Gerri Helms, 61, was nursing wounds from a divorce, up to her ears in $32,000 of debt and considering bankruptcy. But instead of taking that fateful step, the Orlando, Fla. resident chose to do something that sounds easy enough in practice but really isn't: she found a part-time gig -- on top of her full-time job -- and dedicated her paychecks from that part-time work to kill off her debt.
Losing Weight, Gaining Debt
Helms downward spiral into debt began eighteen years ago. At the time, she weighed 250 pounds and was given a copy of Food Addiction: The Body Knows, by a friend of hers at work who had struggled with bulimia. "She recognized my misery with constant weight swings," says Helms.
The book ended up changing her life. She stopped eating sugar, developed a food plan, and began losing weight. Sounds great, right? But as she lost weight her marriage began to rapidly deteriorate. "And that," says Helms, "is when I started to emotionally fall apart."
As a result, she wound up leaving the company that she co-founded, one that provided accounting and administrative support for a homeowner and condo association, and went to work as a corporate sales manager. But the stress of her new job combined with the stress of her existing issues was too overwhelming, and Helms decided to take a less-demanding job working for a small home owner's association. Unfortunately, with less stress came less money; some 30% less than what she'd brought home as a sales manager.
Even as the scale kept showing her marked progress, Helms still felt overwhelmed and changed jobs yet again in order to have more time for therapy and getting herself emotionally back on track. This new job -- at an even smaller home owner's association -- paid 50% less than her last job. And that's when she began using credit cards to stay afloat.
In 1998, five years after she began losing weight but gaining debt, Helms and her husband divorced.
Helms found herself broke and recognized that she couldn't sustain this debt forever. "I was paying about $600 to $700 every month on my credit cards," says Helms. "One of the payments was about $200 a month, and maybe $17 of that was going to the principal."
A Comedy of Errors
While she considered bankruptcy, she recognized that she had gotten herself into this mess by making a conscious decision to live off her credit cards -- she considered it a trade off for taking a less stressful job. So while she felt weighed down by her debt, she wanted to do what she could to pay it off.
At first, she began by cutting back. She sold her house, created an Excel spreadsheet (which is what another of our "debt defeators" did) and found a roommate for her two-bedroom apartment. "I scaled back on everything," Helms says.
And that's when fate intervened. Pulled over by a cop and ticketed for speeding, Helms decided to go to traffic school to reduce the amount of the ticket. The school she chose was called Bonkerz, one of those comedy traffic schools that helps make a torturous task a little more enjoyable. While she enjoyed the class, she didn't see what was coming next: Immediately after class, she got into a fender bender in the traffic school's parking lot with a fellow student -- a truck driver, who had been snarly and surly during the entire class, who backed into her while they were both trying to leave.
"I was really mad," recalls Helms, "and he didn't have insurance either. Meanwhile, I had whiplash and had to go to a chiropractor."
So Helms phones the offices of the comedy school, explaining that they needed to retroactively fail this truck driver. "He obviously didn't get it," said Helms. But when she told the receptionist what happened, she laughed so hard she could barely talk or breathe. Helms eventually spoke to the owner of the school who also started laughing, and before she knew it, she was being offered a job teaching at the comedy school.
Not interested at first, she changed her tune when she found out the class paid $100 a night. Over the course of two years, Helms ended up teaching anywhere from four to eight classes a month, using the $400 to $800 she earned monthly to help pay off her credit cards. "My whole paycheck went to my credit card debt," says Helms.
She also had a blast. She met a lot of colorful characters and heard a lot of interesting tales of how people wound up in traffic court. One woman went to an opthamologist, had drops put in her eyes and missed a stop sign.
She was also taught the basics of improv comedy through the school's format and learned a lot, of course, simply through practicing. The classes have to be laced with humor, says Helms. "The material is very boring, you know," she says. "It takes some imagination to bring it up to 'palatable.' Like, how exciting is it to learn about breaking distance?"
The Not-So-Easy Way Out
Helms quit after two years when she remarried in 2000. She would have liked to have continued, but "working full time and then going to the part-time job one or two nights a week became 'old.'"
By that point, the job had helped her pay down $7,000 worth of debt. Her new husband, Dave, who is now retired from the Air Force and works at Disney World as a sea captain, offered to pay off the rest, but Helms refused.
Having a two-income family again helped: "When we moved into the house, I had no rent and no car payment," Helms says. "And when my car lease was up, I drove Dave's second car. Then practically all my salary went into my debt."
She also was able to get a credit card with 0% interest -- in her husband's name -- and moved most of her debt onto that. Then she kept shoveling the majority of her paychecks at her credit card debt. By 2003, she was completely debt free.
Helms, who is now a life coach and wrote a book about her weight loss, is proud that nobody can say she took the easy way out. As she vowed when she first realized that she was drowning in debt, "I got myself into this, and I'm going to take care of it." And, indeed, she did. "It felt," says Helms, "like an honorable thing to do."
Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to AOL Small Business. He is also the co-author of Living Well With Bad Credit.