ARUN RATH, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.
CLAIRE SHROUT: The difficulty would happen when unexpected expenses would arise - you know, your transmission fails or if your child needs to go to the emergency room. Or, you know, there's some big unexpected expense. People with credit debt don't have savings accounts. So when something like this happens, what do you do? You get out another credit card.
RATH: Claire Shrout is a registered nurse and the mother of two boys. What Claire and her husband went through is familiar to a lot of Americans. The average household with a credit card carries more than $15,000 in credit card debt. More than a third of those with debt have been reported to collection agencies, according to a study this past week from the Urban Institute. Today, we'll hear one story pulled from those cold statistics. Claire Shrout is our Sunday conversation.
SHROUT: I'd say it was in 2010, and that was after we had our second baby. It was after my husband's second bout with cancer. I hadn't been able to work 'cause of maternity leave. He hadn't been able to work because he was ill. And that was really when our debt was at its highest point. And when you have too little sons, and you're thinking about the college accounts that you want to establish for them - you know, that's when it was really like, OK, there's no windfall coming. There's no inheritance. There's no lottery winnings. Like, you realize there's nothing coming along to bail you out.
RATH: And can you talk about the emotional toll because I especially think in your situation - I know you're hit by illness in your family and also having to deal with this financial situation at the same time.
SHROUT: Yeah. And there's a tremendous amount of shame associated with having credit card debt. And it's very frightening when you already have a debt issued to begin with, and then these medical bills start coming in. The fortunate thing is my relationship with my husband is very strong. We had a lot of faith that things would get better. We've had a good few years where we've been healthy, we've been able to work, and we've made tremendous progress with our credit card debt. And that's been like a - like a personal achievement every month - something that he and I feel really, really good about.
RATH: And you talk about the shame of this. I know for a lot of people living in debt, defining what's essential - you know, the things you pay for can be painful because things that seem like an indulgence could be things that you need to, say - to look professional at work or go for a job interview - that kind of thing.
SHROUT: Oh, certainly - because that's a huge part of living with debt - is feeling guilt and shame over purchases, even if, you know, it's important for your marriage to have a weekend away. And it's important for your job to have your clothes look a certain way or to, you know, have a certain level of professionalism. So the whole thing gets very, very murky.
RATH: Did you ever, at any point when things were really bad, consider filing for bankruptcy?
SHROUT: You know, I did. I briefly considered filing for bankruptcy, but we decided it was not the right choice for us. It seemed like, you know, we knew what we were doing, even though we had illness and we had hardships and we had missed work. And we really felt strongly like we got ourselves into this, and we can get ourselves out. We can do that. And it feels better to be paying this off with our own hard work and not just because it all got wiped away.
RATH: And you said that you've - you have been turning things around. At what point did you start to climb out of that hole of debt?
SHROUT: I would say in 2010 is when we really started to climb out. And it's been a combination of luck - we've been blessed with good health. I have a very steady, secure job, and I've been able to pick up overtime shifts. And we've really been successful at paying at least 1,000 to 2,000 extra dollars per month towards our debt. And we've done that by keeping our lifestyle very modest. You know, we have one car that is paid off. Instead of buying a second car, we bought some bicycles. And we've been able to cut our debt by two-thirds, and we're going to continue. We're hoping to be debt-free - besides our mortgage - this spring.
RATH: So the end is in sight for you.
SHROUT: Oh, yes. Yes. And it's awesome. It's really awesome.
RATH: Claire Shrout joined us from Stevenson, Washington. Claire, thank you so much.
SHROUT: Thank you. I really appreciate it.