College is a time when most young people get their first taste of freedom. But the freedom to buy whatever, whenever, can sometimes lead into a lifetime of restrictions.
"They were offering free pizza if you signed up for a credit card," said Sarah Martel, a graduate student in Kansas City, Kan.
The offer was too enticing for Martel to turn down. But the overly anxious student wound up biting off more than she could chew.
"I found all kinds of things I thought I needed," said Martel. "It was too easy to pull out the plastic card and put it all on there."
After she graduated from college, Martel owed thousands of dollars in credit card debt. She also had bought a new car, had to pay for her student loans, and then a mortgage bill. She was swimming in debt and drowning fast.
Martel is not alone. According to the Federal Reserve, the total U.S. consumer debt, which does not include mortgage debt, reached $2.48 trillion in September 2007. Support is available, though, to help turn a debt-free life around. Online and in the local area, there are support groups and debt education classes that help people like Martel get out of debt every day.
Martel searched for help on MSN Money's message board and found a group called Women in Red.
"Everyone's really great with suggestions on how to pay things and in what order to pay them in," said Martel.
At first, she just watched, but as she interacted she discovered little-known tips that were very helpful. Martel got advice like saving a $1,000 before she even started paying off debt; this way she wouldn't be tempted to use her credit card if an emergency popped up.
The site also offered her friendly competition. Message board posters race with different debt totals and along the way they update everyone on their progress.
"My latest update is that I paid off my first credit card. I got my very first zero," she said. "Zero is a big coveted thing on the board so I got to celebrate that with everybody."
The Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Central Oklahoma offers classes on becoming, and staying, debt free as well. The organization has educated 23,000 Oklahomans on how to become debt-free.
"Whenever you're budgeting and trying to get out-of-debt, it causes a behavior change. So to get support, to make that behavior change, I think, is a great idea," said Jennifer Wallis, vice president of the CCCSOK.
Wallis has counseled hundreds of consumers on how to get out of debt. She said that whether debt-laden consumers get help virtually or in person, getting support is key to turning around a credit lifestyle.
Now, if Martel sees a good deal, she doesn't use her credit card; she uses her good sense.
"If we can't pay for it in cash, then we won't get it," she said.
Originally Aired: 11-14-2007