It's a problem that can occur quickly, such as after a medical emergency, or gradually by simply spending beyond your means. But the situation isn't hopeless.
Consumers who visit CredAbility, a nonprofit credit counseling agency in the Southeast, on average carry $25,000 in debt on their credit cards. While that is a mountain of debt, 7 in 10 of those people pay it off in five years, says Michelle Jones, the agency's senior vice president of counseling.
"The one thing that's challenging about debt is it simply takes time to pay down," she says. "There's no quick solution."
Here are the stories of two women who conquered their credit card debt in less than five years with the help of a credit counselor.
An 'ugly, vicious habit'
Lorie Ewing's journey down the rabbit hole of credit card debt started with a house she was buying with the man who would become her husband. Ewing, a retired Air Force reservist who also owns three separate businesses in San Antonio, wanted to contribute something to the down payment, but didn't have any cash.
"So I got a $10,000 cash advance, no questions asked," Ewing, 53, says.
Lorie Ewing paid off more than $50,000 in credit card debt over four years.
After that, Ewing says she fell into an "ugly, vicious habit" where she felt compelled to charge rather than spend her own money. She bought a $10,000 lawn mower, furniture, gas -- most everything -- on seven credit cards. Her purchases piled up until the bill came in at $53,000, and her fiance said he wouldn't marry Ewing until she paid off her debts.
Ewing found a consumer credit counselor after reading an article in the Sunday paper about a local teacher paying off her credit cards. She gave the agency a call. The counselor helped negotiate lower rates on Ewing's credit cards and create a payment plan. The counselor also showed Ewing how much in interest she would end up owing if she only paid the minimum payment.
"If you don't stop, this will be how much you owe, she told me," Ewing says. "I thought, wow, I could do a lot with that money."
Ewing embarked on a four-year trek to pay down her debt. She directed between $4,000 and $6,000 to her balance every month. She didn't have a car payment and her fiance paid the mortgage. She only spent money on gas and groceries. When she was deployed last year, she closed down two of her three businesses -- a flower shop and a hair salon -- and funneled even more money into her credit cards. Last summer, Ewing sent in her last payment for her credit card debt.
She now keeps just one credit card in her wallet to help with supplies for her tax accounting business. Otherwise, she doesn't believe in credit cards. As for her fiance? He married a debt-free Ewing Nov. 11, 2011.