On their fifth wedding anniversary in July 2002, Scott and Jacynta Harb were broke and living off credit cards. Their 10th anniversary proved even worse: They were still broke but by then had racked up $52,000 in credit card debt.
That's right around the time that Scott realized that the suburban Atlanta couple had hit rock bottom, debtwise. The Harbs, who have three children, had been using their cards for household expenses while Scott started his own small business, but the debt had spiraled out of control. The only way out was to do something radical: eliminate all spending. So he canceled the couple's only vacation in years.
"I was dev-as-tat-ed," Jacynta, 41, said in a recent phone call, pausing between each syllable for emphasis.
The Harbs' story illustrates how easy it is to let debt involving multiple credit cards -- or unsecured high-interest loans -- snowball in a short amount of time. And they are not alone. Currently Americans have accrued more than $819 billion in revolving debt, much of that from credit cards, according to April figures from the Federal Reserve.
Like many entrepreneurs, Scott had turned to credit cards while launching his business in 2001. He and Jacynta knew they would have to rely on credit to make up for the $600 shortfall in their household's monthly budget. But what they thought would be just months of living without his income, stretched into years.
Because they were managing paying their bills on time, they were able to obtain even more credit cards over the years from 2002 to 2007. They maxed out one card, then another -- and another. Finally they had spent to the limit on a total of nine cards, with annual percentage rates between 27 percent and 29 percent.
Though the Harbs were never late on a payment, the credit card companies kept raising their interest rates because their debt-to-income ratio was so high. By 2007, they were paying $1,500 a month in minimum payments alone.
"We thought it was manageable because we didn't have any creditors calling," Scott, 47, said. "That's the lie you fall into."
By last October, they completed a grueling 54-month journey to pay off all their debt. Their austerity plan could serve as a template for anyone who needs to climb out of debt: They worked extra jobs, spent the bare minimum, bought only used cars and furniture, did not take any vacations except camping trips, made no home improvements and cooked all meals at home.
"There were nights when we were both working and kids were with friends," Scott said. "I even worked on Mother's Day to keep paying the bills."
The Harbs also worked out a debt-management plan with CredAbility, a nonprofit credit counseling group in Atlanta. That move helped shave off more than $300 from their total in monthly credit card payments. Every month for the duration of the debt, they made a single payment of $1,132, including a $50 management fee to CredAbility. The credit counselors then paid the couple's nine bills.
Once involved in the debt management program, the Harbs could not open any more credit card accounts and committed to making a set monthly payment for more than four years. "Forced discipline sounds like apple pie compared to that," Scott said. "Each month it was a battle. It was beans and rice."
The key to the Harbs' success was asking the banks, with CredAbility's assistance, to lower their interest rates. Chase agreed to lower its rate from 29 percent to 6 percent; Discover dropped its rate from 29 percent to 12.99 percent and Bank of America revised its rate from 29 percent to 14.9 percent.
But the Harbs' tale is more than a money story; it's also the story of their marriage surviving through perseverance, partnership and sacrifices. "No one gets any credit but me and my wife," said Scott. "It's all about digging in and hard work."
Money problems and marriages are no strangers; many couples call it quits because of differing views on home finances. Research has shown that credit cards can be a powerful negative force in marriages. Couples who paid off debt acquired early in their marriage had a relationship of higher quality over time, said Jeffrey Dew, an assistant professor at Utah State University who studies money and family relationships.
"Consumer debt is stressful," Dew said. "When you are under stress, that will hurt your marriage even though you have a great marriage."
"I have also found that in my studies that the more consumer debt couples have, the more often they fight," he said. "Even if you take out fighting about money, they still fight more."
Jacynta, who works as Weight Watchers leader and is a sales director for a home decor company, said the stress from the debt had affected her marriage. For her, the lowest point came in 2009 when Scott told her they didn't even have enough money for her to visit her family in Pennsylvania.
"I got this awful feeling that about it -- that [the debt management plan] was not going to work," Jacynta said.
But it did work. Next month, when the Harbs mark their 15th anniversary, they will travel to Mexico for a much anticipated family vacation. Being free of credit card debt has been "great" for their marriage, they agreed.
"The last six or seven months have been the best of our marriage," said Scott.
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