Eliminating debt, all in a day — and night’s — work

Marketplace Contributor Aug 3, 2012

Eliminating debt, all in a day — and night’s — work

Marketplace Contributor Aug 3, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Sometimes, we come across stories that I just fall in love with. And today, we’re going to start with one of them. Now, we can tell you over and over how to dig yourself out of debt. Or we could just let you listen to an example of how one woman took control and dug herself out, with a mop and no small amoutn of humility.

Krissy Clark has our story from our Wealth and Poverty Desk.

Krissy Clark: When Celie Niehaus was growing up, her dad had a saying about spending and credit cards.

Celie Niehaus: Don’t charge anything that you put in your mouth.


Niehaus: Don’t charge dinners. Don’t charge drink or anything like that. If you’re going to actually carry some debt for something you purchased, at least have something to show for it.

But, like a lot of Americans, one day, Celie woke up with a spending hangover. She was in her late twenties at the time, and in deep, deep credit card debt — $10,000, or half her annual income. She could barely afford the minimum payments, and they felt like a losing battle anyway. All this money trouble was especially stinging for her, since, she was, well, she was an officer at a bank.

Niehaus: Had been in financial services for many years and knew better, and still made the same mistake that many consumers make. Too much consumption. I had a little too much fun, got myself in debt, and of course, at the end of the day, you have to pay it back.

Celie had actually started her banking career working for a credit card debt collection company, so she was well versed in the mechanics of paying off debt. Reduce spending. Increase revenue.

First, she worked on the “reduce spending” part: Went on a shopping freeze, stopped going out to eat.

Niehaus: I started walking to and from work.

The “rasing revenue” part? That was a little trickier. Her job at the bank was full time and salaried.

Niehaus: So I couldn’t work extra hours at the bank to increase my income, which led me to the second job. I was fortunate enough to know some people that worked for the Fayette County School System and they had told me about a janitor’s job.

And she took it. She lived a little like Superman, down to the costume change. Banker by day…

Niehaus: I did wear my tennis shoes to and from work in my business suit.

…Janitor by night.

Niehaus: Jeans and t-shirts.

She worked five nights a week, four hours a night as a janitor. And it gave her a different perspective on her day job.

Niehaus: Being able to sit behind a desk, it’s fairly easy. But the janitorial staff, the things that they get stuck with? I learned a lot about cleaning, believe me.

Fifty offices, every day.

Niehaus: Empty their trash cans. Vacuum. Get on my hands and knees to clean the table. The glass would need to be fingerprint-free. Mopping, that’s not an easy job. That mop is heavy.

Then one day, she was rushing back from her banker job in her business suit…

Niehaus: Trying to get home to change my clothes.

…And on her way, she ran in to a woman who worked in the school administration offices she cleaned.

Niehaus: She made eye contact with me.

Celie waved at her, said hello.

Niehaus: She looked at me, and there was no recognition. And I said, “It’s Celie.”

Then Celie said, “Oh, right.”

Niehaus: You don’t recognize me without my garbage can. That’s when she realized that I was the janitor.

The woman asked why she was dressed so nice, and Celie explained the whole situation. By the time, she got in for her janitorial shift that evening, everyone who worked in the office seemed to know about her secret life as a banker. And from that day forward…

Niehaus: As I went from office space to office space with my garbage can and vacuum, they would start asking me financial services questions. Questions about loans, questions about debt. When I left they gave me a going-away party and someone had said they’ve never given a janitor a going-away party.

It took Celie two years at the janitorial job to make enough money to pay off her credit card. As an added bonus, she actually created some savings, too. The retirement plan and health insurance as a janitor were, back then, actually better than at her banking job, so she dropped the benefits at the bank.

And today, nearly 20 years later, she’s never had to go back to janitorial work. Turns out the banking thing’s worked out pretty well. She’s now a vice president at E-Trade, the chief compliance officer.

Niehaus: Going from janitor to chief compliance officer of the bank does sound like an enormous leap. Although, I feel like I clean up all the time.

These days, Celie says she keeps a tight grip on her debt. She has a car loan, and a mortgage, but tries to pay off her credit card every month. In her spare time, she now teaches young people about personal finance. She uses her story as a lesson.

Niehaus: To help them understand that everybody can get into a situation. But you may have to make some sacrifices and do some things you don’t particularly care for to get yourself out of that situation.

She says, people shouldn’t shrink from taking a ground-level job to get out of money trouble. She hopes maybe those office workers she met as a janitor learned that lesson too.

I’m Krissy Clark for Marketplace.

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