About six years ago, Mark Durrenberger started accumulating credit card debt -- just a little at first, but then more and more and more. He would end up piling on a ton of debt: more than $25,000 worth across as many as seven credit cards.
"I felt like I couldn't enjoy my life because there was this giant unseen weight crushing anything I wanted to do," he recalls.
One big source of stress was that Durrenberger felt he ought to know better. As a certified financial planner, he was helping people cope with the same kinds of financial struggles he was experiencing.
"I felt like I had to hide my failings, which ultimately made things that much worse," he says.
Step 1: Acknowledging the problem
Durrenberger did eventually manage to heed his own financial advice and climb out of the pit of debt he'd dug for himself.
His story shows that even someone whose job it is to help fix people's financial problems can get into trouble — but then can overcome anxiety and shame, and ultimately conquer credit card debt.
So, how did Durrenberger do it? It began with a big dose of honesty. In late 2013, he finally admitted to himself that he was on the wrong financial path.
Then, he searched for and landed a job with a steady paycheck, as a financial planning analyst with an investment advisory firm. He previously had relied solely on unpredictable but sometimes hefty commissions as a financial planner.
Durrenberger's fat commission checks — one month, he scooped up about $8,000 after taxes — had led him to overspend and toss aside his practice of completely paying off his credit card bills each month.
Step 2: Working hard
“I did — and still do — love the idea of being my own boss and owning my own business, but I admitted to myself that I had tried and failed at that, and needed to make getting out of debt my top priority,” Durrenberger says.
"It was literally so stressful having all that debt and feeling the need to hide it that I was losing sleep."
To help put those sleepless nights behind him, Durrenberger returned to living on a fixed budget. He initially cut back aggressively on his spending, but he stumbled and wound up spending even more to compensate for his failure.
After that, he recognized that a gradual, rather than drastic, method of chipping away at his credit card debt was in order.
"Honestly, what helped the most was just working hard at my job and getting a higher salary," Durrenberger recalls, "then using all of the new income to pay down debt and hold my expenses steady."
Step 3: Turning down some invites
And while he didn’t reveal to the world that he was deeply in debt, Durrenberger did come to grips with the fact that he didn't have to pretend he was a free-spending model of financial success.
For instance, he became comfortable with turning down invitations when friends asked him to hang out over the weekend, which inevitably would have led to expensive days and nights on the town.
Looking back, Durrenberger says distancing himself from his party-loving pals and associating more with his frugal friends was one of the most significant changes he made in his quest to defeat debt.
Early on, Durrenberger was bummed that he was missing out on all the (costly) fun.
“But as the balances started … declining, it started to feel amazing. I began to really enjoy saying no to things or to find creative ways to do things less expensively," he says. "I started to see it as a fun challenge instead of a depressing limitation."
Step 4: Picking away at a mountain
Durrenberger’s march to low-debt status was no overnight success: It took him from 2013 to 2016. But eating away at $25,000 of debt rarely happens quickly.
A key part of his strategy was to take advantage of 0% balance transfer credit cards, to slice his interest costs. A balance transfer card can be a great debt-fighting tool.
But Durrenberger didn't use the cards wisely enough. He found himself carrying high balances that hurt his credit scores and stopped new low-interest-card offers from coming.
Curious about your credit score? You can check it with Credit Sesame.)
Step 5: Coming to terms with credit cards
At one point, he tried to quit using credit cards altogether, but was never consistent about that. Today, he keeps six credit cards in his wallet, including one for recurring payments like his gym membership and another for everyday expenses.
“I rotate through them to keep them from getting canceled for lack of use," Durrenberger says.
One simple way to stay on top of your credit cards is with Tally. If you qualify, you'll get a line of credit at a low APR that is used to manage all your payments.
Depending on your credit history, your APR (which is the same as your interest rate) will be between 7.9% and 19.9%, and vary with the market based on the prime rate. (This information is accurate as of August 2018.) It's a faster, easier way to pay down your balances, and protect yourself from late fees. See if you qualify.
Step 6: Nipping balances in the bud
He also has gotten into the habit of paying off every monthly balance in full — for the most part.
He does confess to shifting about $7,000 in student loan debt with a fixed interest rate of nearly 7% to a credit card that dangled an 18-month, 0% offer.
"But before I did that, I made sure I’d be able to pay it off in 18 months! I’m still on pace to do that," Durrenberger says.
Since going through his debt debacle, he has written a financial planning book, The Modern Day Millionaire, and has launched a companion blog with the same name.
Now 33 and living in Evanston, Illinois, Durrenberger holds down a full-time job as a senior adviser for a provider of retirement plans.
Make your future better
So, if you’re swimming in credit card debt like Durrenberger was and perhaps aspire to be a modern-day millionaire, what can you do to start returning to solid financial ground?
First and foremost, you've got to acknowledge to yourself that you're in debt, and quit thinking it'll magically vanish, he says.
"It's really tough to admit that you’re in trouble — I know this from personal experience — but that’s the first step. It’s OK," he says.
"You can make your future better by taking different actions," Durrenberger says. "It can be scary and embarrassing, but the alternative of continuing to live with a secret, stressful debt burden is way worse."
His final words of advice? "Admit the reality of your situation to yourself, get help if you need it, and understand you’re not the only person that’s been in this situation before."
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