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This is your marriage on debt counseling
"We were $109,000 in debt..."
Debt counseling can help both partners get on the same page.
Debt counseling can help both partners get on the same page. (Courtesy Shutterstock)

Travis Pizel, 39, said "I do" to his wife Vonnie, 40, in 1996. The couple, who lives in Rochester, Minn., spent the early years of their marriage going to dinner a few times a week, taking expensive vacations to locales like Hawaii, and hosting elaborate catered dinners — for 100 of their closest friends.

"Instead of having a potluck, we'd provide all the food and desserts, and also hire a bartender," says Travis, who works as a software engineer. "Sometimes the alcohol bill alone was $1,000."

The Pizels didn't give a second thought to the steep price tag of their lifestyle. "We both had good jobs, and we felt entitled to spend whatever we wanted," Travis says. But those jobs — which amounted to a combined income of $50,000 with Vonnie's gig as a teacher's aide — didn't provide nearly enough money to underwrite all of the purchases that the Pizels were making.

"We saw the debt growing, but we always thought that, sooner or later, our incomes would catch up with our spending — that the next pay increase or bonus would help us pay it down," explains Travis. "Instead, it was one of those 'the more you make, the more you spend' things."

Although his wife was well aware of their excessive spending habits, Travis was the one who paid the bills — and he often used credit cards to cover them, unbeknownst to Vonnie. "I'd pay as many as I could with [our] checking account, and then I'd pay the rest of the bills with credit cards," he says. "I did credit-card juggling too, getting new cards with low intro rates."

Travis kept up the routine for as long as he could, until he received a letter in 2009 announcing that the minimum payment on his credit cards was going to increase by $800. No amount of juggling could cover that big an increase, so Travis had to come clean to his wife.

"It was hours of going through statements, and saying, 'Here's what I've been doing, and here's how it's been working,'" Travis says. Vonnie was understandably angry that her husband had been secretly tweaking the numbers for so long, but she was equally disappointed in herself for contributing to their debt.

"I wish that I'd worked with Travis as a team," Vonnie says. "I think back to all of the out-of-town weekends we did, the dinners out and the trips we took. If I'd known what was going on, we wouldn't have done any of those things. That's what hurts the most — that he just allowed both of us to keep spending and digging us into a deeper hole."

In total, the Pizels had swiped their way to a whopping $109,000 of unsecured credit card debt. "Hopeless is the best word [to describe how we felt]," Travis says. "We knew bankruptcy was out there, but we wanted to avoid that if we could."

So when they searched on the internet and found a credit-counseling program, CareOne Debt Relief Services, they made an appointment. That was a little over four years ago, and thanks to their sessions with a debt counselor, the Pizels will be done paying off their debt on February 28, 2014.

The other couples counseling

You might say that, for the Pizels, debt counseling has been a kind of couples therapy. In fact, the process of paying off their debt has actually brought them closer: Vonnie and Travis went from not talking about money at all to having twice-weekly budget meetings to keep their bills and spending habits in check.

It's actually not uncommon for couples to bond over debt repayment, says Garry Patterson, an adviser with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions (CCCS), which has nearly 40 locations across the country.

"It's a huge wake-up call," says Patterson, who notes that nearly a third of the people that CCCS sees are couples. "Although both spouses contribute to the debt, there's usually only one money manager who knows the true picture of what's going on. I sit down with both parties and write out a balance sheet to show them how much is coming in and going out, so they're on the same page."

It's also apparently not uncommon to see couples in debt counseling these days. According to recent stats from Debt.org, 27 percent of married couples without children have credit card debt — and that figure goes up to 36 percent for those with kids. And although the exact number of couples in the U.S. who seek out marital debt counseling is unknown, Brad Klontz, a financial therapist based in Hawaii, says that he's certainly seen "a noticeable spike" in the amount who've sought out his services since the economy tanked in 2008.

For those who want to seek help, there are many options. There's the debt-counseling route, which is less time-consuming and fairly hands-off. Clients have an in-person meeting with a debt counselor, who sets up a repayment plan that usually entails automatic withdrawals from a bank account.

Financial therapy, on the other hand, is true to its name: It's a typical therapy session, except the focus is on financial health — and all of the emotional, behavioral and cognitive aspects that go along with it. This approach is more hands-on, especially if the therapist offers tools for changing what the couple does with money, rather than just talking about how they feel or think about it.

And then there's financial coaching, which is similar to financial therapy, except that the sessions are often conducted by phone, and more time is dedicated to mining the hard numbers of a budget.

Of course, when it comes to repaying debt as a couple, there's no one right way to do it — you simply have to find the best match for your situation. Klontz says that when people come to him, they're already clued in to what kind of help they need. "My philosophy is that people know exactly what they need to do: Pay the debt, and stop overspending," he says. "I've yet to meet someone who doesn't know that."

In poverty and in wealth: The journey out of debt

Couples will have their share of burdens in a lifetime. But repaying debt, experts say, can be one of the biggest — and most frustrating — to endure. New York–based financial coach Jacquette Timmons says that couples often expect their debt to disappear tomorrow.

"People have unrealistic expectations," says Timmons, who works one-on-one with clients on budgeting and cultivating more goal-oriented behavior. "They're like, 'I'm so tired. I thought it was going to be over.' They forget about all of the time that it took to rack up that amount in the first place."

Of course, Timmons adds, debt problems among couples are rarely about the money itself. "That's just a symptom," she explains. "You have to take a step back and ask, 'What else is going on here?' And look at your chain of choices."

Klontz agrees. When he sees couples, he says, "it's usually one spouse dragging the other kicking and screaming, but the stance I take with all couples is '50 percent of the mess is your fault.' " In fact, in Klontz's experience, there's always a 50-50 split — even if it's not a conscious one. And the trick to successfully embarking on a debt-repayment plan is learning to be mindful of how, just as they were co-contributors to the problem, they also need to be co-managers of the solution.

Of course, that's not to say that couples always behave like co-conspirators. In fact, some of them act more like adversaries."I remember a couple who were at complete odds," Patterson says. "She wanted to do the right thing and pay the creditors back, but he was bitter and wanted to file for bankruptcy. There was so much hostility in his body language — he'd turn away from her when she spoke. I got them on a joint repayment plan, but I worried about the future of their relationship."

But there can often be a silver lining for couples who put in the effort to transition from financial sickness to fiscal health. Take Elizabeth Drumming*, who went to ClearPoint in 2008, when she and her husband "got tired of living down to the penny every month."

"There weren't creditors banging down our door, and we weren't looking at filing for bankruptcy," explains Elizabeth, 57, a government contractor who lives in Loomis, Calif. "We just decided that we didn't want to exist that way anymore."

The Drummings had built up $88,000 of debt over three years while Elizabeth's husband, Josh, 57, was unemployed. (He had been working as a pastor, but he left his post when the couple changed cities, and finding a new job proved hard for him.) Before the move, their household income had been $125,000. But when they began living on Elizabeth's $65,000 salary, instead of scaling back their spending, they used credit cards (in both of their names) to make up the difference.

Their ClearPoint adviser put the Drummings on a successful debt-management plan, but their marriage didn't fare as well — a few years into the process, the couple separated. Elizabeth says that the communication breakdown that contributed to the debt in the first place was part of the reason for the breakup.

"We weren't working things out together — we were just going along, doing our own thing," she says. "We weren't talking about our finances or our marriage. That communication issue manifested itself in different ways, and debt was just one of them."

When they split, Josh stayed in the house and Elizabeth moved into her own apartment — but they continued to make their combined monthly debt payment. "It was tough, but we kept doing it because it's what we needed to do," she says. "Even if we got divorced, the debt wasn't going away." And neither, it seems, was their marriage: About a year and a half later, they reconciled.

Elizabeth says that there's a lesson in her story for other couples. "Don't avoid your financial responsibilities just because you're going through something personally," she says. "It would have been easy to say 'forget it,' but we didn't. It's a commitment that we stuck through, and we're now using the $2,800 that we were once paying every month toward our debt to build our dream house."

*Names have been changed

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