TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Tess Vigeland: Three months ago we brought you the story of Russell and Kandy Hildebrandt. Earlier this year they paid off the last dollar of what was a $100,000 debt load. It took them nearly five years.
Russell, an organic chemist, got a second job as a janitor. And they cut back on nearly every expense, including holiday spending for their children. For their efforts, they won an award from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. And are now celebrating the first holiday in years and years where they don’t have to worry about that debt.
So we asked if they’d be willing to share the epilogue to their story and they said yes.
Russell, Kandy, welcome back to the show.
Russell Hildebrandt: Well, thank you.
Kandy Hildebrandt: Thank you, good to be back.
VIGELAND: This is the first holiday season in more than five years, where you don’t have this massive debt hanging over your heads. Can you describe what that’s like for you, Kandy?
KANDY: Yeah, it’s nice to be able to approach Christmas and not worrying about paying the bills. That’s a gift in it of itself; that’s my Christmas gift this year.
Vigeland: Russell, how different is it from previous years?
Russell: Well, one of the big differences is that I’m able to spend time with my family and do some of the things that we used to do — you know, sitting and watching old Christmas movies, just kind of hanging out. Things that I couldn’t do, because I was usually sleeping and working my second job. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. I just made kind of a goal that I wasn’t going to do anything special over the holidays, but just hang out with my family and enjoy them and not being so tired from working night and day.
Vigeland: And can you describe for us how you handled the issue of holiday gifts, parties, that sort of the thing, over the last five years when you really didn’t have the money to do anything. How did you talk about that with your kids, with your family
Kandy: Well, with the children, they didn’t notice so much. Our parents, on both sides of the family, are very generous. What they like to do, rather than running around buying gifts for everyone, they give us the money and say spend so much on each child for us. But with that came gift money, you know, set aside for Russ and myself. And what we ended up doing was, instead of using that gift money for ourselves, we used that to buy the children gifts.
Although, there were some years, you know, the girls needed things. I’ll give you an example, they had a need of winter clothes, because they’d outgrown everything, and they noticed that there were not gifts marked from mom and dad; it was all from grandma and grandpa. And you know, like, “Where’s our gifts from you guys?” And we said, “Well you know what, we took our gift money to buy something that you needed.” That was probably a reality check.
Vigeland: And Russell, were there any difficult conversations with extended family?
Russell: A little bit. You know, we didn’t come up and do many of the things with family, because we couldn’t afford it and I had to work two jobs. And when I would be up there, I would half the time be sleeping on the couch or on a chair, because I was so tired from working. And so they did notice that and they were wondering, like “what’s wrong with you?” But it was like, “Well, I’ve gotta work.” They thought I was being rude sometimes, but it wasn’t.
Vigeland: Really? Did they express that to you?
Russell: Well, it got back to me that “Why isn’t Russ participating or doing this?” Not that they were rude or anything, it’s just they were kind of like “What’s the matter with him?”
Vigeland: Right, ’cause you guys didn’t share this with a lot of family until you received the award earlier this year, right?
Kandy: There was really only my parents and one of my siblings. Otherwise, pretty much everyone was in the dark, but I think, as people understood, where we were coming from. Obviously, Russ wasn’t working two jobs, just because he needed time away from the family. I think people put two and two together and were certainly generous and gave us some leeway.
Russell: It probably would’ve been better if I would’ve been a little bit more open, but it was a lot of a pride issue. But, I know what I know now, I would imagine anyone having some issues, you know, and I’m not trying to be unsociable. You live and learn, as they say.
Vigeland: How did you manage to stay on track every year, particularly around the holidays, when, we as a country tend to go a little bananas with spending and the like? Russell, what did you do, how did you discipline yourself?
RUSSELL: Well, it wasn’t hard to be disciplined, because we didn’t have any money to buy anything and we couldn’t use any credit cards, so it was easy that way. But it was hard, because you want to do stuff for your family and our kids are normal kids, just like any other kids, and they give us a wish list every year. It was hard to give us this list that we could never even begin to tackle. But we’ve been able to do a little bit more this year. We’re staying debt-free, we’re not charging anything. We’re kind of making up for some of the things that we hadn’t been able to do last five years.
Vigeland: You mentioned that you are still debt free and I wonder, has there been any temptation at all to either get a credit card or use one or is that simply out your lives at this point?
Russell: We do have one credit card, for getting hotels and stuff. But it is quite funny that people do ask us that. We could go out and get a few extra things and then pay it off next month. But we’ve gotten into such good habits over five years, that even when I think of something, I just get these bad feelings, so the temptation has really not been there for me and I’m sure for my wife. She can add to that question herself.
Kandy: Well you know, honestly, I think everyone deals with that temptation. Because “no money down,” “no first payment till 2010” and you can easily rationalize when “we really need this” to “we can pay it off in three months.” But what it comes down to, like he said, reverting to bad habits and presuming upon the future — which is not wise in this economy. You can’t presume that a. you’re going to have a job in three months. It’s not worth it, especially when we enjoy such peace of mind right now. It’s hard to put a value on that.
Vigeland: Do you have any frugal tips for listeners who might be wanting to start down the road that you’re now on, but are finding it difficult? As we mentioned during the holidays, it’s a little different than the rest of the year.
Kandy: I would say, don’t go into debt for Christmas. Ask yourself, are you willing to do what Russ did to pay off that debt? And this is why, I think, when you say is it temptation, I think Russ, all he has to do is remember the countless nights he went without sleep. The other thing, focus on what really makes Christmas meaningful. The events around the holiday seasons, in terms of being with family, the children being with their cousins. Those memories are really priceless and most of the time, it really doesn’t cost you much.
Vigeland: Russell and Kandy Russell Hildebrandt wonderful to talk to you again. We so appreciate you sharing your story with us and with the listeners. I think there’s a lot in there for all of us to be thinking about and congratulations again on continuing to stay debt free. It’s been a big year for ya.
Russell: Yes it has and thank you a lot Tess.
Kandy: Thank you very much.
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.