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We paid off our credit cards

A soup-kitchen type of sacrifice

Molly Stillman's battle with credit card debt started when she was in college. She put school expenses such as books, food and extracurricular activities on her credit card. The charging habit followed her after graduation when she moved to Virginia as a first-year teacher. She signed up for four store credit cards and another card through her vet to pay for her cat's medical treatment.

Molly Stillman

"I look at credit cards in a very different light now," says Molly Stillman.

"They were handing out credit cards like packages of gum," Stillman, 27, says. "They make it so easy."

At the end of her first year of teaching, Stillman realized she couldn't pay her bills. She had racked up $36,000 in debt on six credit cards. The card with the biggest balance required a $600 minimum payment, a payment she couldn't make. She called her issuer, which referred her to a credit counseling agency.

Two hours later, a counselor with a thick New Jersey accent had contacted all of Stillman's creditors and worked out a payment plan. She also shared with Stillman a very sobering reality: If she only paid the minimum payment, it would take 45 years to pay off her debt. The counselor's plan would take only five years. Stillman committed herself to it.

The plan meant she had to pay $800 to her creditors every month. After paying her debt and rent, Stillman had only $100 left over for the rest of her expenses, including food and gas. That meant major sacrifices.

"It's humbling to stand in line at a soup kitchen and wait among people who are homeless for food," she says. "And I didn't tell anybody. When I went places to get free or discounted food, I would bring grocery bags, so my roommates would think I went grocery shopping."

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The average American carries $5,000 in credit card debt. And a handful of others are deeply in debt. Here's how one woman on a normal income paid off a pile of debt.

Molly Stillman put expenses like books and entertainment on plastic in college. The habit followed her to her first job as a teacher. She had four store cards. Even her cat had a credit card through the vet. After a year, Stillman couldn't pay bills. She had $36,000 in debt, with one card requiring a $600 minimum payment.

She entered credit counseling and paid $800 to creditors each month, leaving little for expenses. Stillman got her food at soup kitchens along with the homeless. She'd hide free food from roommates by putting it in grocery bags. She sold possessions and never went out or shopped. It was difficult, but in five years, Stillman freed herself from debt.

For most of her early and mid-20s, Stillman didn't go to the movies or out bowling with her friends. She traded in clothes she didn't wear for secondhand clothes at a local consignment shop. She sold much of what she bought with the credit cards on eBay to pay off those same cards. Every tax refund, bonus or raise went straight to her credit card bills.

"The hardest part was when I got a bonus. I would get all excited, but I couldn't do anything with it," she says. "I kept reminding myself that I did enjoy it, but I enjoyed it too early."

Along her journey to debt freedom, Stillman met the man she was going to marry. As she paid down her debts, the two of them saved together to pay for their February 2012 wedding. Stillman vowed to extinguish her debt by then, by herself, even though her fiance offered to help.

"These were my mistakes, and I didn't want to bring that to my marriage," she says. "I wanted a fresh start."

Two weeks after her wedding, Stillman mailed in her last debt payment. She conquered her debt in less than five years. She still carries a credit card that she shares with her new husband. But they only charge what they can afford to pay off each month.

"I look at credit cards in a very different light now," she says. "You just have to spend less than you make."

 

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