Lynnette Khalfani-Coxis a personal financial whiz. The former WallStreet Journal and CNBC reporter is now a money coach and a go-to financialexpert for Oprah Winfrey, Fox Business, Dr. Phil and CNN.
But 10 years ago, despite making a six-figure salary, Khalfani-Cox had racked up$100,000 in credit card debt. She used plastic to pay for everything, fromtrips to clothes to dinners, even using cash advance checks to pay for herchildren's private school tuition and to buy land.
When she finally tallied up all her debt and saw she'dcrossed the $100,000 mark, she decided to make a change. She paid it all off inthree years -- a time in which she was laid off and got divorced.
Since then, she's written seven books on personal finance,including "Zero Debt: The Ultimate Guide to Financial Freedom," and "PerfectCredit: 7 Steps to a Great Credit Rating," which has just been published.
CreditCards.com sat down with her to find out what changes she had to make to get out of debt.
CreditCards.com: Tellme, what you do now?
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox: I work as a money coach. I teachpeople how to get financially fit, primarily how to manage credit and debtwisely. I talk about all kinds of topics, from investing and real estate, tosaving money and budgeting. But credit and debt are my two favorite areas totalk about because I've struggled in those areas. Those are probably the twomost burdensome topics for most people.
CreditCards.com: Inthe introduction to your new book, "Perfect Credit," you thank people whodidn't do you any credit favors -- Hyundai for repossessing your first car, thebill collector you call "Mr. Johnson," and family who didn't co-sign loans.Why?
Khalfani-Cox: I was trying to be humorous, and I was tryingto tell people, "Look, I've struggled with credit and debt issues as well andyou know what? With a little time and distance, you get a little perspective."
At the time, I thought it really was so unfair. I did rebeland think, "Oh this is so terrible and look at the big, bad credit cardcompanies."
It was a tough lesson, but you can be darn sure I've nevermissed a car payment ever again. I've been a lot smarter about the way in whichI use some forms of credit. It didn't stop me from getting into debt, but Ilearned no matter what happens, you pay your bills on time.
CreditCards.com: Yousay you were making six figures but still racked up $100,000 in debt. Whathappened?
Khalfani-Cox: I know now that people get into debt for twoprimary reasons. Some kind of misfortune happens to them -- downsized, goingthrough a divorce, becoming disabled, death of the main breadwinner of thefamily.
The other group of consumers who can get into trouble areoverspenders or poor money managers. I was in that category. I certainly hadn'tlearned how to manage money at all. Compounding that problem was that I was anoverspender. I had a nice six-figure salary, but I was living as if I wasearning seven figures.
I spent on everything: frequent travel, vacations, kids invery, very, expensive private school, treating people to dinners, clothes,stuff for the kids.
I still go through these periods where I'll get extremelydisgusted by the stuff that I have. When I had gone through my debt problem, Iwas with my ex-husband. We separated and divorced right after that. In 2005, Iwas living by myself. Even when I left, I left everything. All I took was mycomputer and my printer so I could work and keep my business going.
He still had boxes of my personal belongings, and I thought,I don't want any of this and don't need any of this. I literally ended updonating 15 boxes of stuff, including some dresses and suits with tags still onthem.
Here it is 2010, and I'm very much in control of my spending-- with the exception of travel! It's not that I don't like nice things or wantto have certain things. But I realized the ramifications of doing it in anunbridled fashion. Now I know I'd much rather have experiences as opposed tojust things.
CreditCards.com: Didyou hit a rock bottom point that made you say, "I need to change this?" Youdivorced and were laid off during the time you were paying off the debt, so itmust have been difficult.
Khalfani-Cox: No, I can't blame either my divorce or my lossof income as the reason behind my debt. It might have exacerbated and causedother problems and financial stress.
It was vanity, and being cut off from my creditors that mademe change. I was maxed out on most of my credit cards. I couldn't get mycreditors to extend my lines anymore, and I'm talking big lines -- $10,000,$15,000, $20,000. I would get declined when I tried to use my cards.
I was doing a lot of things right. Sometimes when peopleknow about my story, they think, "Oh my God, you were a financial professionalgiving people advice?" That is true, but I certainly don't want to give theimpression that I was a complete basket case. I had a very healthy six-figure401(k) because I had been saving and investing. I had created a will. I haddisability protection. I had life insurance. So I had some level of cushionthat I think a lot of people don't traditionally build up when they'restruggling financially.
For me, it was just my spending. It was totally out ofcontrol, and I was able to justify it in my head because everybody was gettingpaid, no creditors were calling my house. I didn't even see how much of adanger zone I was in, but I was definitely way, way, way in the red zone.
CreditCards.com: Payingdown $100,000 in credit card debt in three years seems impossible. How did youdo it?
Khalfani-Cox: It wasn't like I did one strategy and whoopsthis got me out of debt. It was the pile-on effect of so many strategies.
First, I had to totally revamp my spending habits and stopall the frivolous spending. I nixed the travel, the eating out and treatingfriends. At the time my, two older kids, who were 3 and 5, were in aprivate school that cost $20,000 a year. I took them out of that expensiveprivate school and put them in a less expensive private school that was a thirdof the cost.
I really had to come to the realization that I was hurtingthem in the long run by showing them bad financial habits, and driving thefamily more into debt when they could get a great education without us havingall these fiscal burdens. I had paid for the private school tuition with creditcard cash advance checks. My ex and I bought two plots of land in Newark, N.J.,through a city auction for about $37,000. We used the credit lines even forthat.
Of course, I negotiated with my creditors. It's differentenvironment today, but I'm still a firm believer that you should get on thephone and negotiate. I got all my credit card interest rates knocked down to6.9 percent and lower.
I did balance transfers as well -- that's a short-termstrategy. I also used windfalls. Every single bit of extra cash that came myway -- expected or unexpected -- went to the debt. Tax refund checks, holidaybonuses, gifts. It's very common forpeople to blow windfalls. Now I tell consumers I don't care if you're getting governmentstimulus money, tax refund, whatever -- just don't blow that money. You'll neverregret using a windfall to pay off a debt, but you'll regret spending it.
I also started doubling and tripling my minimum paymentsbecause I figured out that minimum payments were a trap. I'd been making allthese payments, but I was still treading water and wasn't getting anywhere. Itwasn't until I started doubling and tripling those payments that I reallystarted seeing those balances decline.
I also opted out of getting additional credit card offers. Ithink when you are deep in debt you don't need that extra temptation.
From 2001 to early 2004, I paid off about $70,000 worth ofthe debt. My ex-husband and I separated in 2004, then we sold that land inNewark. We took $30,000 from that sale and put that toward the credit card debtand then the debt was gone.
CreditCards.com: Whyare credit cards such a problem?
Khalfani-Cox: The credit cards aren't the problem. We're theproblem. One of the reasons that credit card debt is so difficult for people tomanage is that you use credit cards more frequently than you use any othercredit or any other loan. Every single day, every single hour, you have an opportunityto use credit cards.
Obviously there are much bigger levels of debt, but thatmortgage comes and goes. It's once a month, and for the most part, you're notadding to it. The balance should be going down, just like installment debt --student loans, car loans, for example.
With credit cards, you have so much more opportunity to getin trouble.
CreditCards.com: Ifsomeone is reading this and feeling overwhelmed, what is your advice?
Khalfani-Cox: Keep the faith. This probably sounds soPollyannaish, but I have to say it because I've gotten so many extremelydepressing e-mails -- suicidal e-mails even. I would say I know it's verytough, but hang in there. It is going to get better.
This doesn't mean you're a failure. It doesn't mean thatyour life is over and you're done because you've dug yourself into this hole.It means that you're going through a tough period and brighter days are goingto be ahead.
So many people who write me don't even want financialadvice. They just want to know if there's hope for them. I say yes, of course,there's hope. You can dig yourself out of this. You can have reduced financialstress or no financial stress. Having been in the thick of it, I know what it'slike to be in that foggy, burdened-down place. Keep chipping away. Keep diggingyourself out.
It's painful what we're going through as a country, but it'sso necessary. It's going to strengthen us all in the long run. The idea thatthe economy has been so supportive and so propped up by consumer spending oncredit -- I question whether that will continue to hold up as people startto realize the value of saving more and using credit wisely.
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