How one Kansas couple paid down $120,000 in debt

A bag of cut-up credit cards serves as reminder of old, bad habits overcome

Six years ago, Francine Bostick, 62, worried that she might have to work for several more decades to have any hope of paying off the credit card debt she and her husband had steadily amassed. At the time, Bostick, of Manhattan, Kansas, wasn't even sure how much they owed; the balances were scattered across more than a dozen cards, and she had resisted tallying up the totals. As Bostick soon would find out, the figure came to about $120,000.

While Bostick was laying awake nights wondering how she and her husband, Jim, now 73, would whittle down their debt, it wasn't until she began paying for groceries and utilities with credit cards that she summoned the courage to make an appointment with Housing and Credit Counseling Inc., in Topeka, Kansas.

How one Kansas couple paid down $120,000 in debt

Jim and Francine Bostick kicked $120,000 in debt

That was the first step in a grueling six-year journey that culminated earlier this year, when the Bosticks' credit card balances hit zero.

"It was a long road, but it was worth it," Bostick says.

Spending more than they earned
It wasn't any one event that caused the couple's debt to steadily balloon, Bostick acknowledges. They'd simply gotten in the habit of spending more than they made, and using plastic to cover the difference. They charged both smaller and larger purchases, like a vacation to Walt Disney World.

Bostick also is upfront about the fact that she and her husband hadn't endured the sort of hardship that some might say would excuse a less-than-stellar credit history; neither had faced crushing medical bills or an extended period of unemployment. Before retiring in 1999, Jim was a supervisor in the maintenance and custodial department with the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University; Francine is a manager in the custodial and dining service department, also at Kansas State. "It embarrasses me to think about it. There was no reason for it to happen," Bostick says of the debt they accumulated.

Even as their debt piled up, Bostick and her husband were able to - barely - stay on top of their payments and avoid hounding phone calls from creditors. However, they were paying just the minimum required, so interest was rapidly accumulating.

Nearing retirement, in debt
Although Bostick had considered counseling before she actually made the 2006 appointment, she kept postponing it, embarrassed to about the situation she and Jim were in. "At my age, I should have known better," she says.

However, the Bosticks aren't alone, says Gail Cunningham, vice president of membership and public relations with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a network of more than 700 financial counseling agencies, including HCCI. Nearly 20 percent of the 3 million clients who work with NFCC agencies each year are between 55 and 64, Cunningham says. Not only are they getting uncomfortably close to retirement, but their ages can limit their employment options, she points out.

Once Bostick met with HCCI, finally overcoming her reluctance to divulge their financial picture to an outsider, she and a counselor examined possible options, including bankruptcy. In fact, Bostick says a number of people have questioned their decision not to file for bankruptcy protection. "But, we felt we had spent the money and we wanted to pay it back," she says.

Moreover, after working with a counselor to develop a repayment plan - as drastic as it needed to be - Bostick says she felt like a weight had been lifted. "It was the first time I thought there was a way out."

Dedication, sacrifice
The Bostick's determination to repay their six-figure debt isn't common, says Robert Mackey, president and chief executive officer with HCCI. "The majority would file bankruptcy and give up."

Indeed, the repayment plan required dedication and sacrifice. Bostick took on a second custodial job with the local school district, working four evenings each week. About one year later, Bostick added yet another venture to her schedule, becoming an Avon representative.

Jim came out of retirement to work about 30 hours each week at a local auto parts store. He kept the position for several years before health problems forced him back into retirement. At the same time, Bostick reduced or eliminated as many expenses as possible. She cut back at the grocery store, on cable and Internet subscriptions, and almost all discretionary expenses.

To keep going, Bostick relied on faith, encouragement from her financial counselor, and visits with their granddaughter -- a bright spot each week, she says. Bostick also tried to keep their circumstances in perspective. "Five (or six) years isn't a long time, considering that I had worried that I would die paying off my credit cards."

Bostick since has cut the cards into pieces, which she stores in the same basket that holds her monthly bills. "It's a good reminder," she says.

Now, any time either of the Bosticks is tempted to make a purchase of more than about $30, they'll consider it for a day or two before actually plunking down the cash. "Nine times out of 10, we don't go back," she says.

The benefits of their new lifestyle more than compensate for the sacrifices, Bostick says. She is able retire from her full-time position later this year, although she plans to move to a part-time training position. "I used to think that I would have to work until I was 80. Now, I can retire at 62 and live quite nicely," she says.

See related: The biggest losers (of debt): How a family shed $106,000 in debt, Over your head in debt? 5 extreme budgeting ideas

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Updated: 01-19-2018