Repaying big credit card balances is hard enough, but remaining debt-free can be even more of a challenge.
The best advice on how to stay debt-free comes from people who have climbed their way out of debt -- and stayed out. Here are the stories of seven former credit disasters who became masters of their cards.
1. Reclaim power with a ceremony
Jeffery Taylor of Scottsdale, Ariz., is a third generation millionaire who had run up $200,000 on 12 credit cards. "On top of that," says Taylor, "with unbridled lending, I was always able to get money through second mortgages without ever having to show proof of income."
Taylor now lives in the free and clear -- a lifestyle that began with a credit card intervention and continues with a unique ceremony. First, loved ones confronted him about his over-the-top spending. "They showed me my bills and asked me to cut up my cards," says Taylor. Destroying them became pivotal to his success. Knowing that he can't handle credit at all is foremost in his mind, so he makes a ritual out of ripping up all credit solicitations received in the mail. "I laugh when I get them and say 'I don't want it. It's poison for me,' because I know I'm going to abuse it."
2. Become a money expert
What can happen when you know nothing about personal finance and managing credit? In the case of Glenn Phillips of Birmingham, Ala., he wound up owing $250,000. Plus, Phillips was constantly late on payments and the interest rates on his accounts shot up to 29 percent. His expertise was -- and still is -- in the technology world, but that changed when he realized how severely his lack of financial acumen impacted his life.
To turn it around, Phillips grabbed the reins and educated himself. He sought out basic personal finance courses so he could understand how to best manage money and credit. "I admitted to myself that I don't know what I'm doing here, but I'm willing to learn," says Phillips, who went to classes once a week. He learned how to handle his affairs and deal with money productively. "I had to learn to say the word 'no', and not feel bad about it," says Phillips. "I learned to stop letting my self-esteem be based on my possessions."
3. Spend virtually, then actually
Matt Wegner of Sheboygan, Wis., used to believe that living in arrears was inevitable -- an attitude that caused him and his wife to accumulate more than $13,000 in consumer debt. Wegner says they "just let it happen. We accepted living in debt." One day, the couple resolved to never borrow again. Period. "We do a new budget every month and spend every dollar on paper before the month begins," says Wegner. "If we don't have enough money to cover everything we want that month, we take something off." They started this system three years ago. They paid off their debt and haven't spent more than they earned since.
Virtual shopping has helped them curb impulse purchases, and making it a shared activity has built trust in their relationship. The Wegners talk about items not on the plan, and "we often put 'wants' off for a month or two to see if we really need it. Most of the time we realize we really didn't want or need it that bad." This method worked so well, Wegner now teaches others to eliminate debt and build wealth.
4. Make a money vow
Ever make a totally committed promise to use credit cards wisely? It may be time you did. Marcia Noyes and her husband regularly held credit card balances between $7,000 and $10,000. "We used to pay just the minimums," says Noyes "even though we were wallowing in debt."
A stroke of good fortune was the catalyst they needed to make an abrupt change with how they dealt with credit: Her husband's early retirement package enabled them to pay down the debt all at once. "We made a vow right then that we would never again pay the minimum on any credit cards," she says. "Now we use the cards instead of them using us." The couple charges about $7,000 per month but then pays the bill off. Noyes admits that staying on track isn't always easy, but that vow is sacred, saying, "We'll do without food before we don't pay a credit card in full." Today, they track every penny and have perfected their money management routine. "Once you get out of the minimum payment habit," assures Noyes, "it becomes a way of life."
5. Use the 12-step program
Admitting a charging addiction put Stephanie H.* of Brooklyn, N.Y., on the path to good financial health. Using convenience checks her credit cards sent to pay for everything from rent to groceries, her debt soon swelled to $17,000. "I was living meagerly," says Stephanie. (Being anonymous is part of the 12-step program and so last names are never revealed.) "It was miserable."
Stephanie realized she needed outside assistance. She negotiated settlements with her creditors and now stays debt-free "one day at a time in Debtors Anonymous." Debtors Anonymous (DA) helped her realize that saving is her priority. DA's collective wisdom and endless support is crucial to her success. "Where else do you get a room full of people who cheer for you? They help you get what you want." With the organization's guidance, Stephanie went from living in debt with no savings to having over $30,000 in her retirement account and $10,000 in her vacation fund in a few short years.
6. Go to extremes
When Darryl G.* of Cincinnati got married, he let his wife completely take over their finances. He regretted that decision when he discovered she racked up $42,000 on their credit cards without his knowledge. After the divorce, Darryl repaid the balance by taking extreme cost-cutting measures. "I paid it off over three years by living horribly frugally," Darryl says. He saved money by turning off his air conditioner and heat, and he used the per diem his clients paid him for meals so he didn't have to buy his own food.
Darryl maintains control with absolute attention to detail. "I can always tell you within $5 what the balances are on all of my accounts, from checking to credit to investments." Before he spends a penny on anything, he makes sure he knows precisely how much money he has at that time. "I ask myself what my balance is and then I ask if I really want it or if I really need it," says Darryl, noting that it can be hard for him because he really loves to spend money. However, by knowing his balance, he's able to stay out of debt and afford more in the long run.
7. Get the right card
Lianne D.* of Atlanta discovered that just having the wrong credit card caused major overspending. "I used to have one with a $150 annual fee where I could collect air miles with every purchase," says Lianne. "I thought it was a good idea to use it for all my purchases so I could rack up more points." In the end, she charged far more than she intended or needed, just to earn enough points for free flights.
Lianne realized that she needed every spare penny when she wanted to buy a condo. She canceled the card and requested one "with no annual fee that offered me cash back." She's been saving ever since. "I only use the new card for online travel bookings or the few online purchases I make." Lianne not only enjoys the extra money she gets from the cash back feature, she no longer chases all those miles with excessive spending. "I figure I have saved at least $1,000 a year from this lifestyle change."
Some of these adjustments are simple to execute, others more complicated. Still, all resulted in these formerly indebted cardholders making powerful -- and lucrative -- transformations. Their consensus: better borrowing begins and continues with a committed, positive attitude. Trust that you can and will remain debt free. As John F. Kennedy once said, "The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable."
* These individuals have requested that their last names be omitted to protect their privacy.