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Together we calculate $20 times the three years it took him to pay off the total and come up with $720. When I ask if he’d have been willing to pay that amount up front to get the same results, Chad says, “I don’t think I could have. I didn’t have any savings at all, so I don’t know that I would have been able to. But maybe…if they let me do it in a couple of payments.”

That said, was the $720 worth it?

“Absolutely,” Chad says. “I remember what it was like [thinking], I can pay this credit card, but not this one. Or I can pay my rent, but then I won’t be able to pay my credit cards. Or I’d be able to pay the minimums on one [card], but then I’d have to let another one slide, and I’d have people calling me at all hours of the day.”

He takes a deep breath and again turns his attention to the game. Then he says, “I’m so glad it’s over.”

In early 2009, just before he married Heather, Chad made his final payment. Today, three years later, he still fixes his own lunches. He does use a credit card for most purchases because he receives airline miles. But he pays it off in full every month. His credit score, which he says was “trashed” when he started the program, is now around 700. The condo, which Heather owned before they met, is in her name. Because her credit score is as high as they come (and because a higher credit score gets a lower interest rate), the car they’ve just bought is also in her name. Heather makes her lunch every day, too.

“It’s a huge relief not having that debt over my head,” Chad says. “We don’t spend a lot, but we can go out to dinner and have a fun date night and not worry about it. I’ll probably put it on my credit card, to get the miles, but we’ll pay it off.”

The baby comes walking down the stairs, holding onto the wall. Heather is right behind her.

“Sorry,” Heather says when they reach the bottom. “I tried to keep her upstairs, but she insisted on coming down.”

I laugh and tell her we’ll be done as soon as she answers one question.

She stands next to Chad.

“Shoot,” she says.

Would she have married Chad before his debts were paid off?

“Oh, hell, no,” she says.

She laughs, slaps his knee, and bends to kiss his face.

I Can Do It by Myself

My friend Bud was $20,000 in debt when he called to inquire about a debt-consolidation program advertised on the radio. He’d been supplementing his income as a writer with some photojournalism, racking up credit-card bills on equipment and travel, when in 2008 the “big crunch” happened and “things just died.”

“People with modest skills like mine weren’t getting paid at all,” he says. “We weren’t getting assignments. That was the long and short of it. Half my income fell off.”

We’re in the immaculate living room of his new La Mesa home. Bud sits in a chair with its wooden legs wrapped in plastic, because his chubby cat King Jacob is not satisfied with the scratch post in the corner.

“I started buying books, you know?” Bud says. “I bought Suze Orman. I bought Larry Winget. I started to read all the books about how to manage debt. I called the credit-card companies, like Suze Orman said. I said, ‘I’ve been a good customer for ten years. I’ve got great credit.’”

But the credit-card companies wouldn’t negotiate with him.

“They pretty much said, ‘Up yours, pal.’”

So Bud called a debt consolidator he’d heard advertised on The John and Ken Show on KFI AM 640. He emphasizes that it wasn’t just any advertisement; it was the kind where the radio personality makes it…personal.

“It was John [Chester Kobylt] talking. ‘Stop. Listen to me. Put down whatever you’re doing and write this number down.’ So I did.”

Bud was paying about $500 per month in credit-card bills, and the debt consolidator told him to stop paying the credit-card companies and to send the $500 a month to them. They’d negotiate payment amounts on his behalf.

“It seemed like I was doing the right thing,” Bud says. “As it turns out, they didn’t pay, or they folded, or something bad happened. Or they were a scam. I’m not exactly sure.”

He found out what happened when a collection agency called looking for money. Eventually, he was notified of a class-action lawsuit that had been filed against the company.

“I took the radio advertisement as ‘John’s’ stamp of endorsement, you know?” He sits back heavily in his chair and throws his arms up, letting them fall back into his lap. “For Christ’s sake, he’s a famous talk-show guy. He’s changed legislature.”

He reaches down to pet King Jacob, who winds back and forth, leaning into Bud’s ankles.

“I’m not blaming John,” he says. “I should have taken more responsibility.”

After that, Bud sent letters and good-faith checks, worked out payment plans with creditors, and resumed making payments. Two of his four debts had been sent to collections agencies; the other two stayed in-house. Unfortunately, although the consolidator had negotiated with the credit-card companies, all deals were off, and Bud’s interest was reset at higher rates.

By this time, he’d already given up his health insurance and taken to walking everywhere, which, since he was living downtown, was easy enough. In the two-and-a-half years since he began the process, Bud has paid off about half of the $20,000.

When I ask if he still uses credit cards, he says, “No, I won’t ever. They were so vile.”

He goes on a rant about the unscrupulous nature of credit-card companies. The rant ends with “They do anything they can to screw you.”

Bud says his new philosophy is “Trust no one. Keep your own counsel.” He went so far as to request his bank records all the way back to 2009, so that any time he has to speak to a bank or a credit-card company, he can look at the records himself, rather than relying on someone else to tell him what happened when.

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