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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
TESS VIGELAND: And now I’d like to suggest that you pour yourself a cup of tea, maybe sink in to a comfy chair. Because we have a story to share with you. It’s a tale of debt. And redemption.
At the end of 2004, Russell and Kandy Hildebrandt found themselves under a mountain of credit card bills that most of us could not fathom. Four and half years later, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling named them clients of the year — because they paid it all off.
We asked them to share their experience with us, starting from the beginning, when Kandy got the first inklings that something was very, very wrong.
Kandy Hildebrandt: I guess as a wife, I observed Russell. His demeanor changed, became increasingly stressed and there was a beginning to battle depression. And so I knew there was something else going on.
And there were a few flags. When we got letters, where they were increasing our interest rate, I knew that there was probably a high debt load that would cause him to do that. Because that would have to put us in a higher risk bracket for them to do that.
I did some digging and sat down and found things and totaled everything up and that’s kind of how it came about.
Russell Hildebrandt: You know, I did most of the finances and did this stuff and she wasn’t involved as we are today. We are both involved and we both know exactly what’s going on with our finances. But back then we weren’t. It was mostly my responsibility and my mistake for not letting her be involved and doing something sooner.
Vigeland: Tell us really, at its worst, what your debt load was and how you got there. Kandy?
Kandy: Well, at its worst, when we started the program, we were about $106,000 in debt. Most of that was personal credit cards. There really were no major purchases. We didn’t live lavishly. You know, like the average American, it was just daily living things, but it was accumulated over nearly 16 years.
Vigeland: Sixteen years.
Kandy: Yes. And prior to having our twin daughters, you know, I did have a full-time income, so I had come home, so it was find two of everything, so there were increased expenses and a lower income. So that probably got us started off in the wrong direction.
We didn’t live frugally. In hindsight, we could’ve done more. But again, it’s a gradual process. I think a lot of people go through it and then you look back and you wake up someday and you go, “Man, how did I get here?”
Vigeland: Russell, how did it get to the point where you were $106,000 in debt?
Russell: I kind of ask myself that many times. We had tried some different businesses and things and I always thought I could get it under control. Eventually, I got to a point where we had to do something about it. And I look back upon it now and I would never get myself in that situation, I would’ve did something about it.
Vigeland: Why do you think you didn’t? I mean, when you talk about realizing at $106,000 that you had a problem, how did you not realize that at $30,000 $40,000 $70,000 $80,000?
Russell: Well you know what, at $30,000 $40,000 or $50,000 I was paying the payments every month and putting a little extra on there. Just thought eventually things were going to take off, some of the different business things that I did, and I thought I’d eventually get under control and start knocking it off. Basically, kind of lying to myself, thinking I’m just going to get it, instead of being realistic about it. And I wasn’t realistic. I was just hoping things would get better and, you know what, hope does not always work.
Vigeland: For anyone who might think that $106,000 is an impossible debt to get rid of, can you talk about how you got started on that?
Russell: Well, actually, Kandy went to FamilyMeans and they looked at our financials.
Vigeland: What is FamilyMeans?
Russell: FamilyMeans works with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, and it’s a nonprofit organization. And they do education and helping people with bankruptcies and all kinds of things. And that’s what they did. They said, you’re going to need to pay this much a month and this is what we can do with your creditors. You get your rate lowered, so you’re not paying so much interest. Some creditors, they were able to get down to 2 percent, some they could not get down at all. But by the majority, they did get down and that helped lower our monthly output. And so that relieved a lot of stress, because it took from 11 different payments to one payment a month.
Vigeland: Eleven payments? You had 11 credit cards.
Russell: Eleven credit cards. And then it took about four-and-a-half years to pay off.
Russell: Yeah, everything.
Vigeland: That seems startlingly short to pay off that much money in four years. Did you have to take a second job? How did you have the income to be able to do that?
Russell: Yes, the payment came out, it was over half of my income every month. So I went out and got a second job cleaning floors at night. And I did that five nights a week.
Vigeland: And what was your day job?
Russell: My day job is working as a chemist in an environmental-industrial pharmaceutical testing laboratory, and I was an organic chemistry manager.
Vigeland: So you’re an organic chemist and you ended up taking a janitorial job?
Russell: Yes. And there’s nothing wrong with any kind of job, but you know what, it was kind of a humbling experience when you manage people and then you have to clean floors at night. So I basically worked about 80 to 100 hours a week.
Vigeland: Wow. What was that like at home to have to be doing that? Was there a sense of relief, I suppose, that you were working toward paying this off, but boy, the family life must’ve changed.
Russell: Yes, it did. Kandy pretty much had to do everything in the household. I pretty much went with the few hours of sleep I got and I pretty much — on Saturdays, I would get a nap and then I would spend time with the family and then Sunday afternoon, I would spend time with my family. But that was my life: Working and spending time with my family.
And we worked as a team, though. She would give me a back rub if I needed to get the energy to go to the next job, because I would be working five hours and some nights I would not be able to get to sleep. And I just kept doing this. But we made a decision that we were going to pay back what we owed. We felt it was a moral obligation. I decided I was going to do whatever it took. And I did a lot of crazy things just to get it done.
Vigeland: You know, I think there are probably a lot of people out there who are struggling like you did and it’s very easy to think, “I’m never going to be able to pay this off.” What do you think your message is for them?
Kandy: First of all, quit going into debt and, you know, stop what you’re doing. And if you make the decision that you want to get out of it, the first thing is to find an organization that can help you. And I do mean the right organization.
One thing I appreciated about FamilyMeans is that they are certified members of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. They’re able to negotiate the concessions of lower interest rates with credit card companies that we as consumers cannot do. And without the reduction in those interest rates and getting them fixed, there’s no way you can really dig out of it, when you’re that deep in debt.
Vigeland: So what’s your relationship to credit now?
Russell: We have credit cards, but we have not used them. And nor do we intend to. We have really worked to live within our means, wouldn’t you say, dear?
Kandy: Yes. You know, when you go through a program like that, I think one of the side effects that helps with the success of that story is that you do change your lifestyle. And I mean, it’s a permanent change. So even though things will not be as stressed financially for us, we will continue to live frugal. And it’s actually, it’s fun to find the deals and to get things at pennies on a dollar. We will live within our means. If we don’t have the cash, we won’t buy it.
And I think one thing we’ve learned too is we’ve learned to wait for things. The mentality too, a lot of times we think there are things out there that we have to have. A lot of times you really don’t need them, and when you wait you usually figure that out. And not always to rush to a credit card to fulfill something that’s maybe not even a need.
Vigeland: What was it like to public with this sort of thing?
Russell: Yeah, except for our parents and her brother and sisters and my brother, nobody really knew that we were this far in debt. You know, we didn’t really exchange Christmas presents at the holidays, and we kind of drew back a little bit because we didn’t have money to do extra things.
And I was happy that in June this was done with. I didn’t have to tell anybody. We paid everybody back and I just wanted to go back to living, you know? Got rid of my second job at the end of June and I was happy to be home with my family and be able to sleep nights. I just kind of wanted to move on and then, we got nominated for this award and then all of a sudden, it’s like now we’ve got to talk about it.
And we could’ve made a decision not to talk about it, but they said you could really help others. And we’ve been involved in our church and been involved with helping people for many years and we decided, well, we’re just going to step out.
Vigeland: And what was the reaction?
Russell: Well, a lot of good reaction. A lot of families were like, “Wow, I can’t believe you were this much in debt.” And we had a lot of reactions from people, we have people call our house out of the blue and say, “We’re inspired by you.” And you know, some people are negative in that, like, “I can’t believe you did this,” “You were idiots to get there in the first place.” And I would agree with them, OK? I was an idiot to get there in the first place, but at least I wised up and I did it and I corrected a mistake. And nobody’s perfect and so, we made some mistakes, but it’s helping people. And I think you can take a bad situation and make it good and that’s what we did.
Vigeland: How’d you celebrate once you paid off all that debt and were able to stop your second job?
Russell: My last night, when I left the grocery store, I screamed, “I’M DONE” as loud as I can at 5 in the morning in the middle of New Richmond, Wis. And I was quite happy.
And then that weekend we went and stopped at Famous Dave’s Barbecue — I don’t know if I should mention it or not — but we did and we bought like $50 worth of barbecue and we went home and we had a big feast on Sunday. And we just were happy as can be. We didn’t go extravagant, but it was just like, we would’ve never done that in the last four-and-a-half years. But we had the money and we just went out and had one big Sunday. And the girls, they love barbecue and we had a good time and we laughed and I didn’t have to go to work anymore, except for my regular job and it was just the start of a new life.
Vigeland: And what about the household budget. Is it something that you work on together now?
RUSSELL: We have grown closer, actually, because we’ve had to struggle together. I couldn’t have did it without her. I don’t think she could’ve did it without me. We did it together as a team. And I know I’ve grown to love her and appreciate my wife more and appreciate things more. And so, I would not want people to ever go through this situation, but it did make us better people.
Vigeland: Russell Hildebrandt, Kandy Hildebrandt, thank you both for sharing your story. I’m sure it’s going to help a lot of folks. So, very brave of you to talk about this and we really appreciate you coming in. Thank you.
Kandy: Thank you, you’re welcome.
Russell: Thank you.
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