Maureen, a single mom in Philadelphia, spent months reading the get-out-of-debt discussions on the Women in Red message board.
She knew that she was in debt but dreaded adding it all up. When she finally put it all down on paper, in early 2008, "it was truly frightening," she says.
On top of her $153,000 mortgage, Maureen owed an additional $140,000 in credit card bills -- lifestyle debt and tuition for her daughter's school that she had put on the cards.
She was devastated. "I thought, 'How on earth am I going to pay it all off?'"
Almost out of hope, Maureen joined the Women in Red Racers, a special-ops group whose mission to seek out and destroy debt has changed the lives of hundreds of women around the country, including Maureen's and mine.
Today, at the end of one of the worst economic years in U.S. history, the Racers are celebrating the start of their fourth year and an incredible victory: In the past three years, the Racers have paid off a total of $10 million in debt.
What's their $10 million secret? Before we sign a high-security-clearance deal with TARP, I'll reveal what I can.
On a missionMany money problems have come and gone on the Women in Red message board these past few years, but the Racers are a special story.
The group was launched in the fall of 2006 by a couple of Women in Red members who said, "You know, we really could use a debt payback forum on this board."
Before you could say "Cut up your cards," the Racers were up and running.Their mission: to help people ditch their debt once and for all, by racing against themselves.
Their method was deceptively simple: Add up what you owe, and post it for all to see. Be honest, record every dime you pay down, and admit when you backslide. Be kind to others who are struggling to reach their own finish lines. And hang in there.
Somehow, the combination of accountability and camaraderie worked a sort of magic for the women who joined:
- About 2,700 women have joined in the past three years.
- About a thousand were active participants, "racing" their debts.
- Seventy people have paid off all of their debts.
The Racers grew to the point where the two original founders had to create regional groups (West, Midwest, South, Northeast and international), led by teams of volunteers. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an army to pay off debt.
It also takes something else, a certain quality that lies at the core of the Racers method: stamina.
"I would call it dedication," says a Racer named Angie.
The long haulIt may not sound sexy, and it won't make headlines, but learning how to sustain the anti-debt momentum is the most essential -- and poorly understood -- aspect of debt payback.
"According to my projections, I'll be able to pay it off, including the mortgage, by 2019," she says, referring to the spreadsheet she uses to track her spending and her debt. If she aims to pay down just the $140,000? "I'll be free of that debt by 2014."
Knowing she has people to talk to on the Women in Red message board helps with the long time horizon, Maureen says.
Swapping stories and ideasThe Racers also provide an antidote to the isolation surrounding debt. Despite the many millions of Americans who are in a hole -- and constant media coverage of the topic -- it remains a touchy, almost taboo topic.
"It's not like you can call your best friend and tell her how much debt you have," Maureen says.
On the Women in Red message board, "no one is going to gossip about me," she says. "You get criticism, but it's good criticism: 'Why don't you try this? Do that.'"
Sharing stories with other Racers can revive your flagging energy, too. "Someone started a discussion called 'What's your weakness?'" recalls Angie. "Was it shopping, was it this, was it that?"
Until that moment, Angie says, she didn't know her own weakness. "I'm not a shopper," she says. "And I have no problem saying no to my kids."
Her "aha" moment: "When someone asked whether you can say no to your husband, I said, 'Ooh, that's my weakness!' "
When you can identify the hurdles in your path, it's a lot easier to overcome them. (Find yours with "5 steps to escaping your money trap.")
Slowing down for speed bumpsStill, there are times that every debt crusader's resolve gets tested.
As soon as you start to pay down your debt, Murphy's Law of Money is sure to kick in, killing your muffler or your water heater or sending your pet to the vet for an extremely pricey procedure. Or all of them at once -- see "Why money trouble comes in threes."
Megan Paterson, who helped start the Racers, calls these "speed bumps." Life has a way of complicating your best-laid plans.
Case in point: the Great Recession of 2008-09. Because of the downturn (and technical difficulties tracking people's progress on the online forum), many people dropped out of the Racers this year. There are only 250 active members right now.
Since joining the Racers in 2007, Angie, who lives in Lima, Ohio, has paid down $21,000 in debt. And she managed to sustain her momentum even when she joined the ranks of America's jobless for nine months last year.
How did she keep up her race in this recession while raising two teenagers and enduring her husband's erratic income? It's that stamina again -- think long-haul truckers, marathoners, mothers in labor -- prodded along by the Racers.
"I know that it's my goal to be debt-free," Angie explains. "There are days where you don't want to pay extra toward that bill. But then you post what you've paid, and you get that encouragement from people on the board -- and you see the progress you're making. It keeps you hanging in there."
Published Dec. 29, 2009