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The Deacon's Bench

You think it can’t be done?

Check out how this family did it:

Five years ago, the Hildebrandt family of New Richmond, Wis., was juggling more than $100,000 in credit card and personal debt. Through frugality, determination and hard work, they are now — other than a mortgage — debt-free.

At the time, Russell and Kandy Hildebrandts’ credit card balances totaled about $89,000, and they owed $17,000 to a family member. While they were current on all the payments, the card companies had begun raising their interest rates, adding hundreds to their minimum monthly payments. Kandy acknowledges that they presented a higher credit risk, given how their balances had ballooned. Even so, with the bump in the required payments, covering the monthly payments was a struggle. “We had to change,” Kandy says.

Change they did. For their debt-fighting prowess, the Hildebrandts were on Tuesday night named the winners of the Professional Achievement and Counseling Excellence (PACE) 2009 Graduate Client of the Year Award. This national award, given by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, recognizes the hard work and commitment they demonstrated in repaying their debts, and their willingness to become effective managers of their money and change their lifestyle. (Disclosure: CreditCards.com Senior Reporter Connie Prater served as a judge in the awards.)

Not that the Hildebrandts’ lifestyle was lavish. The couple, along with their twin daughters, Heidi and Holly, lived in a rented 1,000 square foot townhome. Vacations consisted of visits to extended family members in the Midwest. Russell was a chemist with a Twin Cities-based environmental testing laboratory; Kandy was a stay-at-home mom and home-schooled their daughters.

While the Hildebrandts weren’t living extravagantly, they also weren’t frugal, Kandy notes. They purchased most items, such as clothes for the girls, new. In addition, they had medical expenses related to Russell’s diabetes and several miscarriages that Kandy suffered. At the same time, they remained committed to tithing, or giving 10 percent of their income to their church. The accumulation of day-to-day expenses left the family going a bit more into debt each year.

Several family friends recommended that they file for bankruptcy. That was out of the question, Russell says. “We were committed to paying off our debts.” They also resolved to continue to tithe and home-school their daughters.

To get started, Kandy met with Linda Humburg, a manager with FamilyMeans Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) in Stillwater, Minn. Linda reviewed their finances, and developed a five-year debt management plan. While the schedule was daunting, the Hildebrandts signed on. “If we didn’t make it, we knew that we would go out trying,” Russell says.

Several steps were key to making the plan work. Kandy and Russell eliminated discretionary spending. Kandy began buying generic food and frequenting thrift stores for clothing purchases. They stopped exchanging Christmas and birthday gifts with each other and their relatives.

Even with the drastic cutbacks, the Hildebrandts couldn’t cover the $2,000 they were sending to CCCS each month to be distributed to their creditors. At that time, the sum amounted to about half of Russell’s take-home pay. So Russell took on a second job cleaning a local grocery store several nights a week from midnight to 4:30 a.m. He would arrive home from his day job, eat dinner, catch a few hours of sleep and head to work. After his shift, he would go back home, sleep a few more hours and then get up for his day job.

Read the rest at the link.

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