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Readers' own debt tales of woe and success

That little plastic card you rarely leave home without surely is flexible, but it can snap your financial back. American consumers have piled up close to $2 trillion in debt not including mortgages.

Personal bankruptcies continue near record highs.

Are you among those who have fallen victim to crushing debt? Or are you among those who have found a way to control spending and reduce debt?

We asked readers to e-mail us with their own stories -- tales of both woe and success.

Here's a sampling of letters we received.

Dear Debt Diary:
I was always good with my money, until I met HIM. It seemed so harmless at first, we'd charge a dinner here and there, a video game for him, and I meant to pay it off next payday. He was a waiter/musician. He would pout and start arguments in public if I refused to charge something for him. Of course, all this was on my credit card, because his were maxed out. He was going to "make it" as a musician.

I couldn't pay the balances in full every month, so the card carried a balance. It was a small monthly payment, he rationalized.
Before I knew it, I had thousands of dollars in debt. He expected huge birthday, Christmas and anniversary presents. He expected to buy his family extravagant gifts for the same holidays.

I began having trouble sleeping. I was stressed out about money all the time. By the time I started charging groceries, I knew I was in way over my head. He had bought an expensive car; most of his paychecks went toward the car payment.

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When I told him the spending sprees were over, he broke up with me. He crawled back, and I took him back. I knew he didn't care about "our" future when I told him I was having a hard time crawling out from under the debt, and we needed to drastically reduce spending. His response, "Just file for bankruptcy." He didn't care if my credit was ruined, and he blamed me for accruing so much debt. The fact that he was an emotional spender made the relationship much more stressful. He would get depressed, and "need" something to make him feel better. Of course, he didn't feel better for long, and "needed" something else.

I kept thinking we were partners, so we would pay the debt off together.

Little surprise that he saw it as my debt. When I broke up with him for good after almost six years, he promised to send me a check monthly to help pay down the debt. Not surprisingly, he hasn't fulfilled that promise. Please don't spend beyond your means when you are in a relationship. Someone who thinks buying love is a possibility will drag you down.

-- name withheld

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Dear Debt Diary:
Since we are fortunate enough to have bought a house before the real estate prices went nuts, we took out a small second mortgage, and paid our credit cards down or off. The escrow officer asked our reason for taking out the second. A vacation trip? A new car? Home improvement? "No," I said. "It's just to screw the banks." She howled! It was the best answer she'd heard in months. And I meant it!

We have learned the true costs of the revolving charges each month, and find them truly disgusting. We will keep the card balances very low, or at 0.

Like we did in the "old days," we now ask ourselves "do we really need this? And do we really need it right now? Is the true cost worth the convenience? Where will we store it when it's not in use?"

Putting each purchase to this test most often results in our NOT GETTING IT!

This is our way of dealing with our debt.

Oh, by the way, the payment on the second is much lower than were the combined payments on those credit cards. And we savor knowing that we are NOT paying those balance charges every month! (Thus, "screwing the banks.")

-- Gretchen Jurek, in the Gold Country of northern California

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary:
I narrowly escaped losing my home as a result of my unsecured debt load with six different credit card companies. I live in a state (Virginia) that only allows a homestead exemption of $5,000, and I had more equity than that in my home, so the home was in jeopardy.

I wanted to avoid bankruptcy not only in order to protect my home, but also so that I would not be stigmatized in my profession. I work in the insurance industry, and some companies will not hire a person who has declared bankruptcy.

I met with three different bankruptcy attorneys for their free initial consultation, and I learned useful information at each session. Ultimately, for $500, I hired a lawyer, but not to pursue bankruptcy.

I hired him to write letters to each of my credit card companies, advising them of my total debt load and that I was considering bankruptcy. All six creditors agreed to a settlement. Surprisingly, the creditor I was most worried about -- the one to whom I owed the most money -- agreed to settle at the deepest discount, for only 25 cents on the dollar.

Two other credit card companies settled for 30 cents and 33 cents on the dollar.

The final three credit card accounts agreed to settle for just the principal I owed, and forgave the interest and penalties, and I spread the payments over three months.

I urge people to try my approach, and seek settlement with the credit card companies at a discount, rather than opting for bankruptcy. Hiring the lawyer to write the letters for me gave my request some legitimacy and some urgency, so the creditors were willing to negotiate.

My debt of $33,000 was settled for $16,000.


-- Kimberly Caldwell

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary:
Many years ago shortly before Christmas, I opened my credit card bill and checked out my balance. Not too happy with it, I started wondering what I could have bought to get the balance so high, so I sat down and went back thru the bills to see. I found that I was just now paying for LAST year's Christmas presents and had been paying interest on them all year. Those toys and clothes were now worn out and I had not paid for them yet. I tore up my credit card and made do that year, and I have never regretted it. Everything I put on my charge is something I can pay for at the end of the month or I don't buy it. The feeling of freedom is wonderful! Try it.

-- anonymous

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary:
The very way you use this phrase (victimized by debt) is symptomatic of the problem! Very few people are "victims" of debt! No one holds a gun to someone's head, forcing them to use credit. Too many people have an exaggerated idea of what they are "due" in this life! Why do so many people assume that they are ENTITLED to two cars, two or more large-screen TVs, DVD players, the latest style clothes for themselves and their entire family, dinners and other meals in restaurants many times a week, big houses with home spas, expensive vacations, etc., etc., etc. I think those of this generation raised on TV have developed the habit of demanding instant gratification in all aspects of their lives. What ever happened to SAVING for luxuries -- and all these things beyond basic shelter, food and medical care are luxuries, NOT anyone's due. LIVE WITHIN YOUR MEANS. GET OVER BLAMING OTHERS FOR YOUR PROBLEMS AND THINKING OF YOURSELVES AS VICTIMS!

-- Edie Eason, Covington, La.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary,
I filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy seven years ago. I had perfect credit and let it get out of hand. I found myself $40,000 in debt (credit cards and unsecured loans). I tried everything before filing. I worked two jobs. I tried Credit Counseling Services. You name, it I tried it. I was in way over my head. I couldn't sleep. I was afraid to answer my own phone at work and home. I was one emergency away from financial ruin. That emergency came in the form of a blown engine. I maxed out the rest of all my credit renting cars and getting my car fixed. My problem was pride. Now that I look back, I could've commuted with a co-worker. I could've moved to a cheaper apartment. I was so addicted to credit that I tried to sign receipts when I started paying in cash. That was a lesson learned. I have rebuilt my credit to a very respectful status. I had to go through my share of high-interest loans. I promised myself that I would never go down this road again. I read "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" by Robert KiyosakI and it changed my life. I realized that I had to change the way I manage money in order to make it work for me. I learned delayed gratification. I learned to spend less than I make. I learned to do without what I thought I needed. I now know the difference between wants and needs. I now pay my credit card off in full when I use it. (Credit card companies hate that). I have only one credit card with a modest limit. I've paid off two cars and will be purchasing my first home in the coming year. I apologize for the length of this e-mail, but I just want people out there to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to change the way you look at money and credit. I also read Bankrate.com daily.

-- GM

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary:
Warning!!! If you apply for student loans and have excess funds at the end of the term don't spend it! Take the excess and reapply it to your existing student loan balance. You'll forever be thankful that you did. Even if you need the money for an emergency. Don't take all of it. I knew of one person who worked hard to pay back her loans while she was in school. She was so successful that she had the balance almost paid off by the time of graduation. Here's even more of a warning. Because I failed to do this, I now owe about $56,000.00. Good luck to you!

-- anonymous

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary:
When my husband moved out of his apartment, he did not notify the management. Two of his three roommates damaged the place and owed back rent when they were evicted. Since my husband did not notify management or pay the $200 lease-termination fee, he was taken to court, along with his roommates. Since two of the roommates could not be located, the lawsuit was focusing on my husband and the other honest tenant to pay the entire $5,000 debt. Luckily, he made a deal with the lawyer that if he found the two missing roommates and delivered them to the office, they would let us pay just 25 percent of the bill. He was able to locate and deliver them, as promised. If he'd only paid the $200 fee and notified management that he was moving out early he could've saved several road trips and a chunk of change.

-- anonymous

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary:
I am appalled at your terminology; "victimized" by debt." I am a single parent and have no consumer debt, just a mortgage (researched with the help of Bankrate.com, thank you) and it is not because I have been lucky and avoided victimization, but because I know the difference between what I and my children need and what we want. I would like to drive a newer car, live in a nicer house and go on vacation regularly, but I choose not to go into debt. With few exceptions, people who have crushing debt do so because of the choices they make. If someone declares bankruptcy, the people and companies who provided goods and services get little or no payment. That drives prices up for the rest of us who do pay our bills every time. I am responsible for my own actions and, just as it is no one else's fault if I don't have more "things," others have made their own choices. Worrying about money is awful and I have sympathy for people who get in over their heads but they should not blame anyone else for their circumstances and you should not encourage it.

-- anonymous

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary:
To make a long, painful story short ...
I was previously married and trusted my then husband with all of our finances. Each payday, I deposited the bulk of my paycheck into our joint account. As we agreed early in our relationship, I thought he was paying all of our bills, but he wasn't. He was only paying his bills and leaving mine to grow into huge amounts. Little did I know he had a mountain of credit card debt -- $150,000+! I never even saw a statement. I encourage everyone to take an active role in their finances with their spouse. No matter how good your marriage is, never let someone else handle your finances without you knowing what's going on. I didn't learn any of this until I had moved out and called my creditors to update my addres. My credit was ruined and I owed a ton of money to the IRS. I felt like such a fool. I decided I needed to take action. I called all of my creditors and was honest with them about my situation and stressed that I wanted to pay off my debt. I found that many of them were willing to work with me. Now, four years later, I am $2,000 away from being debt-free and have only two open credit card accounts. Not bad from $18,000 three years ago with eight cards, a car and student loan!

I would be happy to answer any questions.

Anne Pratt
South Jersey Radio Inc.
Traffic Manager WTKU/WUSS
1601 New Road
Linwood, NJ 08221
Phone: 609-601-1100 x. 159
Fax: 609-601-0450
Member, Traffic Director's Guild of America

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary:
My advice to all is to "live below your means". I think there is a need to acquire the big house, and the big SUVs -- not to mention making sure the kids are in the "right crowd" with the "right school." In the end, there is loads of stress, little time for family bonding, kids wanting more of everything and bills too high to handle. Cure? I believe families need to detox. Pick one activity per family member -- even you the parent.

At one point there were too many things going on, such as music lessons, art lessons, tutoring or sports. Too much stress for little return. I had them pick one thing they truly enjoyed. Now, each of my three boys has one hobby. We work around family time like dinners, cooking together or working on a family project, such as a puzzle, board game, charades, card game, or gardening.

Ask your kids what is their favorite memory. I'll bet you it won't be shopping for the $90.00 shoes or $100 video game. It will be a memory that didn't require money!

I have one preteen and two teenagers -- all boys. They are well-adjusted, have nonnegotiable rules and earn privileges. They know never to ask me for anything without putting an effort to earn it. Could be working on an extra project at home or cashing in on cans or plastics.

I learned to handle credit by "paying myself first". I have accounts for my car in case of big mechanical problems, Boy Scouts, summer vacation, summer camps, savings, taxes. I pay into these accounts like a monthly bill. The rest of the money will determine what we eat, or what we can afford to spend on movies or weekend excursions. A "back to school fund" is started six months before school starts.

This system doesn't work for everyone, but it allows me to save for the future incidentals without stressing.

It also helps me not to overspend. My boys have learned that one needs to save for future events or unexpected events.

College? Unless they have academic scholarships, they can attend a community college, live at home for two years, save money while living at home and transfer to a four-year school and graduate without a debt. Well, that's the goal!

-- Maria

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary,
I still pat myself on the back today for sticking with a "little" budget -- a thing I read about years ago. It said that, if you have only one dollar to spare at the end of the week, put it away. Save all your change and recycle and sell your cans, etc. This, my dear readers, is the state we were in about 15 years ago: We had to declare bankruptcy through really no fault of our own. We didn't get paid for 2.5 months because of a "clerical error." We were too deep in debt for our meager income anyway. But little bits really make a great heap in the end .

By saving that dollar and saving cans and selling them to the recyclers, things really did start to come about. It was almost fun to see how much I could get together in a month. Of course I saved more than the dollar, I saved EVERYTHING! But with the $25.00 I had at the end of the month I paid some more on the credit cards. As my "art" of saving became better I paid the whole credit card off and snipped it to pieces (which my husband really didn't like me to do, but that is a whole other story). I was so proud, but had no one to share my victory with. So I got better and paid the other credit card off. Today I have a home, three cars, a child in college and a boat. I don't have to work if I don't want to, but do anyway. I have my emergency money in a savings account and all that. I am not rich by any means, but have enough to buy another home or several cars if I wanted to without having to dip into "retirement monies. I've come a long way, BABY!

-- anonymous

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Debt Diary:
After years of debt -- practically $87, 000 worth -- we are down to $ 26,000.

We have paid every penny in interest, finance fees, and collection agency fees -- every penny. However, we have been told it will be years before we could ever purchase on credit again.

Why is that? People who file bankruptcies and (seek) protection from creditors seem to just go on with life. While those of us who know we incurred the debt and take responsibility to pay it off are forever shunned, it seems.

Thank you for listening.

-- anonymous

* * * * * * * * * *

Do you have a cautionary tale for others? Is there a lesson you've learned that might help others? Or have you realized success in escaping debt? If you'd like to share your experience -- positive or negative -- with Bankrate readers, drop us an e-mail at: Debtdiaries@bankrate.com.

-- Posted: Sept. 20, 2004
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2004 Debt Guide
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