Jerry Bailey, a minister in Jackson, Mich., says he feels as if he has been given back his life. It’s a dramatic statement — and the story behind these words is, indeed, pretty extraordinary.
But this isn’t the kind of real-life tale screenwriters are scrambling to write. There’s no prison time or debilitating medical conditions involved. In fact, Bailey’s tale is, at its core, really quite commonplace.
Like countless Americans, Bailey and his wife Sue were in debt. A lot of debt.
Living in a House of Cards
It was 2005, and the couple had rung up approximately $92,000 in charges on their credit cards. At one point, they had 17 of them.
“It was easy to amass that many credit cards in those days,” Bailey says. “We had spread the debt across all those credit cards, so we really had no idea how much we owed. Each balance, when taken separately, didn’t look so bad.”
It was bad, however. But — here’s where it gets dramatic — by October 2010, the Baileys had paid off every cent of that $92,000 they owed.
The Wake-Up Call
Jerry Bailey was a widower when he met Sue, a registered nurse and single mother. Their combined family includes six kids. Their credit card debt accumulated over the years as they paid for home repairs, child-rearing expenses, and weddings.
The family was getting by — Bailey says they managed to make all their minimum payments each month — but just barely.
Then they got a financial wake-up call. And it wasn’t from a collection agency, as is often the case for people who amass large amounts of debt.
When they needed to make a home repair, Bailey approached his credit union for a loan. “When the loan officer pulled up our credit report she turned white as a sheet,” says Bailey. “She told me that not only could they not approve a loan, but she suggested we seek bankruptcy. Then I turned white as a sheet.”
The Baileys refused to consider bankruptcy.
“Our second wake-up call was when we had to add up everything we owed,” Bailey says.
To help them manage the $92,000 mountain of credit card debt they faced, the Baileys’ credit union recommended that they contact GreenPath Debt Solutions, a nonprofit credit counseling service. The Baileys were worried, since they had heard that some credit counselors are untrustworthy, but financially experienced friends told them GreenPath, which is member of the certification agency National Foundation for Credit Counseling, was reputable.
Making the First Cut
Mary Haas, the Baileys’ credit counselor at GreenPath, contacted their creditors. Some lenders lowered their interest rates on outstanding balances, which helped the Baileys reduce their balances faster.
Haas also created a debt management program, or DMP, for the Baileys, which required them to pay $665 per week to GreenPath, which in turn paid their creditors with those funds.
The family also went on a no-plastic diet. “We had to cut up our credit cards and pay cash for everything,” says Bailey.
The new budget left the Baileys enough to continue to make their own house and car payments, cover utility bills, and pay for basic necessities. And that was it. There was no financial wiggle room. “We could not buy any clothes or go on any trips or get a new car,” says Bailey. “We couldn’t even buy gifts for our grandchildren. I won’t say it was easy, but we knew if we could finish the program we’d be debt-free.”
Both Baileys took on extra work to keep up with the weekly payments.
The path to being debt-free was not free of setbacks — some of them major. After a few years in the program, for example, Sue required extensive foot surgery and couldn’t work for five months. GreenPath was able to renegotiate terms with some of their creditors. But two creditors were unwilling to change their terms, so Bailey worked extra hours to pay off those debts as quickly as possible.
“I have to admit that there were times I was extremely exhausted and depressed during this whole ordeal,” says Bailey. “We relied on each other, our faith and our friends, who encouraged us throughout that difficult time.”
The Phone Call
In October 2010, more than five years after their debt management regimen began, the Baileys received a phone call from GreenPath with good news: They were debt-free.
“We were ecstatic,” says Bailey. “We had been receiving monthly statements and knew we were reducing our debt, but we didn’t know the exact date.”
The Baileys consistently paid $665 each week during the program. Since then, they’ve used their extra cash to repair their home and to make extra payments on their mortgage, which they hope to pay off by May 2013.
Although the credit card debt is gone, there are lingering reminders of the toll it took on their finances: “Our credit rating was hurt by our debt problems,” says Sue. But time — and new, good habits — will heal that wound.
Today, the Baileys have one credit card — a far cry from the 17 that packed their wallets in 2005 — and they pay the balance in full every single month. Cash is still king in their household. “We strongly believe that cash is the best way to pay for everything. We’ve learned that if we don’t have the cash for something we can just wait and save for it,” Sue said.
The Baileys have some advice for people with credit card debt. “First, sit down and do what we did: Add up everything you owe,” says Bailey. As hard as it may be to face the total — be it $9,000 or $90,000 — it’s important to know where you stand and to face the problem before it gets even worse.
Also recognize the emotional toll the debt can take: “Being in debt is like being in prison. You can’t do what you want when you want to do anything,” Bailey says. And then think about what it will be like when you are debt-free. For Bailey, “It’s an incredible feeling to be as generous as you want to be to help others in need.”
Michele Lerner is a contributing writer to The Motley Fool.