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Digging out of credit card debt

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?

Step 1: Acknowledge the problem

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 from his previous job — 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: Work hard

Mark Durrenberger, participating in the Chicago area Savage Race obstacle course race.
Mark Durrenberger
Mark Durrenberger, seen here participating in the Chicago area Savage Race obstacle course race, realized hard work would be needed to eliminate his credit card debt.

“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: Turn down some invites

Mark Durrenberger
Mark Durrenberger
Mark Durrenberger says acknowledging you have a problem is the most important step for getting out of debt.

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: Chip away at a mountain

Mark Durrenberger, on a trip to Barcelona to visit his brother, Kevin Durrenberger
Mark Durrenberger
Mark Durrenberger visits his brother, Kevin Durrenberger, in Barcelona.

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.

More: Get your free credit score from Credit Sesame

Step 5: Come 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.

Step 6: Nip 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.

Today, Durrenberger holds down a full-time job as a senior adviser for a provider of retirement plans and lives in Evanston, Illinois.

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Make your future better

Financial planner Mark Durrenberger, enjoying life with girlfriend Tina DeBenedictis
Mark Durrenberger
Mark Durrenberger, enjoying life with girlfriend Tina DeBenedictis.

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 have 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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About the Author

John Egan

John Egan

Freelance Contributor

John was formerly a freelance contributor to Moneywise.

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