Digging out from mountain of debt

Buried in debt

TEXT OF STORY

Scott Jagow: One of the tougher things for a family to go through is bankruptcy. Debt can be an awful strain on couples and parents -- and their kids. Recently, we've shared some stories about people trying to pull themselves out of debt. As you can imagine, it's very difficult.

Trey Kay tells us the story of one woman's long journey to start over.


Karen: I'm Karen. I'm a grateful member of the Debtor's Anonymous 12-step program. It has saved my life.

Trey Kay: Sixteen years ago, Karen walked into a Debtor's Anonymous meeting, which is a 12-step program that helps people learn to stop debting. Karen had lived a life of debt for many years. She raised two children by herself and her tough financial situation caused her to use credit cards to charge for clothes and groceries for her family.

Over time, Karen had rang up a couple of grand in credit-card debt. She didn't see many options to pay down that debt, so she got a second mortgage on her home.

Karen: I paid off my credit cards, promising that I would never get into credit-card problems again. The only problem with that was, I would see something I wanted and I had no savings -- and so I would use the credit card, knowing that I could make the $10- or $20-a-month payment on it.

That worked for a while, but before long, she again faced staggering credit-card bills. This time the bank said "no" to a second mortgage. So she looked for a different solution.

Karen: I found that it was really quite easy to use my company-supplied credit card for personal use. And paid it in full at the beginning of each month, so they didn't know. And, uh, then started to use it and I didn't pay it back. I didn't write them a separate check. I started to use company payments to pay it. And I had a position of being the comptroller of the company and it was quite easy to do this.

Before I knew, I was totally out of control with my debt and started using, not just using company checks, but I balanced the cash till at nights. When there were not receipts for the money that was in the till, I started taking the money and balancing the till each evening.

This continued for about two years, until...

Karen: I came to work on a Monday morning and my office was locked. And they were waiting to confront me with the damage that I had done -- the company saying that I owed about $100,000. And I was just totally devastated. I didn't know what was going to happen in my life from that day on. But I was certain that I would be on the streets, I would never be able to work again, no one would want to hire me, and that no one would want to have anything to do with me.

Karen called her brother. He offered to help her find a good attorney. He suggested that she find a local chapter of Debtors Anonymous.

Karen: Listening to others share that night, I built up the courage to share why I was there. I was full of shame and I cried a lot, but I also knew that it was the first time in a long time in my life that I had been honest and it felt good.

Karen avoided going to prison by paying back the company. To do this, she had to sell her home. She found a temp job from a suggestion someone made at Debtor's Anonymous meeting, and this led to a full-time job. It's taken about 16 years, but Karen has managed to repay about $200,000 in debts, fines, taxes and legal fees. Karen says that she'll never forget her embezzlement.

Karen: The D.A. program has taught me that number one, I have to take care of myself. Number two, I have to be honest.

And she wants to help others learn to be honest as well. That's why she started a D.A. meeting at a Woman's Correction Facility. She's helping women face what she faced: How to financially start over.

In New York, I'm Trey Kay for Marketplace Money.

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