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Debt Confessions of a Former Priest

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True confession! I am about to share with you a part of my life that I am not proud of, but it’s a story that needs to be shared. Most of you don’t know it, but for 18½ years I served as a Roman Catholic priest. In 2001, I left the priesthood in excellent standing to pursue other avenues in life. When I left however, I was deep in credit card debt. I dug myself out eventually, but looking back at my situation, I marvel at how easy it was to get into debt in the first place.

It used to be that every Catholic priest lived in a rectory, had a housekeeper, a cook and a maintenance man on premises. However, let me assure you, times have changed. Today the rectories are very often uninhabited, the cooks are gone and the maintenance man could very well be the priest himself. Clearly, the life of today’s typical priest mirrors the reality of his parishioners, including the fact that it’s often full of financial difficulty.

When I was ordained in 1983, I earned $8,400/year. When I left in 2001, I earned (after taxes, Social Security and Medicare) $18,000/year. Out of this salary I had to pay for my car, car insurance, life insurance, clothing and personal care expenses, not to mention an annual deduction for health and dental care. When all was said and done, I was left with an average of $11,000/year to live on, which did not leave much for pursuing more in life than sitting in my room, which some unenlightened Catholics feel a priest should do anyway. So, what did I do? I got credit, of course!

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In late 1983, I was so proud to receive my first credit card from a major bank. I got the card, which had a $1,000 credit limit, through the assistance of a friend’s sister, as I clearly did not qualify. I swore I would only use it for extreme necessities. However, soon after getting that first card, I began to receive offers for more and more of them. I thought, what could be the harm of having some additional credit cards? After all, I had no savings and made very little money, so the cards would provide me with a “cushion” in times of need. Unfortunately however, I began to rationalize those “times of need” as a dinner here and there, new clothes, and other “essentials.”

I faithfully paid the minimum due on each card every month and was never late with a payment. In return, I was rewarded with increases in my credit limits. Remember that first credit card with a $1000 limit? It soon had a $10,000 limit. However, I did not have to use that card only because I quickly acquired twelve cards! I was credit card rich.

[Article: Confessions of a Former Credit Card-a-holic]

Ah, but then came judgment day. On the day I informed my Bishop that I was leaving active priestly ministry, I took a close look at my finances and discovered that I had accumulated more than $54,000 in credit card debt! I realized that if I stopped using the cards and paid the minimum on each, I would not be out of debt until I was 92 years of age. However, I wasn’t worried. I told myself that because I was single and had no responsibilities other than taking care of myself, my credit card debt was really not a problem. And so I kept using the cards. Then, two years after I left the priesthood, I fell in love and got married. I now owed a whopping $67,500 in credit card debt and realized I was in serious financial trouble.

So I decided it was time to be an adult and climb out of the deep hole I was in. With the help of a non-profit debt consolidation organization I begin paying down my card balances. I gave myself five years to become credit card debt free and I resolved never to use credit cards again, no matter what.

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Four and a half years later, I had paid off every single credit card and returned all but one to the lender. Getting to this point meant curtailing dinners out and ending elaborate vacations not to mention swallowing my pride more than once, but I knew that my wife did not deserve to live with my debt and that I did not want to be burdened down by it any longer. It was about this time that I became serious about pursuing a career in the financial services industry beyond my work in banking and I began preparing to become a financial advisor. Since then, I have counseled countless clients in credit card debt to do what it takes to pay off their cards.

Today I have no credit card debt and have stayed “debt sober” for over 5 years. Yes, I’ve had to make adjustments in my lifestyle, but thankfully, I now make more than $18,000/year so I am able to spend money and enjoy life although I am careful. I guess you could call me a “credit card vigilante!” As they say, there is nothing worse than a recovering “whatever it is.” So what is the lesson in my story? No matter who you are, what you do for a living, or what stage of life you are in- stop the madness and say “No” to credit card debt! There is a far better way.

Image: Charles Clegg, via Flickr

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  • Diana Lynn Zelada

    Dear Mr. Cioppa:
    Your true-to-life credit card debts experience is very interesting, and should give a lession to any crfedit card holders especially the young ones and the ignorants, to really not to be tempted, enthused, or be fooled by those credit cards offers tghatg usually abounds during the first months of each year!

    By the way, could you give me a few names of non-profit debt consolidators companies? There are services of this kind out there, but there is always an underlying “hitch”, that gives much more and added financial burden to those who have applied for such a service. Thank you very much.

    In another note, to be a priest or to be with a religious vocation is really difficult, financially that is. I do understand perfectly well, why a number of priests fall into this financial trap of having credit cards, or borrowing monies that can’t be repaid, tro the extent of swallowing thier pride or even falling to situations, such as but not limited to (a) unrecruited love; (b) depressions; (c) heart attacks; (d) leaving the priesthood or the convent, etc.

    Thank you so much for sharing this experience that should teach a lesson to those concerned.

    • Jay


      Non Profit will make their money by working out a deal/kick back with the bank/card company because they know that you will pay if interest is lowered etc. and you are willing to pay it back. Given you have needed to look into using such service its in the best interest of the lender to do so because the other option is you walking away as they probably have already killed your credit rating due to late payments etc.

      For Profit plays the same game and if you don’t care about your score because your so deep in debt it really doesn’t matter DO NOT BOTHER USING THEM!
      All they will do is charge a fee and collect money and be the point of contact for the debtor to deal with. No payment will be made until the debtor realizes that the principle minus the interest, late charges, collection fee’s etc. sum is better than none, this will also be the same case if you haven’t gotten scared by the phone calls, mailings and every other tactic used. They will send you a deal probably after a year or 2 after no payment/response saying the same thing “We have a deal of a lifetime!” pay back what you owe because we know we cant rip you off with all the BS charges we tacked on and apparently you were able to survive us killing your credit score and didn’t care…

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  • David

    I too would be interested in knowing what non-profit debt consolidators companies you used.

    Thank you.

  • http://atheistroundtable.com Mike

    I have always avoided credit cards as much as I could. I have one for a business I run, and my bank has bestowed one upon me. I use the business one only for businesss-related purposes and pay it off every month without exception. I don’t use the other one at all, period, don’t even carry it in my wallet. I am debt-free and have been all my life. It’s not that hard, folks!

    Lots of friends are in debt (some deeply) and they always wonder how I avoided getting into debt. I tell them I have a secret, and if they want, I’ll tell them my secret. They always clamor to hear it, “Oh yes, how can we stay out of debt? What’s the secret?”

    I motion them close, look around to make sure no one else can hear me, and then I whisper to them, “Spend less than you earn.”

    The looks on their faces is always priceless.

  • Werner Meier

    I never quiet understand that problem you have there in the US. How is it possible? Here in Europe, when I do not pay my monthly bill of the credit card, the bank will soon cease my card and I could not use it any more. SO how can you accumulate depts over years?

  • N J Gill

    The narrative about how you fell into debt is a pretty common story hinging on financial ignorance – I can’t see that being a priest made you any more or less susceptible to the temptations that led to your downfall. Did you think that God would save you from such a fate? Did you think your creditors would let you slide because you were a priest?What is the connection between your bad judgement and the priesthood? It’s really just a hook to get people to read your self-advertisement, isn’t it?

    • Phil Cioppa

      No, NJ Gill – just my sotry. Sorry if you see it that way. No ulterior motive involved.

  • Steve K

    I went through the same thing, except I *only* racked up about 24k in debt. What really changed my credit addiction was attend a Dave Ramsey class – highly recommend.

    We started using a debt consolidating service when we were late a few days on a single payment to one of our higher balance credit cards and they shot up the APR (I don’t think they can still do that, this was a few years ago). What we found was that if you closed your card account for debt consolidation (using a service), the card company lowered the APR to around 7 percent. So even though we paid the service $50 a month, we saved a couple hundred due to the lower interest rates. I believe the card companies wouldn’t have given us the option of doing that alone, but I’m not 100% sure.

  • http://AOL Liana

    What are the advantages to using a financial advisor if you are not independently rich……..I have assets, and retirement pensions, 401K, which I am holding onto desperately, esp. since I now have two adult daughters, 5 grandchildren, one son-in-law living with me. Both daughers are facing layoffs end of May, and son-in-law works approx. 4 hours a day. Without me they would not be able to survive. It’s tough making the money stretch out to cover emergencies, etc. and somehow hold onto my 401/457 savings so far. Recommendations??? I do watch my credit cards and have managed to keep them under control so far.

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