Photo by Zave Smith
Joseph McKinley got into credit card debt the way a lot of people do—using plastic to purchase items for which he didn’t have the cash. “At first I just wanted to establish credit and when I lived at home it was easy to pay it off,” recalls the Philadelphia native. “But when I moved out, the credit card offers kept coming and I opened card after card to furnish my new apartment and buy clothes and electronics.”
For many consumers the lure of a 0% introductory rate can be enticing to purchase big-ticket items, but after 18 months McKinley says those rates shot up to 24.99%, leaving him with more than $4,000 in debt across three cards. It didn’t help that in December 2003, he also lost his job working at a local casino.
With no income or emergency fund at the time McKinley relied on his credit cards to survive. He did this for three months before finding employment with a national bank in Philadelphia. But by then, the 36-year-old divorced father of two was knee high in debt—$21,000 worth to be exact. “I thought to myself, ‘This has got to stop, this is crazy.’” His situation instantly reminded him of his late mother, Denise McKinley, who had accumulated and maxed out more than 20 credit cards. She eventually filed for bankruptcy.
But unlike his mother, he decided against bankruptcy. “I made the debt, and I need to pay it,” he says. First he transferred the balances from his three store credit cards to his Chase and Discover credit cards, which offered lower interest rates. He used the bonuses he received from his new job with the Department of Homeland Security as a supervisor for the Transportation Security Administration and his salary increase to aggressively attack the debt. He has also found ways to curb spending. For example, as a TSA employee he receives free monthly public transportation cards from the federal government. By taking the train to work he saves, on average, $120 per month, an amount he also applies to his debt.