Image: Hildebrandt family
Jeff Holmquist
Russell and Kathy Hildebrandt of New Richmond, Wis., successfully paid off $106,000 in credit card and personal debt. They're shown outside their home with their three children, 14-year-old twins Heidi, left, and Holly, and 3-year-old Joey.
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updated 9/20/2009 1:22:04 PM ET 2009-09-20T17:22:04

Five years ago, the Hildebrandt family of New Richmond, Wis., was juggling more than $100,000 in credit card and personal debt. Through frugality, determination and hard work, they are now — other than a mortgage — debt-free.

At the time, Russell and Kandy Hildebrandts' credit card balances totaled about $89,000, and they owed $17,000 to a family member. While they were current on all the payments, the card companies had begun raising their interest rates, adding hundreds to their minimum monthly payments. Kandy acknowledges that they presented a higher credit risk, given how their balances had ballooned. Even so, with the bump in the required payments, covering the monthly payments was a struggle. "We had to change," Kandy says.

Change they did. For their debt-fighting prowess, the Hildebrandts were on Tuesday night named the winners of the Professional Achievement and Counseling Excellence (PACE) 2009 Graduate Client of the Year Award. This national award, given by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, recognizes the hard work and commitment they demonstrated in repaying their debts, and their willingness to become effective managers of their money and change their lifestyle. (Disclosure: CreditCards.com Senior Reporter Connie Prater served as a judge in the awards.)

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Slow decline into debt
Not that the Hildebrandts' lifestyle was lavish. The couple, along with their twin daughters, Heidi and Holly, lived in a rented 1,000 square foot townhome. Vacations consisted of visits to extended family members in the Midwest. Russell was a chemist with a Twin Cities-based environmental testing laboratory; Kandy was a stay-at-home mom and home-schooled their daughters.

While the Hildebrandts weren't living extravagantly, they also weren't frugal, Kandy notes. They purchased most items, such as clothes for the girls, new. In addition, they had medical expenses related to Russell's diabetes and several miscarriages that Kandy suffered. At the same time, they remained committed to tithing, or giving 10 percent of their income to their church. The accumulation of day-to-day expenses left the family going a bit more into debt each year.

Bankruptcy? No thanks
Several family friends recommended that they file for bankruptcy. That was out of the question, Russell says. "We were committed to paying off our debts." They also resolved to continue to tithe and home-school their daughters.

To get started, Kandy met with Linda Humburg, a manager with FamilyMeans Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) in Stillwater, Minn. Linda reviewed their finances, and developed a five-year debt management plan. While the schedule was daunting, the Hildebrandts signed on. "If we didn't make it, we knew that we would go out trying," Russell says.

Several steps were key to making the plan work. Kandy and Russell eliminated discretionary spending. Kandy began buying generic food and frequenting thrift stores for clothing purchases. They stopped exchanging Christmas and birthday gifts with each other and their relatives.

Even with the drastic cutbacks, the Hildebrandts couldn't cover the $2,000 they were sending to CCCS each month to be distributed to their creditors. At that time, the sum amounted to about half of Russell's take-home pay. So Russell took on a second job cleaning a local grocery store several nights a week from midnight to 4:30 a.m. He would arrive home from his day job, eat dinner, catch a few hours of sleep and head to work. After his shift, he would go back home, sleep a few more hours and then get up for his day job.

Slow progress
The first two years were particularly tough. Russell's work schedule was grueling, while Kandy managed just about everything at home on her own. Moreover, while their credit card balances were going down, the drop wasn't yet noticeable. For about a year, the Hildebrandts made do with one car, until they received a used van from Kandy's family.

Even so, "they didn't let anything deter them from progress," Humburg says. "If the money wasn't available, they simply did without." Equally, important the Hildebrandts kept their goal — becoming debt-free — in mind.

After the first few years, the Hildebrandts' efforts finally seemed to be bearing fruit. Their card balances were coming down, and some were getting paid off. As one card reached zero, CCCS would apply the money that had gone to it to the remaining balances. As a result, those cards would get paid off even more quickly.

About this time, Kandy became pregnant with Joey, who's now 3. While recognizing that a new child would mean additional expenses, the couple was thrilled. "The joy he brought to a negative, grinding situation was the light we needed," she says.

Dream home appears
By the fall of 2008, the Hildebrandts had one year to go on the payment plan. Russell even started daydreaming about a new home when he saw a three-bedroom rambler for sale in New Richmond. It had all that they were looking for, including a large yard and a separate bedroom for Joey. Russell let a real estate agent know that they liked the house, but added that the family would have to pay off their debts before taking on a mortgage.

Several months later the agent called and asked if the Hildebrandts would be interested in a rent-to-own agreement. The current owner of the house had some health concerns and was eager to move. The monthly rent would be $1,000, which included $200 to be escrowed for closing costs. They could manage it.

Earlier this year, the owner wanted to accelerate the sale process. In April, using the tax credit for first-time home buyers, the Hildebrandts were able to swing the purchase and pay off the remaining balances on their credit cards about six months ahead of schedule.

Now, the Hildebrandts are content in their new home and free of debt, other than their mortgage. Russell has been able to quit his second job and spend more time with his family — and catch up on sleep.

Frugal habits stick
Several things haven't changed, however. Kandy remains a dedicated bargain hunter. Shopping online, she found eight bar stools for their kitchen island and basement family room for $24; at a yard sale, she bought a $2 desk for the girls. The Hildebrandts "had to completely rethink how they spent and what was a need versus a want," Humburg says.

Both Russell and Kandy say that while bankruptcy might have seemed like an easier option at the outset, it would not have been as satisfying. They wouldn't have learned to take control over their money and spending. What's more, with a bankruptcy on their credit record, they wouldn't have been able to purchase a house when they did.

Their advice to others? "Get out of debt," Kandy says. "It's a chokehold."

© 2012 CreditCards.com

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