In a debt spiral?

In a debt spiral?

Susan Bailey saw some signs that she and her husband, Jerry, had some money troubles — like once when she discovered that a credit card account had been closed when she tried to pay at a register.

She joked that her husband must have cut her off.

She knew things were far more worrisome after Jerry applied for a loan for home repairs at a credit union. He came home and told her that he was not only denied the loan but the loan officer said he should consider bankruptcy.

After that scare, the Jackson couple buckled down, closed more credit cards and worked with a credit counselor through GreenPath Debt Solutions for about five years to eventually get rid of their credit card debt.

Even so, Susan, 59, didn't realize until it was all paid off that they once owed more than $90,000 on 17 credit cards.

"I never knew the extent of the debt — ever," she said.

How does one build up that kind of credit card debt? And even more key, how does one get out?

Dawn and David Van Dyke built up $48,610 in credit card debt decorating a new house and buying gas and groceries.

"Maybe one month, we paid Visa, and the next month, we paid Discover," said Dawn Van Dyke, 39, who lives in Buchanan, a short drive from the Michigan-Indiana border.

"I don't know what we were thinking; there was really no way to get caught up."

Sometimes, the only way out is bankruptcy or foreclosure.

Sometimes, other options sound even scarier.

Every credit card statement has a toll-free number for credit counselors. But the National Federation for Credit Counseling estimates that only about 150,000 people have called, even though the number has been on 500 million statements since February 2010.

For some, it might be worth making a call. Successful consumers say they've experienced quite a relief after dedicating typically three to five years to paying off their debts.

"I am not afraid to pick up the telephone now. I am not afraid to go to the mailbox," said Jerry Bailey, 61, who once had 17 credit cards but eventually paid off more than $92,000 in credit card debt.

GreenPath Debt Solutions, a Farmington Hills, Mich.-based nonprofit financial organization, named Bailey and his wife, Susan, and the Van Dykes as 2011 Clients of the Year.

How did they get out of debt? Jerry and Susan Bailey, who live in Jackson, paid $665 every week for about 51/2; years. Jerry Bailey, who is an associate pastor at Grace Church in Jackson, felt the couple had a moral obligation to avoid bankruptcy.

"We had to really do without during that period of time. It was a very humbling experience," he said. Bailey took on extra work doing weddings and funerals.

How did they get into trouble? Denial, paying for wedding receptions for two daughters with credit cards, buying gifts for a blended family of six children and seven grandchildren, losing income when Susan Bailey did not get as much work as a visiting nurse.

Another factor: Jerry Bailey was a widower before he met Susan, who was divorced. His children had received Social Security survivors' benefits after their mother died. Once they became adults, those benefits stopped.

"After awhile, you get dependent on those (credit) cards," Jerry Bailey said.

Debt management doesn't cut your debts — that's a debt-settlement deal.

But debt settlement is tricky, and some bad outfits cost consumers thousands of dollars upfront and ruin their credit. Some consumers are even sued by creditors.

A credit counselor works with creditors to stop collection calls, lower interest rates, and waive late and over-the-limit fees on credit cards.

Monthly payments on a debt-management plan are typically about the same as paying on your own. Counselors help consumers create a budget. The idea is to save money over the long run.

The minimum payment could be lower in some cases, too. A debt-management program minimum payment is typically 2.1 percent to 2.5 percent of the money owed, according to GreenPath. But it can be as low as 1.75 percent in some cases.

Even so, consumers must realize that just like with a diet, many people cannot stick to it.

GreenPath said nearly 50 percent of its clients on debt-management programs pay off their debts in full.

"The problem is: Are you going to be able to make that minimum payment over the next five years?" asked Steve Rhode, who runs a Web site called

Life can create more than one hurdle. When Susan Bailey unexpectedly was out of work for five months on medical leave, the GreenPath counselor was able to get some payments lowered further until she could return to work.

"They were just determined to do whatever it took to see that debt out of their lives," said Mary Haas, a GreenPath counselor in Farmington Hills, who worked with the Baileys.

To be sure, some obstacles can be too big — such as a death of a spouse or a loss of a job during a program.

And "some people just get overwhelmed and give up," Haas said.

Some couples choose to plug along, anyway.

Dawn and David Van Dyke keep a Post-It note on the wall above their computer showing simply: 48,610. It was their total credit card debt. They want to remind themselves how far they've come since they paid off their debt last July — and stay focused on attacking their home equity loan in the future.

How did they build up so much debt?

The Van Dykes thought they could afford a higher mortgage payment — an extra $400 a month — and moved from a tiny house into a bigger home. Son Jacob, now 9, was born.

But they didn't consider the extra expenses, such as paint and home improvements. They also have student loans.

Shortly after Dawn and David Van Dyke began working with GreenPath, they faced more worries.

Jacob, who was almost 4, was diagnosed with epilepsy. He was in and out of hospitals. Dawn couldn't work for nine months as a special education teacher because she needed to take care of her son. David Van Dyke, 40, said they were committed to paying off that debt, though, so they stopped spending money on all sorts of things — eating out, buying pop, treating the family or friends to ice cream.

The couple paid $565 every two weeks to pay off their credit card debt in less than five years.

David's motto: Do without.

David Van Dyke, a middle school science teacher in South Bend, made extra money playing in a rock and soul band called the Van Dyke Revue. He took every gig that he could and threw extra money at the debt.

Now, he's not afraid to turn someone down if he cannot afford to do something.

He told his mother that his family could not afford to go to Walt Disney World last summer with her and other family members. It was not easy on Mom.

"She wanted her grandson there," Van Dyke said.

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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