How to pay off debt after a medical emergency

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Eighteen years ago, Shanté Nicole Harris from Financial commons was not the credit expert she is today. At 22, Harris learned she had stage three Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of blood cancer that starts in the lymphatic system.

With this news, Harris’ life was disrupted. She spent 12 months undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy and attending countless follow-up appointments.

Harris was successful in beating cancer, but it came at a financial cost. In an era when most young adults accelerate their careers and incomes, Harris lost valuable income and fell into a cycle of credit card addiction to make ends meet.

Looking back, Harris acknowledges that she could have done things differently: “You shouldn’t be using credit cards to supplement your income, but I had it back then. [an emergency savings] was “, she said CNBC Select. “And in our twenties … we thought we were invincible.”

Harris, now 40, currently has a very good credit rating between the FICO range from 740 to 799, and it fully reimburses its credit cards each month. Below, CNBC Select explained to Harris how she overcame a number of personal challenges, including cancer, job loss and divorced – and finally paid off five-figure credit card debt.

Series of personal emergencies result in large credit card debt

One-third of U.S. credit card users are in debt because of medical bills. About 137.1 million adults experienced financial hardship caused by high spending medical fees between 2018 and 2019, according to recent research. Cancer patients are particularly affected, with more than 50% of survivors reporting payment problems medical bills and financial difficulties.

“Anytime in my life that I’ve had significant credit card debt, it wasn’t because I overspended, and it wasn’t because I’m a shopaholic. It was always because of the circumstances of life, ”says Harris.

By the time Harris was diagnosed with cancer, she had health insurance under her husband’s plan at the time, but money was tight as she had to cut her hours at a part-time bank. , and the couple didn’t have much to do. savings.

“I put all I could on the [cards]Harris said. “Groceries, gasoline, you know. Everything I could pay on the card, I did. “

It was a never-ending cycle, she recalls, and it was difficult to get ahead financially. Harris has also made significant medical debt who ended up going to collections. (He has since been bleached from her credit report.)

After his recovery, Harris spent several months looking for employment before finally accepting a position in the nonprofit sector. She was in her mid-twenties by then and her new position was paying her enough to make her feel comfortable with her lifestyle for the first time since she contracted cancer.

It was during this period of relative stability that she had a son, Dylan. When her son was diagnosed with autism in 2008, Harris embraced the process of learning to take care of himself while working full time.

But after having held her salaried position for five years, she was abruptly fired in March 2010 when a new director took over the management of her organization.

“I was devastated,” says Harris. “I was there for years, and in less than six months [after the new director joined] I was applying for unemployment. “

Harris’ former employer contested her jobless claim and she had to appeal to the state unemployment office for her benefits. During the three months she waited for the verdict, Harris went without pay. She ultimately won the appeal and was hit with unemployment for a year, which covered part of her old salary.

At the same time as she struggled professionally, Harris also faced enormous challenges at home. In 2010, Harris and her husband divorced. To cover legal fees and the increased financial responsibility of being a single mother of a child with special needs, Harris held several part-time jobs for over a year while she interviewed for a new position. fulltime.

During that time, she billed almost every expense she could on her credit cards, from her phone bill to daycare and the special care her son needed.

“I had nothing,” said Harris. “My credit score has dropped.”

After just over 12 months of unemployment, Harris, 30, realized she had allowed her debt to climb between $ 50,000 and $ 60,000 on several cards.

How she paid off five-figure credit card debt

Having no luck in finding a new job, Harris held two part-time jobs and took student loans so that she can return to nursing schools. In 2013, Harris founded Coping With Autism With Kids Everywhere (FACE), a non-profit organization aimed at raising awareness of autism and helping families support their children with special needs.

She also remarried. With encouragement from her new husband and the stability of becoming a two-earner, Harris finally felt ready to tackle her credit card debt in 2015. The couple started using balance transfer credit cards, a common strategy – but they sped it up by applying for 0% APR credit cards on behalf of Harris and her husband. A little-known benefit of balance transfer cards is that sometimes it is possible to transfer a family member or friend’s balance to your own card.

“Whenever [my husband] Got an offer, he said, “Put it on my card,” Harris recalls. “As soon as one of us received the offer in the mail for 0% APR balance transfers, I would transfer as much money as possible to these cards. As soon as this promo was over, I transferred [my debt] to another card. “

For nearly five years, Harris and her husband used balance transfer cards to reduce interest payments and reduce debt. Harris opened four cards and her husband opened two. Her husband’s score took a slight hit; he started with a FICO score of 680 and he dropped to 620 after maximizing his new cards with his wife’s debt. But now that it’s paid off, Harris and her husband are enjoying the benefits of getting the most out of their credit cards.

Harris uses his seven credit cards for bills, subscriptions, and daily expenses. She repays her balances on time and in full each month with automatic payment, and she keeps it use of credit just around the recommended 10%.

Biggest Lesson Harris Learned About Paying Down Debt

What has changed since paying off her credit card debt

Harris and her husband continue to use their credit cards on a daily basis. But How? ‘Or’ What they use them differs.

“Right now I have seven major credit cards and I use them all every month for bills I already have to pay anyway. And I pay them off in full when the bill is due,” Harris says.

This method leaves Harris with extra money to invest savings, she says. “I can save so much because I don’t pay these credit cards anymore.”

To help pay for their trips, Harris and her husband use their Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card almost like a debit card, swiping it for everyday purchases like gas, groceries, and convenience stores.

“We just flew to San Jose in November for free because of my air miles over the southwest,” says Harris.

His other six credit cards are cut from a bag, but the accounts are still in use. She gives a goal to each of her cards by linking it to a recurring invoice, and she sets up automatic payment so she doesn’t have to worry about paying the bill every month.

What about financial difficulties? Harris advises people to remember that everything is temporary. “It always sucks when I’m in the middle of the storm, but honestly you always know it’s not going to rain every day.”

Information about the Aspire Platinum Mastercard® was independently collected by CNBC and was not reviewed or provided by the card issuer prior to posting.

Editorial note: Any opinions, analysis, criticism or recommendations expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Select’s editorial staff and have not been reviewed, endorsed or otherwise approved by any third party.

About Sally Dominguez

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