“After four years of sacrifice we are finally debt free for the first time in our 29 years of marriage. To say our life, and marriage has been transformed would be a major understatement.” Tom and Janet didn’t lead extravagant lifestyles, but expenses exceed income for this couple in their early 60’s. They cut back nonessential expenses and took second jobs. Tom’s primary job was running a business sense radio show. He worked the second job with the fear that, “someone would see the so called ‘business guru’ on his hands and knees scrubbing toilets.” The stress was deeply affecting their marriage, health, and work. When Tom had CCCS of MT Counselor, Bev, on his show discussing the bankruptcy law changes his life was dramatically altered. After their first appointment they had a plan to pay off their $30,000 in debt and change their lives. The couple looked at each other and said, “Can we do this month in and month out for four years?” The success they achieved with their plan inspired them in other areas of their lives. Knowing he could achieve success with a plan and hard work day by day, towards then end of his program, Tom began a weight loss program and after losing 125 lbs. is in shape and healthy. “Looking back I can’t imagine how we ever lived the way we did for so long."
Tom and Janet’s Story
If I had to pick a starting point, it would have to be when The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 went into effect. I was doing a local radio show called, “Open for Business” and I invited a local bankruptcy attorney to be on the show to talk about the changes in the news law and how it would affect those people contemplating bankruptcy. I felt like the worst kind of hypocrite sitting there telling people to budget their money, cut up their credit cards, and avoid impulse buying while I knew there were probably people listening to the show that I owed money to, yelling at the radio about what a deadbeat I was. I talked the talk but did not walk the walk.
My wife and I had been through a bankruptcy in the early 1980’s in California so I was familiar with how it worked but as 2006 was approaching was wondering if I was going to have to go through it again. Montana is not an inexpensive place to live and through most of our married life we have not been good managers of our finances.
We moved to Montana in 1993 and over a ten year period we had managed to accumulate about $30,000 of debt that I really didn’t see any way of paying off. Plus, at the age of 62, grossly over weight, and with arthritic knees, if I lost my job, I would be virtually unemployable.
Any time the phone rang we knew it was a creditor. All the mail was bills, collection letters, and debt reduction offers. We cancelled cable TV, newspaper, and got jobs with a cleaning service at night. I went to work each night with the fear that someone would catch this so called “business guru” on my hands and knees cleaning toilets. The stress was affecting my work, health, and home life. My wife and I had been through a lot of tough times together but this was probably the most challenging time in our marriage.
Studying the changes in the bankruptcy laws didn’t give me much hope that going down that road again would be any better the second time around. The following October I had the bankruptcy attorney back on my show to report on how the law had effected the economy and Montana in general. I also invited Beverly, from RDI Consumer Credit Counseling Service. I learned that under the new laws that counseling with her before and after the bankruptcy would be part of the process. But during the course of the interview, I also discovered that she might be able to save us. She talked in detail about the ways to avoid bankruptcy, the process of contacting creditors, putting people on a re-payment plan and not judging people on their irresponsible behavior.
I talked it over with my wife and we decided that a meeting with Beverly was worth a shot. We gave Beverly all our bills and a spreadsheet of our monthly expenses for her to go over and made a follow up appointment for the following week. After reviewing our bills and expenses we arrived at a monthly payment we felt we could handle and we started the program. At the agreed monthly amount it was going to take over 4 years to pay everything off. Four years seemed like a lifetime. When I walked out of that office I looked at my wife and asked, “Can we do this month in and month out for four years?”
The first year was the hardest. At Christmas we had an artificial tree that we had brought with us from San Diego but Christmas morning there was nothing under it. At first it was a struggle to make the monthly payments to CCCS because it was hard to change a lifetime of bad habits. Over time we finally began to figure out that this was going to have to be a lifetime change. We were like dieters only our food was money. We would sacrifice, but only for short periods of time, then we would go on binges and buy all sorts of “feel good” things we really didn’t need. Every time the monthly statement from CCCS would come I would pull out the calculator and see how many months were left and it always seemed to be years, not months.
About two years into the program some medical bills came along so we added those to the program which extended the time but thankfully the payment remained the same. Then there were car problems. We didn’t have car payments because we drove old beat up cars to save money but old cars have problems. So I would call Beverly to see if we could pay less and sometimes that was possible but that also lengthened the time of our obligation.
By the third Christmas, moving into our fourth year, we finally had something under the Christmas tree. Nothing expensive or exotic but we were finally learning to maintain a budget of our finances and had stopped using payday loan people. We were finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now when I pulled out the calculator I saw months, not years. Now each month when the statement came we started to see more and more creditors drop off one by one. Then by early 2010, after four years of sacrifice, we were finally debt free for the first time in our 29 years together.
To say our life, and marriage, has been transformed would be a major understatement. At the end of 2009 I was able to retire debt free. In July of 2009, with about 9 months to go on our program, I began a weight loss program, under a doctors’ supervision, and as of this July, 2010, I have lost over 125 pounds. My last physical says I am in perfect health. When I started the CCCS plan walking half a block was painful; now I mow the yard, and am able to exercise regularly.
We increased the size of the deck on our house and paid cash. I was able to upgrade my wife’s old car for cash. Now when the phone rings it’s usually someone trying to sell me something instead of trying to collect a debt. I am no longer afraid of running into people I owe money to. I am no longer a hypocrite on the air. Looking back, I can’t imagine how we ever lived the way we did for so long. I know we did all the hard work ourselves, but I have to give some of the credit for our success to Beverly. Her advice, direction, support, and encouragement were invaluable throughout the entire program.
Tom and Janet, Bozeman, MT
Asset Development Strategies
Moving Towards Financial Independence
My memories are very clear of sitting in the public assistance office talking to a social worker about receiving TANF for my brand new baby and me. I need the assistance just to pay rent while I went through college. I sat with my head down and my little girl in my arms, this felt like the bottom for me. I knew I had two choices, I could go to school with the goal of earning enough money to support my small family or I could stay on public assistance and only hope for a change.
Even though school seemed like a long road and I was insecure about my abilities, I knew this was my only way out of my situation. I was able to collect TANF for a year, until I decided I wanted to earn my bachelors degree. Going to school for a four year program automatically disqualified me for TANF. At the time this logic did not make much sense to me, TANF would assist me through a two year program yet not a four year program. I made up my mind that my aspirations to work as a social worker were more important than receiving public assistance. So, I transferred schools, moved to a new city, lived with family to cut costs, and worked as many part time jobs as I could fit in just to make my educational goals work.
About a year later I heard about the Family Economic Security Program, it sounded like it would bridge the gap for individuals that were working towards economic self-sufficiency yet still needed assistance in reaching that goal. I applied and qualified for the educational track. The program assisted me with paying for summer school to ensure that I would graduate on time, helped me pay for child care costs my last semester of school, and reimbursed me for clothing to use for job interviews. The biggest help to me was the financial classes and mentoring I received through the program. I participated in the Dollars and Sense and Home Ownership classes. I also was able to receive counseling on how to get my credit on track and be finically smart about my spending. I had individuals working for the program sit down with me numerous times and take the time to proof read resumes, job applications, and prepare me for interviews. I made connections and contacts through the program and the monthly meetings that I have and will continue to use in the future.
I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Human Services in May of 2008.
I have been working with The Child and Family Service Division for the State of Montana since September of 2008. I also just purchased my first home in February 2009. I went from being a single mom on public assistance, to now assisting other individuals gain independence out of hard ships within just four years. I am so proud of the goals I have accomplished in this sort amount of time and I know that I would not have been able to do them as quickly without the assistance, education, mentoring, and relationships that I received from the Family Economic Security Program.