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Digging out of a lot of debt isn’t easy. But even huge mountains of debt can be conquered, as these three women prove. Together they paid off $188,000 in debt — without winning the lottery or coming into a windfall of cash. Here’s how they did it.

Joyce Paid Off $28,000 in Credit Card Debt

Joyce recently made the last payment on some $28,000 she had accumulated on seven credit cards. She did it through the help a debt management plan through the non-profit credit counseling agency Cambridge Credit Counseling. She shared her story with me in a phone conversation, and asked me not to use her last name:

I am a credit card Gigi. If I can buy it on time, it’s fine. At least that’s the way I used to be, because I never seemed to have enough money to spend. Credit cards were an answer to my situation. I have this thing for credit cards. I tell myself, ‘I don’t mind paying a little more so I can have it now.’ That’s how it was, and that’s how I still am to some degree. But once you get into credit card debt it’s so hard to get out, especially when the rates are so unfair, usually in the mid 20s. I had an overwhelming amount of debt for a single person. I can’t remember exactly how I found credit counseling. I think I might have found it online. I just kind of picked one and I was lucky. They made all the payments for me. They took the same amount of money from my bank account each month for 3 years and 10 months (and paid my creditors for me). I had no checks to write and no stamps to buy. They were as professional yet friendly as could be. They didn’t make me feel ashamed because I had run up that much debt.

I think I was saving $100 a month (in monthly payments). The hardest part was not using the credit cards.

I do still have a few cards with small balances. After the first of the year I plan to pay off a card or two on my own to see how it goes. If I use it too much for too many other things — I have 12 grandchildren — I’ll go back to Cambridge. This time it won’t be nearly as tough because I already did the tough thing first.

And I had a wonderful cash Christmas this year!

Learn more: Listen to an interview with Christopher Viale, president of Cambridge Credit Counseling, where he explains how credit counseling helps consumers get out of debt. You can download the interview or listen online.

The Rochas Wiped Out $60,000 in Debt

Carrie Rocha and her husband paid off $60,000 in non-mortgage debt in two and a half years on a middle-class income. She is the founder of the PocketYourDollars.com blog and author of a new book, Pocket Your Dollars: 5 Attitude Changes That Will Help You Pay Down Debt, Avoid Financial Stress, and Keep More of What You Make. She joined me on Talk Credit Radio to share her story. This is an edited excerpt from that conversation:

It started in June 2006. My husband’s Brazilian, and we had just gotten back from Brazil. We realized that someday we’d love to live there but there’s a big problem.

Brazil’s a cash-based society and so they pay cash for cars and expensive things. We thought, “We can’t even get to the end of the month without going into debt.’ It seemed like a mountain, the idea of having this debt-free life. And we realized, we’re going to either give up that dream in order to maintain our current lifestyle, or not. And so we just decided, look, we are going to get out of debt and we are going to stay out of debt for the rest of our lives.

It was exactly 2 ½  years later when I wrote the check that paid off the last of about $60,000 in non-mortgage debt, and we have been able to stay out of debt ever since.

We were just average middle-class folks. Our income didn’t dramatically increase. The first thing that we really did was just stop and take responsibility for our situation, “Look, we got ourselves (into) this and we’re going to get out. We’re going to figure out how to use what’s income we have today and live within that even if it means a dramatic change in our lifestyle. And it actually wasn’t as dramatic as we thought it might need to be.

One of the things that we said was, “We’re not even going to think of this like a budget. Because a budget represented to me everything a diet does for someone who wants to lose weight — everything I can’t eat, everything that all the rest of the world enjoys but I can’t. So we said, we have so much money every month and it’s our responsibility to make choices about how we spend that; choices that are consistent with our priorities and our values.

And then the other thing we needed to do was say, okay, no more fooling ourselves and tricking ourselves thinking that, ‘Christmas is not coming, we won’t need new tires for the car; that these expected yet not routine expenses are not going to happen.’  We had just been living with whatever was in front of us. And so we built numbers and amounts into our plan.

Every month, we saved towards those expenses and that wasn’t a new concept. But what really changed was that we were actually able to save the money and we did it. In times past, I would have a savings account attached right to my checking account and we would try saving $30 a month for new tires, but then something would happen and we would just pull that money right back out to cover our cash flow.

This time, we opened this second checking account in a different bank. We actually chose a small credit union with limited branch hours and limited access to our money, and we set up an auto transfer from our primary checking account into that second checking account and that’s where we saved money for all of those non-routine expenses.  Because we couldn’t just make a quick electronic transfer back, it allowed us to actually save the money that we said in our plan we were going to save. We actually had money when those non-routine expenses started to come up.

The biggest area that we changed was our tax withholding. We were of the mindset for years, ‘Let’s have them take out the most we can and then we’ll get this big windfall once a year and that’ll be awesome — $4,000 at one time.’ (Adjusting our withholding) added several hundred dollars per month into our monthly budget. We were able to just bundle that money then into an emergency fund so that we could buffer unexpected events. That was probably the biggest thing we did.

Learn more: Download the full interview with Carrie Rocha here or listen online.

Lynette Khalfani Cox Demolished $100,000 of Debt

It’s been over a decade since Lynette Khalfani Cox dug out of more than $100,000 in debt. It took her about three years at the time. She also shared her strategies on Talk Credit Radio and what follows is an excerpt from that interview:

I was earning a six-figure salary but I was practically spending as if I was earning seven figures. So I teach people now, of course, that it really doesn’t matter how much or how little you earn; if you spend more than you take in you’ll always be broke and in debt. That’s why we have so many celebrities we see with seven-, even eight-figure incomes, or at least certainly seven-figure paychecks that they’ll get from your endorsement deals, singing contract, sports deals etc., but they still wind up in bankruptcy court.

I used a lot of strategies to get out of debt, (including) literally doubling and tripling my minimum payments. I started to live on a budget. And honestly, I was in debt because I was a classic over-spender, so I definitely cut back from the excessive spending.

I made a lot of tough choices as well. I took my kids out of very expensive private school they were in. They were five and three years old (at the time) and were in a $20,000 a year private school I couldn’t afford.  Like every mom, I thought, ‘I want to give my kids the best possible start and I really have to give them a great education.’ (But) I put them in a less expensive private school, and they’re now in public school, and they’re doing just fine.

I think for me (the tipping point was) the realization that I couldn’t sort of do the things that I wanted to do. I felt kind of frustrated and trapped by the fact that I was maxed out and that my creditors would no longer extend my credit lines or increase them. I would go into stores and have to keep fingers crossed that the credit card charge wouldn’t be declined. And I got to the point where I was embarrassed a couple times where the cards were declined. Anybody who’s been through that knows it’s not fun.

And so finally, I said to myself, listen I know there’s a better way, there’s got to be a better way than this. And I resolved to just really start digging myself out and as it turns out, I was able to pay off the $100,000 in credit card debt in just three years. I’ve never missed a single payment and I wound up writing a book about it called Zero Debt, the Ultimate Guide to Financial Freedom which became a New York Times bestseller.

Want to learn more? Listen to the entire interview with Lynette Khalfani Cox. Download the interview here or listen online.

Image: iStockphoto

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