My name is Lisa Walters. My husband and I have been enrolled in a program with the credit counseling center since July of 2017.
We finally allowed ourselves to admit that we were drowning in debt shortly after we found out we were pregnant with our third child. To be completely honest, this was a difficult time in our marriage. The pregnancy was a little bit of a surprise, and although I was ready to embrace the chaos… My husband was completely overwhelmed by the news.
Baby’s are a joyous occasion, but when your wife tells you, “I’m pregnant, so we need to get a new car to fit three car seats.” And the husband respond with, “We can’t get a new car because we have NO MONEY, LIS!” And then WWIII breaks out over finances… the thought of another child doesn’t seem so joyous.
Shortly after my husband repeatedly cried out, “We have no money, Lis!” and wouldn’t engage if further conversation about the topic, I received a phone call on my cell phone from a collections agency about his American Express bill. When I confronted him he confessed that since I hadn’t been giving him my portion of the mortgage, he skipped his American express bill one month because he thought the mortgage was more of a priority. Which meant the next month he was expected to pay double plus a late fee, so he skipped again and continued to ignore the problem for several months instead of COMMUNICATE IT WITH HIS WIFE! This was not a fun time in our marriage.
Now I was no Saint in this financial crisis. Let’s be clear, I had student loans, which I had also decided to stop paying around this same time, and 6 credit cards that were approaching their max… and I was struggling to make their monthly minimal payments on the due date. Somewhere in my foolish mind I thought my husband and I were okay all these years because we paid our bills every month. But we weren’t ok. Each month we made more mistakes and added more debt that pulled us further under the water. We never budgeted or talked about money and had divided up some common household bills when we first got married. We trusted and assumed the other person was handling their part. We treaded water with this method for 7 years, and now we were drowning.
It was time my husband and I learned how to swim in our sea of finances together. We were getting letters in the mail everyday from companies offering to consolidate our debt, and we were starting to explore which ones were reputable. I reached out to my parents and confessed to them what was going on, and my stepdad did some googling and suggested I make an appointment at see the Credit Counseling Center first.
Our first appointment with Joan was eye opening. I remember sitting down in her office feeling so ashamed by the weight of credit card statements neatly filed in the folder on my lap. Once she reviewed our outstanding debt and our income, she really helped us face the cold hard truth. Anyone that knows Joan, knows she isn’t going to sugar coat it, but is extremely supportive… And when she highlighted our grand total of credit card debt for us, it didn’t even include the debt of my school loans, a loan we were paying for a new boiler we had installed in 2015, or the money we owed to my in laws.
When we were pregnant with our first child back in 2012, my husband and I were about $20,000 in debt. We knew that our income was going to change during my maternity leave, and my husband was feeling stressed. His parents generously handed us an interest free loan to pay our cards off. And we did! And for a while we made payments to them each month to pay off the loan. And then as time went on, we started using our credit cards again. And then as our credit card bills got higher, we used other credit cards. And then our ability to give my in-laws a monthly payment decreased and we paid them smaller amounts, and then for many months- we paid them nothing at all. Let me be clear, my husband and I are not proud of this. We do not take advantage of people, and truthfully are extremely giving people that dedicate a lot of our time serving on boards and volunteering in our community. But our money spending priorities were completely out of whack, and we needed to take accountability.
The saying goes, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day… but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life.” I love my in-laws, and appreciate their generosity… but in hindsight they gave us 20,000 fish, but this method didn’t teach us how to maintain, or manage, or grow our accounts with anymore fish.
Cue Joan… Joan taught us how to fish. I hated everything that she told me in that first meeting. “You need to budget. You need to save for the things you want. You need to only pay cash. Once you enroll in the program, your credit cards are completely frozen and you can’t use them.” We had somehow managed to take that $20,000 that we paid off in 2012, and double it into $45,000 of credit card debt by July of 2017. We had been paying for everything on a credit card, because we thought we needed to save the cash in our checking accounts to pay our credit card bills. I realize now how ridiculous that thought process was. I had a hard time with the “you can’t access your credit cards at all” statement from Joan. For years I thought credit cards were my crutch when I needed some money, but now I realized that they are what crippled me in the first place. So Joan advised us on how to deal with the American Express debt that was in collections, and to sell off a third car that we had, make a budget and stick to it, plan ahead and pay our savings accounts, and start cash envelopes for things that we need.
It was extremely hard in the beginning, but each month we got smarter and financially stronger. Having one larger payment to the credit counseling center each month, is an amazing benefit that has helped us organize a monthly budget that we can manage. We spent the entire first 18 months of the program building our savings and paying cash for everything. This past summer, our living room TV died. We tried to be economical and take it to a TV repair place, but the part to fix it would have been about the same price as a new television, so we had to trash it. We had savings, but the money was allotted for other things coming up, and we didn’t want to justify taking money from our emergency savings for a television. So I picked up a few extra waitressing shifts, and we started a cash envelope. Three and half weeks later we went to Best Buy and bought a new TV with cash. Old Lisa and Jason would have went to Best Buy the day it broke and swiped a card, but new Lisa and Jason were patient and planned.
Here is where we are today…
We have completely paid off my school loans and the boiler loan. We have been aggressively paying off the remaining balance on the loan from my in-laws, and plan to have that paid off entirely by the end of this year. We have completely paid off 2 of our 9 credit cards enrolled in the credit counseling program and have plans to make additional payments and pay off 2 more of the cards this summer. We have savings accounts growing that are prepared to pay for next years preschool tuition and annual car insurance bill, and a bathroom remodel that will begin in the fall. And even with all this debt tackling and saving plans.. we are still able to have fun – we have dinner dates, and go places with our children. We have taken family vacations to the Jersey shore and a weekend at Great Wolf Lodge in the Poconos, and my husband and I have had two kid free weekend getaways to the Finger Lakes since starting the program. We plan, save the cash, and enjoy without any financial guilt.
I have been so open about sharing our experience with friends and family members, and encouraged many of them to schedule an appointment with the credit counseling center to help them get on the right path to tackling their financial struggles. Some people may be cringing over our $45,000 and feeling much better about their lower amount of debt, or some may be thinking “well we have $80,000 or $100,000. It’s going to take us twice as long to get to where they are.” It doesn’t matter where you are in your debt, it just matters that you start to make changes to fix the problem. This experience has taught my husband and I how to communicate better about the finances, and it has truly made our marriage stronger. We are so excited about the what we are able to accomplish each month, and are looking forward to the things we will be able to do in the future. Our ultimate goal is to have all of our debt paid off by the fall of 2020, and we are saving to reward ourselves with family trip to Disney (paid in cash of course) to celebrate being DEBT FREE.
In 2021, Paula was named Executive Director of Credit Counseling Center. She joined the organization in 2008 as a Credit Counselor and was quickly promoted to Director of Housing Counseling in 2009. Paula is a firm believer that each client is a representation of a family whose lives, financial challenges, and needs are important.
She developed and still leads the Center’s Foreclosure Prevention program; and has partnered with the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas Foreclosure Diversion Program. Her keen focus on making a positive impact in the community has generated numerous program collaborations with the United Way of Bucks County and a multitude of social service organizations in the region.
Previously, Paula served 21 on Active Duty in the US Air Force. Initially serving as a combat photographer and finishing the second half of her career as a recruiter, leading to the position of Flight Chief. Highly decorated, she has received awards from the Air Force and the Department of Defense.
An active leader in the Bucks County community, Paula donates her time annually as a board member for the annual Congressional Service Academy Nomination Interviews under the office of Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick. She is an active Chamber member in Lower Bucks, BucksMont, and Upper Bucks, advocates for financial literacy education opportunities at venues servicing low/moderate income consumers and senior citizen organizations.