My $70K debt was manageable—but one day everything changed

By Alicia Casner

Reviewed by Kimberly Rotter

Jun 05, 2024

Read time: 3 min

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Having debt is stressful, but talking about it is even harder. Especially when you feel like people will judge you for it. This was me at one point in my life—trying to figure out how I was going to get out of the massive debt hole that I was stuck in.  

If you’d seen me laying on my stomach on the floor of the living room surrounded by scratched-out calculations, you might have thought I was a mathematician trying to develop a new formula. And maybe I was, because what else can you do when you can’t make money magically appear? 

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My rock bottom: $70,000 in debt

The problem: $70,000 in overwhelming debt, more bills, and not nearly enough income to cover everything.

I kept staring at the pages beneath me. How did this happen? I work hard and have made pretty good money all my life. I had checking accounts, savings accounts, a 401k. I was financially savvy. Well, kind of. Except for the dolphins.

Read more: Getting help with credit card debt over $50,000

The first credit card opened the door to a debt trap

Let’s go back to the beginning.

A beautiful sunny day, a young 19-year-old woman (spoiler: me) stands beside a mailbox excitedly tearing open an envelope. Credit card number one had just arrived. It was so beautiful. Dolphins swimming through crystal clear waters. I remember it like it was yesterday. The ocean blue, the dolphins smiling so playfully at me.

Unfortunately, I’d fallen for the fallacy of “work hard, reward hard.” I stepped into the instant gratification loop called credit. 

The dolphins eventually wore out, and new designs filled my purse.

Read more: How much credit card debt is too much?

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Debt was our way of life

Then I fell in love. He had his own plastic, of course, and two became one. 

We didn’t have to wait for things we wanted. Life was great. The years glided by on a pillow of bliss, well not all of them, but things were good. We were happy. Living the American dream. 

A few years later, things changed. A car accident, some unforeseen medical issues, and suddenly life’s hardest financial lessons had arrived.

Read more: Can I get medical debt forgiven?

Managing debt isn't the same as managing money

Cue the living room floor episode. We didn’t have money. We had debt. We didn’t have thousands of dollars to our names. We had negative tens of thousands. If one more bill came in, the whole massive tower of cards (credit cards, that is) would come tumbling down.

Heart racing, tears dripping…it felt like iron bars closing around our future—as in forever. 

We’d never own a home.

We’d never retire.

We’d never be able to raise a family.

We’d never be able to take care of our aging parents.

Never.

Even worse were the dark thoughts that started in. I kept seeing James Stewart staring at the cold river in It’s A Wonderful Life after being told he was worth more dead than alive. Dramatic, yes. Also, sadly true. 

If you are having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text 988 and talk with someone at any time of day or night. You can also call (800) 273-TALK (800-273-8255).

Read more: How debt stress affects your health—and what to do about it

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This is what happened when we were done with our debt 

After a long conversation and a lot of research into various debt solutions, we picked up the phone and connected with a credit counseling agency. The kind woman went over the straight facts of our case, with the utmost compassion, gathered the creditors’ details, and helped us put together a budget

Over the course of a few short weeks, we could sleep again. Our debt stress started to come down. Based on the path we chose, our debts would get paid in full. But in one bundle with a monthly payment that we could manage.

The day the debt was paid off, a couple of years later, was honestly one of the best days of our lives. We hugged, we cried. Financially, we were permanently changed. 

Read more: 5 ways to pay off credit card debt 

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We budget for the long haul to support our big family

Today, we use a single credit card and pay it off every month. Only our budgeted expenses go on it, so the balance is never a surprise when the statement comes in. We own a home and sponsor six children in need. We haven't reached all of our financial and life goals, but we are so much further ahead than I thought we could ever be, all those years ago. 

Please know that no matter the size of the figures on your notebook pages, there's hope. Give yourself grace over any past mistakes and situations, create a budget, and don’t be afraid to reach out to a debt expert who can help you understand your options. I’ve found the debt survivor community to be a very welcoming, safe space.

Alicia Casner

Alicia is a freelance writer and Account Manager with over 20 years of experience in Customer Care and Call Center Management. As a debt survivor, she is passionate about sharing her experience to help others know they aren't alone and can win in the world of money, no matter their starting point.

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Kimberly is Achieve’s senior editor. She is a financial counselor accredited by the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education®, and a mortgage expert for The Motley Fool. She owns and manages a 350-writer content agency.

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