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Yvette knows she didn’t just wake up one morning hopelessly in debt. She and her husband had good jobs — she is a hospital administrator and he is a property manager — and good incomes.

The debt built slowly, over about seven years, and with a series of money decisions like, “we need to book our vacation now, but we’ll pay for it when we get our tax refund,” or “we’ll pay it when the bill comes,” and finally, “we’ll pay half this month and half next,” Yvette said. (She prefers not to reveal her last name.) Only something always got in the way. Balances grew, and even in the months when she and her husband, Kyle, were able to pay more than the minimum payment, they were making little headway in shrinking their enormous debt. It was frustrating to see the balance barely drop.

Then Kyle’s business failed.

And the house of cards they had so carefully kept balanced wasn’t going to survive, and they knew it. Yvette had started building it innocently enough. When she finished college, credit card issuers were still offering new grads credit cards even if they had no job and no income. Still, she had managed to keep current on payments.

The couple decided to try to consolidate the debt — nearly $60,000, according to Yvette — and went through Consolidated Credit to get a debt management plan. So instead of several payments and a monthly round of trying to “rob Peter to pay Paul,” they had just one, and at a lower interest rate. But they couldn’t use their credit cards. Yvette said her lifestyle changed, though not in the ways she had imagined. She speaks more of freedom than of deprivation. “One of the blessings was knowing how much the payment would be,” she said. She was out of work for three months, “and it was comforting to know what to expect.”

Feeling Better Physically

Other unexpected benefits were “less stress and better health,” she said. And Yvette wishes more medical professionals would recommend credit counseling to patients who feel financially stressed.

“A huge percentage of people have illnesses directly related to stress,” she said. “I think doctors should be more aware of the services available and ask patients who complain of stress if it has to do with money. . . People don’t have to lose sleep and suffer from stress. Solutions are out there.” And, while she didn’t want to worry her four children by telling them about the financial hole the family was in, their kids saw how their parents were spending. It changed from buy now, pay later to save now, buy later. Yvette no longer rifled through her wallet trying to find a card that had enough “room” for a purchase (several were maxed out or close to it). The kids “have a better respect for money than we did,” she says.

Yvette said even sticking with a budget was easier knowing that there wasn’t extra money to cover impulse spending and that making her monthly payment actually would bring the balance down. “It put us on a schedule. We get paid twice a month, and we know where the money is going.” The discipline wasn’t all that difficult, she said. “It was like, ‘The party’s over; it’s time to clean up.’ . . . I found great satisfaction in knowing things like the refrigerator actually belonged to us.”

The family is just a couple of months from the final debt payment (they’ve made 53 in a row, all on time), and that will free several hundred dollars that had gone to repay debt in their budget. A counselor wanted to know if they had thought about what they wanted to do with that money. They had. Their eldest child heads off to college next fall — and “we want to retire someday.” Yvette is also hoping to raise her credit score — hers was most recently 580 and Kyle’s 610 — and maybe refinance their mortgage someday. “We’re paying 6.75%. Nobody has to do that but us,” she says with a laugh. (You can see your own credit scores — and how your debt is influencing them — for free on Credit.com.)

But for now, Kyle and Yvette primarily rely on debit cards. Their credit card is for emergency use. Yvette knows herself too well to risk falling back into debt. When she has a choice between paying with plastic or cash, she generally chooses her debit card; it’s harder to part with the cash in her wallet, even though she is well aware that the dollars coming out of her checking account on her debit card are just as real. It’s harder to part with cash, she says. With the debit card, she can’t spend more than she has. Using debit cards won’t help her boost her credit scores, and she doesn’t get the protections credit cards offer, but continuing to use her emergency card at least enough to keep it open, and paying that and her mortgage on time, can keep those numbers moving up.

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