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In this series, NerdWallet interviews people who have triumphed over debt using a combination of commitment, budgeting and smart financial choices. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Six years ago, Cara and Jesse Nuno could not imagine a debt-free life.
The Minnesota couple met at an unemployment office in 2010 and married a year later. But as they started a new chapter together, both carried burdens of debt from their past lives.
Cara, 53, was a single mother of two with a disability that prevents her from working full time. She fell behind on credit card and car loan payments and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate lower payments with her creditors.
Jesse, 65, was laid off during the financial crisis and fell behind on payments toward a mortgage and two vehicle loans.
The couple considered bankruptcy, but couldn’t afford attorney fees. In 2012, they turned to a local nonprofit credit counseling agency. April Sanderson, their counselor at LSS Financial Counseling in Duluth, Minnesota, assessed their debt and devised a plan that included negotiating with creditors and sticking to a budget.
Today, the Nunos have shaken off most of their old debts. (One of Cara’s creditors is still trying to collect on an old credit card payment.)
The couple is looking ahead — after rebuilding credit, they were able to buy a house last spring. They connected with NerdWallet to share their story, which may inspire you to pay off your debt.
What was your total debt when you started your repayment journey and what is it now?
Jesse: In 2012, we had $272,261 in debt: my Arizona house that went on short sale, a car loan, a credit card judgment for Cara and two other vehicle loans. We had voluntarily given up the vehicles but still had to pay the remaining loan balance.
Today, we have a mortgage for $73,000 and two vehicle loans, and we are current on all payments.
I have a job as an assembler with Walmart that pays $8.40 an hour and income from my pension. Both of us have Social Security income.
How did you end up in debt?
Cara: I worked as much as I could with my disability, but it was hard to keep a job. My credit card bills were adding up, and pretty soon I couldn’t make the payments anymore. I tried to work with the credit card companies to make $5 payments, but they didn’t accept it.
Jesse: In Arizona, I reached out to a real-estate broker who did short sales. He said that once the house sold, the lending institution would settle for less, but they didn’t. I short-sold the house, but still owed $180,000.
What triggered your decision to start getting out of debt?
Cara: Our own conscience. We wanted to do something about these debts.
We got tired of being turned down for a credit card or vehicles when we needed them. Our hands were tied; we couldn’t do anything. We didn’t like paying $800 for rent and dealing with landlords. We wanted to settle down in our own place.
What steps did you take to reduce your debt?
Cara: I think I had suggested [going to a credit counselor] in the past, but at the time Jess was too proud to talk to them.
Jesse: In 2012, I can’t remember if we saw the advertisement [for the agency] on TV or not, but somehow it just kinda clicked, so we went to them. They gave us April’s number.
April (credit counselor): The majority of their debt was old and in collections, so they were really at the “cleanup stage” and [handling each debt] one at a time more than all together. They used a mix of different techniques to address the collections. Some needed to be disputed as already paid or invalid. They also had some that appeared to be past the statute of limitations, so they first needed to verify this with an attorney and then dispute. Others they settled on, but most they made paid in full.
How did you stay motivated?
Cara: We kept looking each month at what we had and the progress we had made. Slowly but surely, as we disputed and paid down our debts, our credit scores went up.
Jesse: Same for me. I was looking forward to the future where one day, we’d be able to buy things again.
April: When Jesse and Cara first came to me in 2012, their credit scores were 536 and 584, respectively. As of 2016, Cara’s was 667 and Jesse’s was 758.
How has your life changed for the better since you got out of debt?
Cara: We bought a house, and our mortgage payments are less than half of what we were paying for rent. We bought a car, and Jess bought a truck.
Jesse: I seem to be sleeping better at night, not tossing and turning like I used to, figuring how I’m going to pay this or how I’m going to pay that. It takes its toll — I got the gray hair to prove it.
What are your financial goals and how do you remain debt-free today?
Cara: We’d like to do some work on the house and get our vehicles paid off. Now we have a budget, and Jess pays all our bills early.
What advice would you give someone on how to tackle debt?
Cara: It’s OK to ask for counseling to get started with a plan to get your debt paid off. Don't be embarrassed to ask for help because you’re not the only person that’s been there.
Jesse: You can never be too proud to ask for assistance and a push in the right direction.
How to tackle your own debt
To avoid common missteps with debt, there are some actions you can take yourself:
If you are in too deep, it may be time to reach out for help. Use a debt calculator to assess if you have too much debt.
Photo courtesy of Cara and Jesse Nuno