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Breaking the Cycle of Debt

Paying down credit card balances is a logistical and emotional challenge


spinner image Danny and Gail O’Donnell
Danny and Gail O’Donnell
Matthew Salacuse

The problem

How do you break a lingering bad money habit? New Jersey couple Gail O’Donnell, 54, an insurance agency account rep, and her husband, Danny, 60, a training supervisor, have carried credit card debt for more than half of their 27-year marriage. Twice, they refinanced their mortgage, pulling out cash to pay off their cards. Twice, they charged those cards back up again. Compounding the problem: Gail often felt she didn’t have Danny’s help. “He’s the spendthrift, and I’m the penny-pincher,” she wrote me. Now, though, he was willing to work on it with her, so she was eager to dive in.

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The advice

In 2022, credit card balances climbed to $986 billion, a record high. About $70,000 of that debt was the O’Donnells’. Gail and Danny needed a nuts-and-bolts strategy to free up cash and pay down debt. But their challenge was emotional too. To escape their cycle of debt, the O’Donnells had to understand why they behaved as they did with money. My plan for them:

Step 1: Brass Tacks

One thing in the O’Donnells’ favor was that they were earning a good living. But their money wasn’t showing up in any savings — no emergency fund, no contributions to retirement accounts. They weren’t sure where their money was going. When I had them start tracking their spending, food emerged as a primary culprit. They’d spent $1,600 on food in the prior month alone — more than $50 a day. “We talk about dinner at 5 p.m. when we’re both starving, then we go to the [grocery store] or we go out,” Gail said. They also liked to spend on their two children, both in their 20s. (That’s typical; a new Bankrate survey found that 68 percent of parents of adult children made financial sacrifices on their kids’ behalf.) I walked Gail and Danny through meal planning tips: Shop once a week, stock up on discounted nonperishables and use tonight’s leftovers as tomorrow’s lunch. I also started them on a debt repayment plan, having them attack their credit card balances with the highest interest rates first and suggesting they hunt for a card with a zero-percent balance transfer offer.

Step 2: Financial therapy

Most people carry beliefs about money they internalized by the age of 10, says financial therapist Rick Kahler, coauthor of Coupleship Inc: From Financial Conflict to Financial Intimacy. When the O’Donnells met with Kahler online, they discussed how their beliefs might be holding them back. For example, while Gail believes she doesn’t merit the money she has, Danny harbors no such doubts about his. Gail said that when he wants to spend money, she’ll object, he’ll do it anyway and conflict will ensue. Kahler’s prescription for Danny was to make a practice of not making expenditures before thinking about whether they would be helpful for him or his family.

The O’Donnells also described the beliefs driving them to help their children financially. Not doing so, Gail said, would make her feel guilty and scared. An inability to give the children money, said Danny, would make him feel “we failed as parents.” Kahler challenged their thoughts with a different idea: Their financial support could be damaging in the long run. “It makes the child dependent,” he said, “and it hurts the parents, because those resources could help them dig out of the hole.”

The outcome

I enrolled Gail in FinanceFixx, my online group budgeting program for women. She’s attending weekly Zoom sessions, which helps keep spending on track, and Danny is supportive. In under two months, Gail says, they freed up about $5,000, which they used to clear their most expensive cards. And for the first time in a long time, they’re in this together.

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