Carole and Don Carroll: Debt-free after 30 years
Winners of the 2010 'biggest loser' (of debt) award
By Emma Johnson
Until four years ago, Carole and Don Carroll considered it normal to live in a constant state of stress. Every day, the New York City couple engaged in a complicated dance with more than a dozen credit cards and a car loan. When they met in 1990, each partner already carried a credit card balance, and by the time they got serious about paying it down in 2006, they owed $88,000. They lived frugally, skimping to stay on top of the minimum payments they often made with credit card cash advances.
MEET THE CARROLLS,
2010 AWARD-WINNING DEBT FIGHTERS
Carole and Don Carroll of New York won an award for determinedly paying down $88,000 in credit card and car debt by devoting 30 percent of their take-home pay for three and a half years.
Today, just three and a half years after signing up with a credit counseling service, the couple is debt-free. Their mighty pay-down efforts were rewarded Oct. 5 with the Professional Achievement and Counseling Excellence (PACE) 2010 Graduate Client of the Year Award. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling gives this award to those who commit to repaying their debt and manage their money.
Debt due to daily charging over decades
The Carroll's near-six-figure credit card and car loan debt was the slow and steady accumulation of nearly 30 years of everyday living. Carole, an Ohio native who works in finance, moved to New York City in 1984 as a young woman and the debt slowly crept up. "I never knew how much debt I had. I didn't want to know -- it was a nauseating topic," says Carole. Expenses for modest items went on plastic, as did sporadic events like moving apartments. "I'm not a shopaholic," Carole says. "We bought crappy cars, and we didn't spend on expensive shoes or fur coats or go to Broadway shows. We didn't make bad decisions, but it was too much. We needed assistance."
Debt has always been a part of the Carrolls' relationship. Don, now 56, carried debt from helping support two children, now in their late 20s, from a previous marriage. "When we got together, it was pretty scary to say, 'I have some debt,' and for him to say, 'Well, I have some, too.'" Their attitude was, "OK, it's only money, and we're going to pay it off," Carole says. "We worked at it every day, and we never felt like we had any money because we were always paying the man."
Collectively, their debt grew, even though both were making what Carole describes as middle-class incomes (Don has had a career in financial publishing). "When the kids came to visit and needed socks and underwear, you go out to buy stuff for your kids," Carole says. "But we went to Kmart."
Medical issues, late payments add up
Over the years, both partners experienced several layoffs. Both had health problems -- Carole has had two hips replaced, and both underwent gastric bypass surgery to address severe obesity. Each event triggered an uptick in credit card balances.
After a while the cards maxed out, yet their debt continued to grow. Late fees, over-limit fees and annual percentage rates hitting 30 percent meant that their balances swelled monthly, even though they no longer charged on plastic. "It was fees after fees after fees," Carole says. "To this day, it is a blur how that even worked." The Carrolls stopped dining out with friends because they couldn't afford it. "We became really good cooks," she says.
Don suggested that the couple seek credit counseling, and friends urged them to file for bankruptcy. Carole resisted. "I thought we could pay off all these bills ourselves," she says. "Bankruptcy seemed like walking away from your responsibility. We created these bills, and I wanted to pay for these bills."
She reached a breaking point several years ago when Don suffered heart problems, and creditors started calling relentlessly. "I was very concerned about Don, and with the bills, it became overwhelming," Carole says. The stress kept her up at night. "That got to me after awhile," she says.
Creating and sticking to a plan
Finally, in the fall of 2006, the couple enrolled with GreenPath Debt Solutions. After nailing down the details about the couple's debt, living expenses and spending habits, the agency set up a five-year payment plan. The Carrolls continued to pay down the car loan and took a personal loan from a friend for some of the balance. They cut up their 13 credit cards and were relegated to one bank card.
Payments totaled about 30 percent of the couple's take-home pay, but they stuck with it relentlessly. Not surprisingly, there wasn't much spending they could cut back on, though they did downgrade their premium cable plan. Carole and Don paid double the minimum on each card, and each time one balance was paid off, they applied any newly freed money to the next card, which meant each card was paid off quicker than the previous one. This system continued even after Don lost his job in January.
Over the next few years, any extra cash from holiday bonuses or tax refunds was applied to the debt, and just three and a half years later in April, the Carrolls were debt-free. "This is really a feeling of freedom," Carole says. "I never realized you could sleep this well."
What is the couple doing with their newly freed-up funds? They're socking it away in a car fund for the day their Hyundai Elantra needs to be replaced, and building up the recommended six-month emergency fund. Don has landed contract work, but the couple realizes the job market is tenuous.
Carole recently splurged on a new pair of shoes for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling awards ceremony. "It's very nice to know that even though I spend a nice sum of money on shoes, I can afford to pay for it all at the end of the month."
Looking back, Carole realizes that the anxiety produced by the debt became an uneasy normal. "If you don't see your way out, you live with it," she says, adding: "Pride is a terrible, terrible master."
In sharing her story with friends and acquaintances, Carole's fear of being stigmatized has been relieved as others share their own stories of debt. Their advice for others: Seek the help you need. "You can pay off your debt, even in this economy," Carole says.
Published: October 6, 2010
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