It's a familiar time of year for many of us: We're making New Year's resolutions, even as we're getting hit with the annual holiday shopping hangover. Many of us come to the conclusion this month that perhaps we spent a wee bit too much last year on gifts, holiday decorations, eating out with friends and family, and other not-so-necessary expenses.
In the spirit of getting inspired to make some changes in your financial life, we thought we'd take a look at some people across America who've gone from being considered deadbeats to beating debt, people who were once defined by their debt, but are no longer. This is the first story in our series.
John Citrone, 43, came into his debt the way many people his age did: at college. But it wasn't a matter of racking up student debt -- in fact, his parents, hard-working, blue collar folks, paid for his higher education. No, he started traveling down the road to debt a quarter of a century ago when he was an 18-year-old freshman, an architecture major at the University of Florida. During freshman orientation, he encountered some credit card company reps on campus.The reps were from Mastercard, and they were chatty, friendly folks who talked about the rewards Citrone could earn if he would sign up for a card, so he happily did. "They're smart. They know what they're doing," says Citrone, who at 18, wasn't so smart and didn't know what he was doing, as he is now the first to admit.
After realizing he wasn't cut out for architecture, Citrone, an aspiring musician, soon wound up at the University of Central Florida, studying journalism and living with his parents and his growing credit card debt. But his debt didn't seem like a big deal at the time, nor did he think it was particularly ominous that he was nearing the $1,000 debt mark or that he kept asking for -- and getting -- extensions on his credit limit. In fact, he took on another credit card as well, this time one from the now-defunct discount department store, Montgomery Ward. It had a $500 credit limit.
After Citrone graduated, he got a job at a local newspaper where he was hired as a copy editor. He moved out of his parents' place and got an apartment. "I felt like I had to purchase furniture, a good stereo -- for some reason, that was important -- a TV, a VCR. I was running up debt on both the MasterCard and Montgomery Ward cards," Citrone says.
"I had also crashed my car a couple times in that period, too, and had to pay for some car repairs, and while I don't think I used my credit card to pay for them, paying for the repairs affected my [ability to] pay down my debt. Meanwhile, I just didn't understand the impact that this debt was having. Every time the card got maxed out, I just kept paying the minimum payments."
His copy editing job lasted a year before the paper shut down. Then he wound up working for a real estate listings publication and then found a not-quite-full-time gig at the Orlando Weekly, doing production work and some writing. As he lurched from job to job, that credit card debt kept growing.
Until finally, it was finally around $10,000.
That may not sound like a terrible amount, given the stories out there of people being in debt for $30,000 or even $100,000. But money is relative. Considering that Citrone's first job paid just $12,000 a year and his subsequent jobs in the few years after not all that much more, $10,000 of debt was more than a large enough hole to make him pretty miserable.
He fell into a relationship with a girl who had a very wealthy mother, and he told himself that it wasn't a big deal when he let his girlfriend's mom buy him expensive things like a snare drum or pay for him and his girlfriend to go to New Jersey for a drummers' conference.
Citrone eventually realized he wasn't in love and was taking advantage of his girlfriend's mother, broke up with her and eventually met someone else. But things didn't get better. The debt kept snowballing, going from $10,000 to $11,000 and soon passing $12,000.
One of his close friends, a guy who had money but lived very frugally, would occasionally lecture him about his debt, saying things like, "Look, I live on practically no income, and I'm happy. But you're miserable because you have all these people calling about your debts. You can't afford to do anything fun. You can't take your girlfriend out. What kind of life is this?"
When Citrone moved from Orlando to Jacksonville, Florida, to be with his girlfriend, he moved into her studio apartment because he couldn't afford a place of his own. "And here I was, saying, 'We're going to have a life together. I'll sleep on the floor." Citrone adds, "She had a twin bed. She wasn't equipped to have me live there. I was literally burdening my girlfriend with my presence."
Not that he didn't try to unburden her. He took a job as a telephone solicitor ("phone solicitation," observes Citrone, "makes you feel really bad about yourself if you have a conscience") to help pay his share.
By this time, his debt had climbed to $13,000. Collectors were calling several times a week. Finally, sometime in 1995, ten years after signing up for his first credit card, Citrone went to a credit counseling service, something we've written about many times at WalletPop. In this case, Citrone was lucky, given that he went to the first place he found in the phone book, the reputable and well-known Consumer Credit Counseling Service.
"I gave them my credit cards, and we cut them up," says Citrone. "They consolidated my debts, so I'd give them one payment and they'd pay the credit cards. It's very easy that way, but it was also a very slow process. As long as it takes to get into debt, it takes that much time to get out of. It was very discouraging."
But eventually, about three years later, estimates Citrone, his debts were paid off. By this time, he had long since found a good job, writing for a news and opinion newspaper, Folio Weekly. That, as much as anything, helped him pay off those debts as well.
Fast forward a dozen years, and Citrone is married to his girlfriend with the studio apartment and twin bed. They have a house they've paid off in full. They have a four-year-old daughter. And life is good.
In fact, Citrone recently left Folio Weekly to work at Xomba, a community-driven, instant publishing website that shares revenue with its writers. He's quite sure he wouldn't have gambled on this editing job as a career move if he still had debt and wasn't feeling okay about his financial present and future.
Getting out of debt, Citrone says, "is almost the same as losing weight or getting off drugs. In a weird way, it's an addiction. There are a lot of parallels.
"I realize it sounds almost petty to compare debt addiction to drug addiction, and I don't want to take anything away from someone who is now clean and sober -- that's a tough journey. But the psychology is similar."
For instance, much as a drug addict would, Citrone has had to make amends. He has partially paid back his ex-girlfriend's mother and says he had to do some reconciling with a lot of the people who were in his life when he was living the stereotypical deadbeat's life. But like beating any addiction, Citrone says it's worth taking the time and effort to solve your money problems and beat down that debt.
"If you have children, it's the best thing you can do," says Citrone. "They're going to need a college education, and there are things you can't provide to them if you're in debt."
For more tips on paying off your debt, read 10 Steps to Get Out of Debt in 2011 by money expert and author David Bach.
Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.
Paying Off Your Debt: One Man's Struggle With Credit Card Debt