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Digging out from $80,000 in debt

  • Story Highlights
  • Two years ago, Dawn Warfield had $80,000 in debt on 17 credit cards
  • The video store owner was facing a divorce and expanding her business
  • She also admits that living beyond her means was part of the problem
  • Nonprofit counseling service is helping her get lower rates and pay off her debts
By Jennie Bragg
CNN
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SARATOGA SPRINGS, New York (CNN) -- Two years ago, Dawn Warfield was drowning in debt.

"When you have a lot of debt, it's not just financial, but it's emotional ... even physical," Warfield said.

Dawn Warfield sold one of her two video stores to help reduce her debts.

The average American household has $8,329 in credit card debt, according to the Nilson Report, a credit industry newsletter.

Warfield had nearly 10 times that amount.

At its worst point, her debt totalled nearly $80,000.

She had 17 credit cards and admits that living beyond her means was part of the problem.

"I'll own up to that," she said.

"There is always unforeseen expenses, and when you are making the minimum payments on these credit cards, when you think you can't afford to make more than that, they don't go down."

But Warfield's spending was not the only factor working against her. Video Watch Warfield describe how the debt piled up, and how she started paying it off »

Cutting credit card debt

Can't afford your card payments? Here's a step-by-step guide from CNN personal finance editor Gerri Willis:

Contact your lenders: If you lose your job or face high medical bills, explain the situation to your lenders and ask if they can lower your rates, waive your fees and work out payment plans. Some are willing to negotiate; persistence may be needed to find the person who can help. Document all conversations. Go to helpwithmycredit.org, a site operated by credit card companies, for more.

Get your debt forgiven: More and more card issuers are accepting dimes on the dollar as payment in full. Usually you have to be delinquent at least 90 days with a credit report that shows missing payments isn't common. Closing an account due to settlement will affect your credit score for years, and you'll pay tax if the forgiven debt is over $600. For more, go to the National Foundation for Credit Counselors at NFCC.org.

Prioritize your payments: Pay your mortgage (or rent) and utilities, and keep food on the table. Then start thinking about paying down your card balances. Pay off the card with the highest rate quickly, and make modest payments to your other cards. Stop using your cards until you pay off your balances.

For more money-saving tips, go to CNNMoney.com

She was in the middle of an expensive divorce and had been charging business expenses to her personal credit cards when she opened a second location of her video store.

"Every month I was writing out 17 checks," she said.

"And the interest rates ranged from like 6 percent to 33 percent. So it was impossible.

"I was transferring balances from one card to another, and every time I got a card to a decent interest rate, I felt like one of the cards would come off the promotional interest rate, and I was just never catching up."

So Warfield took matters into her own hands.

She sold the second location of her video store, stopped using her credit cards and decided it was time to get help.

"I sat down one day and I called each credit card one by one, and I asked each one to work with me ... to lower my interest rate."

The credit card companies did not respond to her plea.

Instead, she was directed to the debt management program of the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service, part of Money Management International.

Counselor Eric Jackson helped Warfield analyze her bills and expenses and created a plan to help her get lower interest rates. Now she makes a single monthly payment.

"I don't even have to think about it, which makes it a lot easier for me, because when you have a lot of debt, it's not just financial, but it's emotional, you know, even physical," Warfield said.

"You think about it all the time."

Adds Jackson: "She's making her payments on time, they're posting to her creditor accounts, she has very low interest rates -- that was one of the benefits -- and she's definitely doing well.

"She is on track to get all her debts paid off in full within the five years."

Today, Warfield is less than $40,000 in debt.

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"I'm about halfway," she said. "It hasn't been easy, but we're getting there."

Are you fighting the recession, using innovative techniques to stay ahead in this economy or overcoming financial adversity? Share your story with us by sending an e-mail to realstories@cnnmoney.com , and you could be profiled in an upcoming segment on CNN.

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