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Shooting for the stars, learning to manage debt

Karawynn Long and Jak Koke had a moment of clarity, when a mountain of credit card debt nearly tipped them over the edge. The Seattle couple is flanked here by daughters Claire and Michaela.

Tess Vigeland: Twelve-step programs often talk about the "moment of clarity" when an addict starts to understand just how dire the situation has become. For many Americans addicted to credit cards and overspending, the economic collapse of 2008 proved a powerful moment of clarity, and they started paying down debt at rates not seen in years. For 42-year-old Karawynn Long and her partner, 47-year-old Jak Koke, clarity arrived a couple of years before that, in 2005, when a mountain of credit card debt nearly tipped them over the edge.

Karawynn Long: Tessa, where's your ball?

The family lives in a modest house among fragrant pine trees just north of Seattle. Their border collie Tessa, fetched plastic balls thrown down a narrow hallway. Koke's two daughters from a previous marriage were also home -- 13-year-old Claire and 19-year-old Michaela. Long and Koke spent the bulk of their careers in the technology industry, mostly as contract employees. But in 2003 they decided to launch a publishing startup called Per Aspera Press.

Long: Ad aspera per aspera is Latin for "To the stars through difficulty." Per aspera is the "difficulty" part.

The effort generated more difficulties -- and debt -- than stars. And that compounded problems created by their own spending habits. They ate out a lot, went on nice vacations, and generally lived far beyond their means.

Long: There wasn't a lot of extravagance, but a lot of smaller things added up. And so when I didn't have the money, basically I just put it on credit cards to keep that level of lifestyle no matter the actual situation. Like I was entitled to that.

But she wasn't, of course, and as the bills piled up. They started to eye the bottom line with alarm. In 2005, they crossed the $40,000 mark on their credit card bills.

Long: Like somehow that was a scary number. That was just over some kind of internal threshhold where I was like, "Wow, that's a frightening amount of money to be owing."

They realized if they didn't get the problem in hand, things could get much, much worse. And so in late 2005 they began household austerity measures that would see them through even tougher times to come. Long became an avid home cook; meals out became a luxury. Vacations stopped; so did contributions to their retirement funds. The family began shopping at the thrift store -- a big adjustment for Long.

Long: That was something that only poor people did, and it was like that was bad if you had to shop there something was really wrong. And I realized I'm actually embarrassed to go in there.

But now she proudly displays the $10 jeans she got at Goodwill. Michaela -- the 19 year old -- laughed at her mother's recounting of the horrors of bargain shopping.

Michaela: It's just funny because now like at least within my friends if you find a really good deal on a cute pair of pants or a blouse or whatever, then you can like brag about it to your friends now.

Her sister Claire -- who was 7 at the time -- says Christmas changed.

Claire: I did think I used to want to have lots of stuff under the tree. But then I kinda got more excited about people opening the presents that I got them and making them happy.

Long says there was an adjustment period for everyone, but eventually it became their new normal. She and Koke also managed to get better-paying jobs. That brought their combined income to around $150,000. They threw every extra penny at the credit card debt -- around $2,000 a month. And they put the plan on paper.

Jak Koke: Having a spreadsheet is scary because you see it all at once. But it's also nice because you see the numbers going down.

They wiped out the entire balance within two years, but the family had mere months to enjoy the accomplishment before the nation spiraled into financial crisis. By October of 2008, Long had lost her job, Koke's hours were slashed in half, and their income fell to less than half of what it had been. What saved them from utter financial devastation was that they'd paid off all the credit card debt.

Long: I don't know how we would have made it. Like really, we probably would have gone bankrupt. I mean maybe we would have found a way. But I think about the numbers and I'm like, I just don't see it.

They got through the last three years of sporadic contract work because of those newly frugal habits. And could be a classic comeback story but for one remaining toxic element: their home. They bought it in 2006, just as the family austerity measures kicked in, for just over $400,000. But home values have dropped, and they now owe more on the mortgage than the property is worth. With their severely diminished incomes, Long said mortgage payments ate 65 percent of their take home pay. So in January of last year, after trying and failing to get a modification on their loan, they stopped paying. Koke says it was a wrenching decision.

Koke: I've always been taught, that you pay your debts, you know, you borrow money and you should pay it. So I did have sort of an internal war with the we're obligated. But you have contracts for a reason. If we default, you get the house.

Long was even more blunt.

Long: Basically, I'm CFO of this household. It's a business decision for us.

So they are squatting in their own home. Mortgage payments that have not gone to the bank are now in an emergency fund. That money will also help with an apartment rental once they get a foreclosure notice. Long agrees theirs doesn't fit the traditional definition of a comeback, but it works for this family.

Long: If you can learn to take pleasure in a smaller set of things, you're not as at the mercy of losing a job or the economy or whatever. I wouldn't say that we're coming back to how it was before, but the difference is we don't want it to be like how it was before.

And that's a definition more and more Americans can probably relate to.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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