Success Story: Kimberly Perez
At one point in her college career, Kimberly Perez was able to keep on top of eight credit cards, all with a balance.
But after her mother died of cancer, the 28-year-old from Corpus Christi, Texas, says "I started neglecting to do things."
She missed payments and turned her financial aid application in late, forcing her to charge the tuition and fees for her final year of college. An unpaid internship, which would have been feasible with financial aid, pushed her deeper into debt when she began charging living expenses as well.
"Basically, it took one academic year to ruin my credit," she says.
When creditors began calling every day, making threats and yelling at her, Kimberly decided she needed help.
By that point she'd graduated and found a good job. "I was back on my feet," Kimberly says, "but I couldn't pay off the balances in lump sums."
In fall 2002, a little more than a year after her mother passed away, Kimberly went to the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of South Texas. Ironically, her mother had been through the same program for overspending on department store credit cards.
"Call impulsive spending hereditary," she says.
Consumer Credit is a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which negotiates debt reduction and repayment plans for over-extended borrowers.
Kimberly owed $18,000 on her credit cards, and "much of the debt was finance fees, overdraft fees and late fee charges," she says. "CCCS helped to get some of that alleviated, but not all. So it really hurt that I had done this to myself."
Kimberly worked with a counselor to determine that she'd pay $400 a month towards her debt. Consumer Credit charges $25 to establish a repayment plan and $25 a month to administer it.
The counselor also helped Kimberly create a monthly budget that called for her to pay $150 on her student loans and ensured she had enough for housing, food, transportation and entertainment.
"They don't expect you to become a money monk," she notes. "Honestly, they just expect you to live within your means."
Kimberly soon found that she wasn't living in squalor without credit cards, although she did have to justify purchases to herself. She also had to save up for big-ticket items, which she realized made her care for those things much more than if she had simply charged them.
Last fall, four years after she began the program, Kimberly was credit card debt-free.
"A huge weight has been lifted off of me," she says. "I still get agitated with the fact that it does take a number of years for my debt to come off of my credit report. But actually, once I completely paid off a number of my debts, my credit score did increase substantially."
Kimberly offers this advice to those struggling with credit card debt and considering a debt elimination program:
- Do your homework. Find a credible, stable program like Consumer Credit. Agencies not affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling often charge astronomical fees and can push you deeper into debt.
- Accept change. It's scary but things will get better. "It is great to not have to rely on credit cards. It is great to know that you can buy a coffee or go to a fast food restaurant and know that you aren't going to be paying the finance fees for that $5 charge for years to come."
- Realize why you overspend. "I would spend money because it made me feel good. It was a way to forget about my difficulties --regardless of the fact that racking up charges was one of my issues." Now that she's learned how to balance and keep track of her budget, she knows how to stay within her means while still enjoying life.
- Relearn how to use credit. Kimberly is working to restore her credit with a partially secured credit card that she opened through her bank. "I charge a few things on it and then pay it off every month. It is a calculated endeavor, not mindless."