STEVE INSKEEP, host:
All this week on MORNING EDITION we're talking with you about debt. And today we have one word for you: plastics. Americans have run up about $950 billion on their credit cards, and this morning we'll meet a woman who added her share to that total.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Her name is Kim Love, and she ran up $21,000 on 11 credit cards. She's like lots of people who's gotten into a fix before. The bills started coming one after the other, and then she lost her job as a medical secretary.
Ms. KIM LOVE: I was working and then I had some mishaps and I was on disability. And I had to use them to buy food, my husband got sick, we needed them for medication, our doctors appointments, because the disability pay was just not enough.
MONTAGNE: Now, like plenty of others, she's trying to pay off her chunk of debt. She's getting help from a counselor. That would be financial advisor Barbara Wright, who joins us now, along with Kim Love. Hello to both of you.
Ms. BARBARA WRIGHT (Financial Advisor): Good morning.
Ms. LOVE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, I'm going to begin with you, Kim. When you look back, did you make any purchases you now regret? You know, big purchases, things that if you had thought about it at the time, thought about the possible problems in the future, you might not have put it on a credit card?
Ms. LOVE: I really can't say that there were big things because, you know, we didn't go out and just, you know, buy a big plasma TV or anything, you know, like that. It was just really things that we needed to, you know, try to survive on.
MONTAGNE: So in a way it was - in a sense hard times hit and...
Ms. LOVE: Exactly.
MONTAGNE: How did you get that many credit cards? I mean, 11 is a lot of credit cards.
Ms. LOVE: Yeah. Because I guess my credit was pretty good and they look at it and they say, okay, you're pre-approved, you're pre-approved, you're pre-approved. And when I looked at the pre-approves and I looked at, okay, honey, you know, we need to get some medication in here this month or, you know, we got to go to the doctors and we don't have the money to pay for it, so I accepted them. And that was not too good of a choice on my part.
MONTAGNE: What kind of rates were you having to pay on these credit cards?
Ms. LOVE: Some of them were 21-point-something and some was much as 24.
MONTAGNE: That's pretty high.
Ms. LOVE: It was, but that was not an excuse. It was something that I did. It was something that I had to take care of. So you know, I sat my husband down and I said, listen, we have to go back and get this in order. You know, we have to have a plan. Because I would make up a budget and I would show him the budget and then he would say, oh, we can't pay that one, we can't pay that one, we can't pay that one.
And it was so depressing and I was really stressed out.
MONTAGNE: You turned to Barbara Wright, who's with ClearPoint Financial Solutions. And let me just turn to you, Barbara Wright. How typical is it that somebody you'd be working with had an awfully lot of credit cards?
Ms. WRIGHT: It's extremely typical. The average number of consumers that come to us with a credit cards is around nine creditors. Might be credit cards, loans, on top of medical bills.
MONTAGNE: And from your point of view, you know, as a specialist, are those credit companies sending those cards to folks that really can, you know, handle that much credit?
Ms. WRIGHT: I think they could handle it at one point with income that was higher. With Kim's case, you know, going from a full-time job, going - dropping down to disability, having her income basically cut in half, is what really caused her to come to see me. And you know, we're seeing that a lot with, you know, gas prices increasing, food prices increasing, housing increasing, but income is not increasing, and people are more and more falling on their credit cards to make ends meet.
MONTAGNE: Do you find yourself busier these days? That is, more people coming in looking for help?
Ms. WRIGHT: Our increase has gone up 12 percent over the last year, with people either coming in or visiting our Web site and submitting an application or doing our telephone counseling. So it has become at least 12 percent busier over, you know, the past year.
MONTAGNE: And do you attribute it to what mix of things?
Ms. WRIGHT: It's a little bit of everything. Losing income or a drop of income, layoffs, just the increasing of the household expenses and not having the money. And so many people, again, using the credit card to basically to live off of.
MONTAGNE: So Barbara Wright, when Kim Love came to you, what was your advice?
Ms. WRIGHT: We went over her income that was coming in at the time and expenses and what could we cut back in the expenses to be able to make ends meet, to be able to make that monthly payment that we worked out with her in the repayment plan so that she could make that monthly payment and get out of debt.
MONTAGNE: Doesn't it sound like there was a lot of give there, though. I mean, what did you get Kim Love to cut in a way of an expense?
Ms. WRIGHT: Well, I mean, I think the biggest was when she moved back home with her mother and you didn't have a high rent payment any longer. And you know, grocery bills dropped down and utilities, cable, all of those kind of went by the wayside.
MONTAGNE: And from $21,000, how long ago, to what debt now?
Ms. WRIGHT: Kim came to me in November of '06, and when we talked Wednesday, I think you were down to 14,000...
Ms. LOVE: Yes...
Ms. WRIGHT: ...if I'm not mistaken.
Ms. LOVE: Fourteen, mm-hmm.
MONTAGNE: So $7,000 in the last...
Ms. LOVE: Yes.
Ms. WRIGHT: Yes, ma'am.
MONTAGNE: ...year and a half.
Ms. WRIGHT: Mm-hmm.
Ms. LOVE: Yes.
Ms. WRIGHT: She's seeing that light at the end of the tunnel now...
Ms. LOVE: Yes.
Ms. WRIGHT: ...that it's getting there slowly, but it's getting there.
MONTAGNE: You know, this actually is one for you, Kim. You've had to give up at this point, for some time now, your own house, you know, your own place to live. You've cut back on various things. What is the hardest thing that you have had had to give up?
Ms. LOVE: Well, I always say that God blessed the child that has his own. And you know, we're in just one room and it's congested. And then by me being sick and him being sick and I'm having a knee done, so you know, having a knee done you need space and this space is not there, it's just hard on everybody. You know, and I thank God for my father. My father says as long as he has a roof, I'll have a roof. But I think once we can get out on our own, things will be a lot better for us.
MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much.
Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you.
Ms. LOVE: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Kim Love is slowly getting herself out of debt with the help of financial specialist Barbara Wright, who works with ClearPoint Financial Solutions in Chesapeake, Virginia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.