Our debt shame became a hopeful future

By Kimberly Rotter

Reviewed by Natasha Pearce

Oct 24, 2023

Read time: 3 min

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Eight years ago, my wife and I received a call from our foster care case manager that our foster son’s biological mother was in labor with a baby that no one knew about. I was in shock. We had only had our foster son for four months and were new foster parents. The case manager asked if we would take the baby. I didn’t even take one second to think it over before I said “Yes!”

We couldn’t foresee the financial tsunami we were creating.

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How we ended up in debt

Overwhelming debt often has innocent beginnings. 

We were suddenly expecting a baby in two days. We didn’t have the necessities for him and logistically had so much to figure out. That day, I charged over $400 on a credit card to prepare for a new child to come into our home. 

We would repeat that cycle over and over for years to come. We eventually went on to take in 10 children. At one time, we had nine children in our home at once. Almost every child came with minimal belongings or nothing at all. We often relied on credit or family loans to accommodate the children’s needs.

Our families watched us struggle. They wondered why we continued to take in children that were beyond our ability to support. To us, it was impossible to say no. It was easier to justify rearranging our life to make them fit in it.

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When the debt walls caved in

Although all of our decisions were made with good intentions, we should have slowed down and created a plan. Instead, most of our decisions were made impulsively with our hearts and not with our financial situation in mind. 

Within three years of saying yes to our baby boy, we were in financial turmoil. The following year, we started to receive demand letters from credit card companies and lenders. Some of our creditors sued us. When we appeared in court, we couldn’t offer any payments. We had no idea how to dig ourselves out of the mess we had gotten into.  

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Exploring our options to get rid of our debt

The first option we explored was debt consolidation. It wasn’t a good fit. We didn’t own a home to borrow against, and our credit scores were already damaged from falling behind—so we couldn’t qualify for a loan.

A family member mentioned bankruptcy, and we met with an attorney. We had to borrow from family to pay the attorney and filing fees. Our attorney recommended a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. This type of bankruptcy would require us to make monthly payments that would be disbursed to our creditors. One bright May day, my wife and I tearfully stepped into the courthouse and went through the legal process to file our bankruptcy. 

Fifty-one months later, we’ve paid $25,000 to our bankruptcy plan and our attorney. 

Sadly, that was the easy part. The embarrassment and shame have been the hardest. 

We have only shared our story with a handful of family and friends. We have given endless excuses on why we are still renting, and why we continue to put money into our old cars instead of purchasing and financing new ones. Even today, it’s not something we are comfortable talking about.

Other ways to get rid of debt

Our attorney made us feel that other options wouldn’t be good for us. But looking back, things he told us in the beginning weren’t the way they ended up. In the end, we spent more than four years making payments to a bankruptcy plan that was supposed to end in three years. We paid a lot of fees in addition to our debt payments. 

One thing we didn’t know was how debt resolution works or how that path might have worked out for us. We might have made different choices and possibly saved money if we had more information and guidance. Information is power, and now we know a lot more about what questions to ask.

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What our financial situation looks like today

We made mistakes, and we have paid for them. We now live more responsibly. 

We work off a budget binder monthly. I balance and rebalance our expenses weekly and pay bills every Friday. In many ways, we are much better off than we were in 2019. But there are things that I had hoped we’d accomplish, such as a savings account, that we haven’t yet. We are a work in progress.

We continue to live and learn and forgive ourselves. We are better than we were, but acknowledge we can be better than we are.

We have worked hard to advance our careers, which in turn brings in more income. Our credit profiles continue to get better. Even with the end in sight, we are pacing ourselves. We are not running out to get new car loans. We are not signing up for every credit card offer we get (and yes, we get them). We are committed to living within our means and not taking on more than we can handle. 

I am sure we will continue to stumble, but we have reached a new level of financial awareness. I believe we will never allow ourselves to get back into the mess we were in. To me, that is growth, and that is what life is about.

*This story was narrated by Theresa Wild.

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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.

Natasha Pearce - Author

Natasha is Achieve’s Director of Social and Community. For over 10 years, she has built communities across social media and blogs through enriching storytelling that helps brands deepen connections with consumers.

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