annual percentage rate (APR) on her credit cards, that steady stream of small purchases she couldn’t really afford quickly snowballed.

When Molly once again accidentally overdrew her checking account, she called the bank nearly in tears. Could they possibly waive the overdraft fee … again? “The woman on the other end of the line must have heard the desperation in my voice, because she connected me with a non-profit consumer credit counseling agency,” she says. Once enrolled, she got a crash course in the financial basics she hadn’t really received at home: Why credit balances can balloon so quickly, how to sketch out a monthly budget and why socking away a bit of savings could prevent her from backsliding into debt.

“The agency negotiated with my creditors to lower my interest rates and get on a payment plan,” she says. Molly also got rid of all her credit cards, which means she no longer had that plastic to fall back on. And without that temptation she was forced to figure out her finances.

The next year was a blur of crazy work hours. “I started doing some freelance work and learned the value of hustle,” Molly says. One of the biggest challenges of changing her habits from cavalier spender to conscientious budgeter was that she was too embarrassed to share her situation with friends. “I told no one,” she says. “I was so embarrassed and filled with regret, I’d beat myself up all the time.”

When Molly moved to North Carolina the following year, she struggled to find a teaching position. While in the past she might have lived off plastic for a few months, this time she cast a wider net, patching together jobs in retail and food service to make ends meet. One of those part-time jobs, at a radio station, is where she met the man who would become her husband. And as the relationship grew more serious, she decided to break her silence and tell him about her massive debt.

“It felt like I had this thing hanging over me, that I didn’t want to tell him but couldn’t keep secret any more,” she says. “So, I broke down one night and told him.” Molly was terrified that he’d want to break up or get freaked out by her financial past. But instead, he opened up his laptop and said, “Let’s look at your budget.”

Having an ally and a confidant made staying focused on debt repayment even easier. And after Molly got engaged, she set a new goal for herself: To not bring a drop of debt into her marriage. “That’s when I really put the pedal to the metal,” she says. “Any bonus, any birthday money, any extra drop of income—I threw it all towards my debt.” She also picked up some new tricks from her fiancé on how to avoid impulse purchases, like waiting 24 hours if the item she wanted cost more than $50, and waiting a week if it cost more than $100. “Often, standing in the store, you think ‘I need this!’ But the next day, you might not even remember it,” she says.

Molly wrote the last check to pay off her debts the week she returned from her honeymoon. “There aren’t words to describe the relief I felt,” she says. “I’d been working so hard for so long to recover from the mistakes I’d made, and it was finally done.” One thing that wasn’t over: the budgeting habits Molly worked hard to create. Now, five years after writing that last $806 check, Molly is still debt free—and more financially confident than ever.

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