This Is Your Marriage … And This Is Your Marriage on Debt Counseling

Penny Wrenn

debtTravis Pizel, 39, said “I do” to his wife Vonnie, 40, in 1996. The couple, who lives in Rochester, Minn., spent the early years of their marriage going to dinner a few times a week, taking expensive vacations to locales like Hawaii, and hosting elaborate catered dinners—for 100 of their closest friends.

“Instead of having a potluck, we’d provide all the food and desserts, and also hire a bartender,” says Travis, who works as a software engineer. “Sometimes the alcohol bill alone was $1,000.”

The Pizels didn’t give a second thought to the steep price tag of their lifestyle. “We both had good jobs, and we felt entitled to spend whatever we wanted,” Travis says. But those jobs—which amounted to a combined income of $50,000 with Vonnie’s gig as a teacher’s aide—didn’t provide nearly enough money to underwrite all of the purchases that the Pizels were making.

“We saw the debt growing, but we always thought that, sooner or later, our incomes would catch up with our spending—that the next pay increase or bonus would help us pay it down,” explains Travis. “Instead, it was one of those ‘the more you make, the more you spend’ things.”

Although his wife was well aware of their excessive spending habits, Travis was the one who paid the bills—and he often used credit cards to cover them unbeknownst to Vonnie. “I’d pay as many as I could with [our] checking account, and then I’d pay the rest of the bills with credit cards,” he says. “I did credit-card juggling too, getting new cards with low intro rates.”

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Travis kept up the routine for as long as he could, until he received a letter in 2009 announcing that the minimum payment on his credit cards was going to increase by $800. No amount of juggling could cover that big an increase, so Travis had to come clean to his wife.

“It was hours of going through statements, and saying, ‘Here’s what I’ve been doing, and here’s how it’s been working,’ ” Travis says. Vonnie was understandably angry that her husband had been secretly tweaking the numbers for so long, but she was equally disappointed in herself for contributing to their debt.

“I wish that I’d worked with Travis as a team,” Vonnie says. “I think back to all of the out-of-town weekends we did, the dinners out and the trips we took. If I’d known what was going on, we wouldn’t have done any of those things. That’s what hurts the most—that he just allowed both of us to keep spending and digging us into a deeper hole.”

In total, the Pizels had swiped their way to a whopping $109,000 of unsecured credit card debt. “Hopeless is the best word [to describe how we felt],” Travis says. “We knew bankruptcy was out there, but we wanted to avoid that if we could.”

So when they searched on the internet and found a credit-counseling program, CareOne Debt Relief Services, they made an appointment. That was a little over four years ago, and thanks to their sessions with a debt counselor, the Pizels will be done paying off their debt on February 28, 2014.

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  • glass

    1- it’s called a budget, you are not the government.
    2- prioritize needs over wants. Needs: food, shelter, basic clothing, utilities, gas, internet, phone (last 2 here for job searches) Wants: netflix, gym membership, eating out, non-thrift store clothing, wireless data plans, flat screen tvs, cable, designer anything, autos costing more than 20K, any vehicle not used fr commuting, 300 dollar purses, your must have, latest and greatest tech is not a need, etc.

    3- readjust insurance
    4- don’t use credit cards
    5- do not shop online
    6- cancel Xmas
    7-stay cations.

    remember it took years for you parents to get to their lifestyle. you grew up when the economy was good, so you probably don’t have a concept of saving for long term unemeployement. Not preaching here, I was out of work for 9 months and I had to make major sacrifices or else go bankrupt- meaning I had to long range commute for 5 years and contract overseas. You now need to think like your depression era great grandparents. It stinks, I know. The govt isn’t going to help you at all. Just get realistic about things and plan for worst case scenarios than a bright and sunny day scenario.

  • imdb

    “That’s what hurts the most—that HE just allowed both of us to keep spending and digging us into a deeper hole.” Whoa! You both went on the trips, ate the dinners, etc., which means that YOU BOTH spent the money, not HE. Grow up. This was a joint venture. Learn what money you are making as a team and how it’s spent, otherwise you need to take the blame.

    • Travis Pizel

      Thanks for your comment, imdb. While it it a valid point that we both spent the money, imdb, my wife did not know our full financial picture. She would ask me how our finances were, and I would say “we’re fine.” She would believe me and we would plan activities – she would again ask if we could afford things, and I would say “yes” even though we could not. She has beat herself up for years for not being more involved in our finances, and was rightfully angry at my deception – which really was the underlying meaning behind the statement you are taking exception to. The last few statements is exactly what we have done over the last four years – we now work as a team and have twice a week budget sessions – paying our bills together and making our spending plan together. With respect to what we spend our money on, we also have indeed done quite a bit of growing up. :)

      • tjvincent

        I understood from the article that she did not know the full picture during the spending sprees. You both have come a long way and should be proud of yourselves for sticking it out, staying together and paying it off. We have made many financial mistakes ourselves and have tried to be on a better path while continuing to learn. Blessings!

      • imdb

        I stand corrected. Having taken myself out of debt that only I spent myself into, I understand your coming together. Best of luck to you both!

  • Stu

    How did you pay off $100k in 4 years on a combined income of $50k?

    • Travis Pizel

      Great question, Stu – The article wasn’t very clear on that point – $50k was our combined income when we entered the job force right out of college in 1996 (17 years ago). Our income has increased significantly since then.