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PLASTIC DEBT
A YEAR AFTER HER 'MONEY MAKEOVER,' WOMAN IS MAKING HEADWAY AGAINST CREDIT CARD DEBT

Worn down by financial anxiety a year ago, she faced up to her dark secret: $32,900 in debts on her credit cards.

The woman -- we called her "Betty" in a Money Makeover feature a year ago -- learned she would have to make big changes in her spending habits. As part of the personal finance feature in Your Money, a team of financial planners outlined strategies that would affect every part of her life, from socializing to travel and even family ties.

A year later, Betty has quit using plastic and started paying down the debt, but it hasn't always been easy.

This is the story of how a person nearly swamped with credit card debt managed to reverse course and start bailing out. By changing her spending habits, the 45-year-old administrator has reduced her balance by 17 percent in one year, paying off five of 11 card accounts. She said the help of financial planners who performed the makeover, published Aug. 18, 1998, strengthened her resolve to reduce debt.

"Many people think 'I don't need help,' but you do," she said.

Betty is not alone in her problems with plastic. In fact, many people have greater difficulty. About 3.4 percent of credit card loans carried by Erie and Niagara county banks are more than 90 days overdue, according to SMR Research Corp. of Hackettstown, N.J. Growing card debts contribute heavily to the 8,000-plus bankruptcy filings each year in Western New York.

"We see people who have charge card debt in addition to a mortgage and two car payments -- then if something happens like sickness or loss of job, they really panic," said Joan C. Clark, senior counselor at Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Amherst. The agency offers free debt restructuring help.

One thing that sets Betty apart is that she faced her credit difficulties early. Most people put off seeking help until their finances reach crisis, Ms. Clark said.

"It's the last thing they want to do," she said.

Betty's $52,000 annual income allowed her to keep meeting the minimum payments on her 11 cards, keeping her clear of debt collectors and bankruptcy court. But monthly payments on the cards absorbed funds that could have gone for savings or retirement.

And the debt kept growing.

"I had been used to pulling out the card and not worrying about it," she said.

Part of the overhang wasn't Betty's fault. She inherited some obligations as the result of her divorce four years ago. Her anger at shouldering the financial burden alone fueled some of her spending as a single person and made sacrifice more difficult, she said.

Betty was also able to tap her retirement savings, set up in an account similar to a 401(k) account, to pay off higher-interest debt. A $6,000 loan from the account paid off her car loan and the highest-rate credit card balances. Interest on the loan is just 5 percent, vs. 19 percent on cards, and the money goes back into her retirement fund.

The first step in giving up plastic was to destroy her cards, saving one for emergencies. Of course, the bills continue to come, but further borrowing ended. In their place is a pay-as-you-go budget.

In addition to paying down debt with a low-interest loan, Betty has shifted some balances from high-rate cards to others carrying a low introductory rate.

Some card issuers offer rates of 2.9 to 6.9 percent for the first five months, according to RAM Research Corp. in Frederick, Md. The company's "CardTrak" list of low-rate cards is on the Internet at www.ramresearch.com.

Sticking to cash meant much sacrifice and some creative strategies. For example, Betty needed to buy a personal computer to keep up with her job for a non-profit organization. Since the $1,500 cost wasn't in the budget, she took a part-time job temporarily to generate the cash.

Adopting a cash-only lifestyle involves smaller sacrifices too, but ones that must be fought day after day.

"One of the changes is, I bring my lunch," she said. "If I decide to go out to dinner, I have to decide what to give up."

A $25 weekly allowance for spending money limits impulse purchases, she said, yet still leaves some flexibility. But much "social spending" that involved get-togethers with friends at restaurants has had to go.

"It's a luxury for me to have a coffee or a candy bar."

One of her hardest tests came when a group of friends invited her along on a weekend golf outing. She told them she had to work -- the truth was she couldn't afford the $300 cost.

"I don't want anybody to know" about the austerity plan, she said. "Sometimes I'm embarrassed when people say 'Oh let's do this' and I say 'No I don't feel like it.' "

Shopping is a different experience than it used to be. Instead of making an outing of it, going to stores with friends for an afternoon, she now goes alone.

"I don't want to be swayed," she said.

The trip happens when she has only a short time, so that she's not tempted to linger. And of course, browsing is out. She makes a surgical strike for a definite article, having already scoped the sales.

"I used to go out and buy whatever I liked, whether it was on sale or not," she said.

Her trip to visit family must qualify as some sort of record for parsimony. Planners recommended she give up her plans for the jaunt to Europe with an estimated cost of $2,500. Destination, Paris; not the world center for frugality, sacrifice and self discipline.

But Betty found ways to travel more cheaply, using family members' frequent-flier miles and staying with them instead of a hotel. She took $500 onto the plane with her and brought back $400 of it, she said, achieving Paris on about $7 a day.

She's not superhuman though. In a follow-up visit with financial planner Carol Martin, leader of the Money Makeover team, Betty estimated that she meets her austerity goals about 75 percent of the time. Still, that's enough to yield big gains in her financial picture.

Fighting to be plastic-free reveals how embedded credit card use has become in everyday life, she says. Of course it's a must for travel reservations, tickets and online purchases. Offers for more and more cards overflow the mailbox. And even when paying in person at some stores, sales clerks sniff at cash and urge you to sign up for the store card.

"I would love to say that credit cards get you into trouble," she said. "But you decide to use it."

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