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Biggest debt losers: Couple weathers hardships to repay $50,000

Karen Kroll

When Wendall Ramage was diagnosed in 2001 with prostate cancer and given five years to live, he initially thought the news "entitled me to anything I wanted," he says. Resentment over his cancer diagnosis fueled a spend-like-there's-no-tomorrow spree.

Wendall and his wife Linda hadn't been big spenders before, but credit cards soon became a means of paying for dinners out, electronics and concerts. Oh, the concerts: The Ramages took in acts ranging from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to the Rolling Stones.

By 2008, the couple's credit card balances topped $50,000. Although the Ramages were paying about $100 more than the minimum required, it was clear they still faced many years of indebtedness. 

So the couple took action. They began working with Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Middle Georgia to come up with a repayment plan. Five years later, despite another round of cancer treatment, additional health issues and two sooner-than-expected retirements, Wendall and Linda Ramage are free of credit card debt.

Their achievement is so impressive that the National Federation for Credit Counseling has awarded them its Client of the Year award, given out Tuesday night at the organization's annual meeting. The organization gives the honor to individuals or couples who overcome great odds to pay off their debt. 

No excuses
The Ramages, who live in Forsyth, Ga., are now both 71 and just celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary. They began dating while attending Georgia Southern University. After graduating, both went into teaching. Linda taught elementary school for more than 30 years, while Wendall taught a variety of subjects in high school, including philosophy and drama. And both Ramages were extras in the movie, "Fried Green Tomatoes." Along the way, he was designated a Star Teacher a dozen times, and his students' productions of several one-act plays he'd written won multiple state championships.

To come up with a payment plan, the Ramages met with CCCS counselor Nicole Caldwell. "They definitely stood out," Caldwell says. "A lot of people in their shoes would give up and walk away." After all, the Ramages were in their late 60s -- an age when many people had already retired. "Instead, they made no excuses and made changes in their lifestyle" in order to pay off the debts.

"Credit cards weren't the fault," Wendall explains. "I was."

Even so, Wendall says he "panicked for a moment" when it came time to physically cut up their credit cards. "It was hard to relinquish the cards" when they'd been using them for so long, he recalls. 

To make ends meet without credit and on a drastically reduced budget, the couple eliminated dinners out, entertainment expenses and extraneous purchases. "I was starting to wonder, how many shirts or pairs of trousers does one person need?" Wendall says. He also became a master at checking prices and switching to store brands at the supermarket.

Dealing with misfortune
Their challenges were compounded when, shortly after starting the payment plan, Wendall's cancer returned. This time, the disease had advanced to Stage Four. His treatment included surgery, several rounds of radiation, and then a combination of hormones and chemotherapy that continued for several years. Wendall makes light of the grueling course of therapy, saying it gave him greater sympathy for the ways in which hormones can play havoc on one's body temperature. "When you start feeling like a volcano is spewing hot lava out the top of your head; well, that's no fun."

That wasn't the only setback, however. In 2009, Linda's private school closed, which meant the loss of her income.

Wendall continued teaching despite the physical toll his treatment was taking. One reason he got through, he says, was the support of his wife. "For years, every day when I opened my lunch at school, there was a love letter from my wife." The gesture helped him maintain his enthusiasm in the days after his cancer diagnoses and while slogging through the debt repayment plan. 

By 2012, however, Wendall no longer was able to continue teaching. Making the decision to retire was difficult: It meant another reduction in income and Wendall knew he'd miss interacting with his students.

Apparently, the students missed him as well. Groups of them would show up at his house on weekend mornings to handle yard work that Wendall no longer could manage. 

One more blow was yet to come. While the Ramages had suspected Linda had Alzheimer's disease for a while, she was officially diagnosed in early 2013.

Perseverance in the last mile
Also around this time, the combination of income reductions and medical expenses made the monthly debt repayments nearly impossible. While both Ramages remained committed to paying off their debt, Wendall negotiated a modest reduction in the monthly amount.

It was his lowest point, Wendall says. The support of his wife and others -- the Ramages are on several prayer lists -- helped him get through. Fortunately, they were far enough along in the repayment plan that the change extended their time frame by just a few months.

In fact, Wendall made the last payment in May 2013. The peace of mind from having paid off the bills "truly is a relief," Wendall says. "I found out I could live without credit cards."

Disclosure: CreditCards.com Editor in Chief Daniel P. Ray served as a judge in the award.

See related: How one Kansas couple paid down $120,000 in debt , 9 debt myths debunked , Your map through Chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcy