The woman who paid down $120K in credit card debt in five years(Read article summary)
Francine Bostick racked up six figures in debt before deciding it had to go. Here's how she did it.
Francine Bostick keeps her monthly bills in a basket on her desk at home. Also in that basket is a clear plastic sandwich bag containing 13 cut-upÂ credit cardsÂ â a reminder (and a warning) of the decades she spent racking up $120,000 inÂ credit cardÂ debt.
She cut up those cards only five years ago. Today, sheâs debt-free with a modest savings account.
âI have to look at that bag all the time,â says Francine, a custodial manager for a Kansas university. âI see it every time I pay my bills.â
That sandwich bag was just one of the tactics â big and small â that Francine used to pay off her six-figure debt. The biggest was swallowing her pride, admitting she had a problem, and seeking credit counseling. For her accomplishment, she and her husband were honored this month as âClients of the Yearâ by the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).
Two weeks ago, Francine flew on an airplane for the first time in her life and accepted the award at an annual convention of credit counselors in Charlotte, N.C. Her husband didnât make the trip.
Francine was afraid to fly, but that was nothing compared to the fear of seeking credit counseling.
âIt took me a year before I could walk in there,â Francine says of the Topeka-based credit counseling agency she worked with. She was 57 at the time, âand it was very hard. I was embarrassed that at my age, I didnât know better than to get in debt.â
But with a little help, she figured out a way to get out. Her story is both motivational and educational for anyone crushed under credit card debt.
Hereâs what she told Money Talks News last weekâŚ
Going broke isnât always obvious
Francine and her husband, Jim, didnât look like they were in debt. They had no fancy cars or fancy clothes. Theyâve never owned a flat-screen TV or the latest smartphones. Neither was laid off or faced a medical problem before Jimâs dementia. And they suffered no addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or even shopping.
âI really canât point at one thing,â Francine recalls. âWe just didnât realize we were spending $400 a month on groceries. If we wanted something, we just bought it. If it cost $200, we didnât think about whether it should cost $50.â
So the Bosticks went boringly broke. With none of the typical warning signs â a mansion, Porsche or exotic vacations â their debt grew steadily and quietly. It was so unnoticeable to family, friends, and even themselves (at first) that Francine describes it now as âeasy.â
Older isnât always wiser
Francine, now 62, is careful not to blame anyone else for her financial faults, but she says her parents didnât help â because they wereÂ tooÂ thrifty.
âMy mother never had a charge card, so I wasnât raised knowing about credit,â she says. âIf she didnât have cash, she didnât buy it.â
But Francine grew up in the era of increasingly easy-to-get credit, and that led to 13 cards and no self-control. âIt just got easier and easier,â she says.
Her own children â a 42-year-old son and a 36-year-old daughter â have learned from both her mistakes and her advice. Still, âOne of them Iâm a little concerned about, but the other one doesnât want to go where his mother has been.â
She prays her three grandchildren and one great-grandchild fare better financially. Her hope? âThey start teaching this stuff in high school,â she says. âThatâs when they need to learnâ what she didnât.
Credit counseling is easy â and hard
For a long time, Francine knew she was in trouble but did nothing about it.
âI was not sleeping, trying to figure out how I was going to pay my bills,â she says. âOne morning, I just said, âI canât do this anymore,â and called.â
She knew credit counseling could help â and she had learned from her research to be wary of for-profit counseling services but to seek out nonprofits.
She settled on HCCI, a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. NFCC was founded in 1951 and is the nationâs largest and oldest national nonprofit credit counseling association.
âI thought I was going to feel really stupid going in there,â Francine says. âBut when I came out of my first meeting, I felt like weight had been lifted.â
It wasnât easy, though. The hardest part was walking into a meeting with âa big fat folderâ of all her bills. âYou have to admit thereâs a problem,â Francine says.
Then you have to get to work. The counselor urged Francine and Jim to draw up a budget. It took three tries to get it right.
âWe had to keep coming back because I wasnât realizing I needed to give up 100 channels on my cable,â she says, âespecially when I was only watching four. I didnât quite understand the concept.â
Even worse, âI didnât know how much debt I had â because I didnât want to know.â She wouldnât let the counselor tell her, either. Instead, the counselor wrote it on a piece of paper, and Francine looked at it when she got home.
Saving is hard â and easy
And then, somehow, it just clicked. Francine started saving and budgeting â and as mysteriously as her debt accumulated, it began to disappear. Of course, her success was no mystery to her credit counselor.
âThe remarkable thing about the Bosticks is their total commitment to repay their debts,â says Bob Mackey, president of HCCI. âFor five years, they worked second jobs, lived on a very lean budget, and paid $2,496 each month toward their debt repayment plan.â
Thatâs right â Francine went from âbuying a new purse for $120 when I couldâve got it for $60â to working four hours a night for four nights a week for her local school district â as a janitor. On the weekends, she ran an Avon business. Meanwhile, even though his dementia was slowly taking over, Jim worked 30 hours per week delivering auto parts.
While they were both busy and exhausted from the extra work, they were also too busy to spend more money.
âDuring those five years, I got used to buying just what we needed,â Francine says. Another one of her novel tactics: âIf something costs over $50, weâd go home and think about it for a few days. Lots of times, we never went back for it.â
And then, miraculously, it got easier.
Francine is happier than sheâs ever been, and she insists her standard of living hasnât diminished â much.
âWe donât go out to eat as often as we used to,â she says. But she savors the experience more now.
And, she says, âYou have to have a little splurge.â For her, itâs purses. But now, she never spends more than $50.
The happy ending
With her debt wiped out and a modest savings account, Francine knows she needs to rebuild her credit â and ironically, credit cards are the easiest way to do that. She also knows they haveÂ other advantages. So she recently got a cash-back card. But sheâs a little nervous about sliding back into old habits.
âIâve been using it like a debit card,â she says. âEvery time I buy something, I automatically deduct it from my checkbook.â
So what happens now? She doesnât know. But she knows this much: âI was afraid because I didnât want to have to work till Iâm 80.â Now she knows she wonât have to.
Michael Koretzky is a writer forÂ Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.