Phil and Laura have been married for 16 years. They initially met in high school and started dating while in college. That’s when they also started using credit cards. After they graduated and tied the knot, they both found steady, full-time employment as teachers. This allowed them to start a family and buy a home. But with these responsibilities came new expectations and expenses -- and an increasing reliance on credit. Phil says, “About the time Laura scaled back to part-time work so that she could be home with our kids more, we started having trouble meeting our bills. Before we knew it, we were $48,000 in debt.” How did this situation affect their relationship? According to Phil, “It hurt us both. Our money problems became like a 3,000 pound gorilla we couldn’t discuss. The worry was always there. It weighed on us and took a toll on our marriage.”
Certified credit counselor Jacqueline O’Neill, who works for local nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of MD & DE (CCCS), says that Phil and Laura are not alone: “Anxiety over debt places a giant strain on many couples’ relationships. When money problems arise, partners may shut down emotionally or begin to blame each other, and this makes it harder to communicate. To avoid accusation or embarrassment, those who have overspent may even try to hide their personal debt from their mates, ultimately causing even more frustration, anger and mistrust.”
O’Neill says that the damage doesn’t stop there. “Serious debt also affects couples’ ability to meet their families’ basic needs. When the bills come due, and there isn’t enough money to go around, hard decisions have to be made. Families may miss payments on essentials like their utility bills or go without groceries, a trip to the dentist, or necessary car repairs just to get by.”
She emphasizes, “When you start robbing Peter to pay Paul, that’s a sign you need help.” Phil agrees, “By the time we hit rock bottom, a significant amount of our income each month was being used to pay the interest on our credit card bills and loans, and that still wasn’t enough. We tried taking out new credit cards in the hopes of consolidating our debt, but that just led to new purchases. After we missed payments, creditors started calling us at home and at work. We were so stressed. We agonized over the smallest transactions -- like how do we afford a $6.00 taco dinner or the next tank of gas?”
Fortunately Phil and Laura’s story has a happy ending. When one of their creditors told them about CCCS, they both agreed they needed to do something, so Phil took the lead and made a credit counseling appointment. O’Neill says that it sometimes takes people time to recognize they need financial advice, but once they seek credit counseling, they’re often pleasantly surprised to find it offers any benefits: “At the start of a session, clients are often so bogged down by their problems that they miss the big picture. That’s why we begin by helping them make a financial assessment, which gives them a clearer understanding of their situation. For some couples, this may be the very first time everything comes out in the open. That can be painful, but it’s also good, because it allows them to get on the same page.” O’Neill also helps her clients set up a budget and look at ways to cut back on expenses or increase their income, so they can meet their financial obligations. “We explore all the options that are available to help them get out of debt and get ahead.”
Those clients who qualify can enroll in a CCCS debt management program (DMP). Under this plan, they make one payment to CCCS each month, which the agency then distributes to all their unsecured creditors. O’Neill notes, “We also give them the tools and education they need to make better financial decisions down the road.”
Phil and Laura found this approach helpful. “During the session, our counselor was nonjudgmental and businesslike. She helped us take an honest look at where we stood financially. We could see we needed a change in attitude, but what really made the difference was actually having a budget and a plan. After that first session, we knew how much it would cost from month-to-month, and we were hopeful. We finally had a way we could work together to manage our debt.”
During the three years Phil and Laura were in the debt management program at CCCS, they learned valuable lessons: “Before enrolling in the DMP, we lived paycheck-to-paycheck, constantly worrying when the next disaster would strike. Now we realize that economic setbacks are a fact of life. It isn’t a matter of ‘if.’ It’s a matter of ‘when.’ But we aren’t fearful anymore, because we’re prepared. We sit down together every two weeks and take a look at our finances. Where do we stand? We also take a look at our budget and make adjustments based on what might be required in the coming month.”
Phil and Laura also made great financial strides while in the DMP. They learned to live on a “cash only” basis, saving up to buy a used vehicle while they repaid their creditors. They also took a church-based financial education course to help them hone their financial skills. At the point they left CCCS last August, they had paid off more than $41,000 of their debt and established their own emergency savings fund and retirement plan. Today they continue to practice the personal finance habits they learned, and now owe even less, having repaid another $2,000.
One of the most profound outcomes of Phil and Laura’s financial journey is its effect on their relationship and family. “We now recognize that when it comes to money management, we’re in this together. Our marriage is stronger than ever, because we’ve learned to communicate better and are more financially secure. One of our biggest rewards has been watching our two kids benefit from our experience. They already are learning to budget and save and will be much better prepared for life on their own.”
O’Neill, who is a five-year veteran at CCCS, acknowledges that Phil and Laura’s story holds the same success the agency desires for all its clients. “Once people seek our help, they are part of our family. We don’t just counsel you and then hang up the phone. We are in it for the long haul. We follow up and educate. We also provide clients with referrals to outside agencies who have other resources you may need.”
CCCS has served the local community for 47 years. It offers free financial counseling at offices in Baltimore and the surrounding area, in Easton and Salisbury, and by phone. To schedule an appointment, simply call 1-800-642-2227 or visit the CCCS website (www.cccs-inc.org) to learn more.
CCCS also works closely with nonprofit and governmental agencies throughout the community. The Maryland CASH Campaign and Baltimore CASH Campaign are two such groups. CCCS partners with them on a variety of financial education workshops and events, including Money Power Day financial fitness fair, which is slated to take place on this year on Saturday, May 11, from 9 AM to 3 PM, at Poly-Western High School. This free, all-day event will feature an exhibit hall where 40+ nonprofits provide real-time advice and resources. Participants can also attend innovative workshops and activities like the Credit Café, where CCCS will help participants pull and review their credit reports. To learn more about the classes and events these organizations offer, visit www.mdcashcampaign.org and www.baltimorecashcampaign.org.
If you’re in a relationship, why not make it stronger? Work toward a brighter financial future by taking advantage of all these free financial opportunities today!
Consumer Credit Counseling Service of MD & DE, Inc. (CCCS) is an accredited 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency that helps stabilize communities by creating hope and promoting economic self-sufficiency to individuals and families through financial education and counseling. CCCS MD State License #14-01