Credit 101

How Debt Counseling Can Affect a Marriage

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Travis Pizel, 39, said “I do” to his wife, Vonnie, 40, in 1996. The couple, who live in Rochester, Minn., spent the early years of their marriage going to dinner a few times a week, taking expensive vacations to locales like Hawaii, and hosting elaborate catered dinners — for 100 of their closest friends.

“Instead of having a potluck, we’d provide all the food and desserts, and also hire a bartender,” says Travis, who works as a software engineer. “Sometimes the alcohol bill alone was $1,000.”

The Pizels didn’t give a second thought to the steep price tag of their lifestyle. “We both had good jobs, and we felt entitled to spend whatever we wanted,” Travis says. But those jobs — which amounted to a combined income of $50,000 — didn’t provide nearly enough money to underwrite all of the purchases that the Pizels were making.

“We saw the debt growing, but we always thought that, sooner or later, our incomes would catch up with our spending — that the next pay increase or bonus would help us pay it down,” explains Travis. “Instead, it was one of those ‘the more you make, the more you spend’ things.”

Covering the problem with credit cards

Although his wife was well aware of their excessive spending, Travis was the one who paid the bills — and he often used credit cards to cover them, unbeknownst to Vonnie. “I’d pay as many as I could with [our] checking account, and then I’d pay the rest of the bills with credit cards,” he says. “I did credit-card juggling too, getting new cards with low intro rates.”

Travis kept up the routine for as long as he could, until he received a letter in 2009 announcing that the minimum payment on his credit cards was going to increase by $800. No amount of juggling could cover that big an increase, so Travis had to come clean to his wife.

“It was hours of going through statements, and saying, ‘Here’s what I’ve been doing, and here’s how it’s been working,’ ” Travis says. Vonnie was understandably angry that her husband had been secretly tweaking the numbers for so long, but she was equally disappointed in herself for contributing to their debt.

“I wish that I’d worked with Travis as a team,” Vonnie says. “I think back to all of the out-of-town weekends we did, the dinners out and the trips we took. If I’d known what was going on, we wouldn’t have done any of those things. That’s what hurts the most — that he just allowed both of us to keep spending and digging us into a deeper hole.”

In total, the Pizels had swiped their way to a whopping $109,000 of unsecured credit card debt. “Hopeless is the best word [to describe how we felt],” Travis says. “We knew bankruptcy was out there, but we wanted to avoid that if we could.”

So when they searched on the Internet and found a credit-counseling program, CareOne Debt Relief Services, they made an appointment. That was a little over four years ago, and thanks to their sessions with a debt counselor, the Pizels will be done paying off their debt on February 28, 2014.

This post originally appeared on LearnVest.

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