Russell and Kandy Hildebrandt accumulated more than $100,000 in debt in about 16 years.
In less than five years, the New Richmond couple managed to pay it all back without filing for bankruptcy. That was eight months earlier than expected by their repayment plan formed by FamilyMeans Debt Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Stillwater, Minn.
The Hildebrandts were honored Sept. 18 as the Professional Achievement and Counseling Excellence Client of the Year through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling in Washington, D.C.
Getting that far into debt happened slowly, Kandy said.
"We weren't lavish but we weren't frugal," she said.
At first, purchases put on their credit card were somewhat extravagant, like brand new matching clothes for their identical twin daughters, who are now 14.
Eventually, the charges turned to daily consumables, like gas and groceries, Kandy said. By the time they called CCCS, they had 11 credit cards and about $89,000 of debt.
Although they were current with all their cards, the rates were still rising and they were becoming more of a credit risk.
"It was just a matter of time before we couldn't meet our obligations," Kandy said.
Filing for bankruptcy was out of the question for the couple.
"Morally we couldn't do it. That's not the ethical route," Kandy said. "It's not a long term solution."
"I made the mistakes," Russell said. "If we made it (repayment) we made it. If not, we gave it our best shot."
Prior to that point, Russell solely handled the family's finances, the couple said. When Kandy realized the extensiveness of their debt, she said she began shopping around for help to repay it.
Eventually she found FamilyMeans Consumer Credit Counseling Services, with a branch in Stillwater. CCCS offers budget and credit counseling, debt repayment plans, financial education and bankruptcy counseling and education.
Linda Humburg, a consumer credit counseling service manager for FamilyMeans, helped the couple set up a repayment plan. They sent a check to FamilyMeans each month, which was then distributed to each of their obligations. Fees for CCCS's service range from $0-50, and is added to the monthly payment, Humburg said.
Having only one payment to make each month instead of the previous 10+ was a stress reducer, Kandy said. But ensuring there was enough money in their checking account was another story.
Russell said he promised Kandy that if she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, he would make that happen, no matter what. Kandy homeschools their daughters, Heidi and Holly. Their son Joey is 4 years old.
Russell's income from his job as a chemist at an environmental testing lab in the Twin Cities wasn't enough to meet their payment to CCCS and provide them with money to live on. Rather than go back on his promise to his wife, he took a second job working the third shift at a grocery store.
Russell put in between 80-100 hours of work a week. When he wasn't working, he was sleeping.
When gas got expensive, Russell said he spent some nights in his car at his job in Blaine. The gas for the 48-mile, one-way trip was too costly.
Throughout that time, Russell said he called in sick only three times. One of those times was because he was having surgery.
"No matter how sick I was, I went in. We needed the money," he explained.
While Russell was working, the responsibilities of the house fell on Kandy. That included finding deals on groceries and limiting purchases as much as possible, all while teaching the girls.
The girls pitched in by writing a family newsletter, which relatives bought. Heidi and Holly, who admitted they didn't even know their parents were struggling with debt until recently, said they bought a puppy with their earnings.
"We made a lot of sacrifices," Russell said. "I'm not proud that we got there but I am proud to get out."
Through it all, their daughters asked them for only one thing -- a house of their own, the couple said. The family rented a New Richmond townhome since 2003.
Throughout the years of repayment, the Hildebrants' credit rating remained in the 700s, making it possible for them to purchase a rambler near New Richmond High School in April. They were eligible for the first-time homebuyer tax credit, which they used to pay the balance of their debt.
You can do it
The Hildebrandts said they told very few people about their debts over the years. Their secret is out now.
Since the award ceremony last week, the Hildebrandts have gotten attention from news outlets, both local and national. Their story was even featured on the Yahoo! homepage and on msnbc.com.
"We want to help other people," Russell said of the spotlight. "You can do it."
The first step is getting over your pride and admitting to your financial troubles, the couple said.
"You have to admit you're not making it financially. That's why people don't call (for help)," Kandy said. "It's a pride issue."
Staying active in the repayment process is also important.
Kandy said she specified that when any debts were paid off, the extra money in their payment should be applied to the next lowest balance.
"It gets exciting when you've paid off a bill," she said.
"We love it when people tell us what to do," Humburg said, calling the pair "dream clients."
"You just have to make the decision and say 'no' to things. You look at things differently than in the past," Russell said.
Saying "yes" to non-essentials from time to time is also important in paying off debt, Humburg said.
Any extra money that the family got, like from tax refunds or holidays, stayed with the family.
"We did it (spend money) enough to stay positive," Russell said.
The family made their final payment to CCCS on June 29, 2009.
They celebrated that and Russell quitting his second job by eating out. Russell said he also plans to spend a little money on himself for the first time in five years.
Getting help and relying on each other helped them through it all.
"It was a team effort," Russell said. "You just don't do it on your own."