Digging out of Debt


"There's no contract like that anywhere else in America," said Warren, a contract law expert who admits that even she has trouble understanding some of the terms of credit card agreements. "They're deciding all the rules."

"We agree that the disclosures could be better," said Feddis. But she also argued that some responsibility has to fall on the consumer. "Pay off at the end of the month and pay no interest. Every cardholder has that opportunity. They make that choice."

They Never Stopped Spending

In the Peterson case, a series of bad choices contributed to their massive debt. Six years ago, Matt lost his job and spent more than a year out of work. During that time, Suzie decided to open two scrapbooking stores. When her business folded last year, they ended up losing about $200,000 -- most of it borrowed money. There were also some bad real estate and stock investments.

Even as their financial situation worsened, however, the Petersons continued to spend. Last year alone, they took three vacations -- a cruise through the Carribean, a trip to Whistler, Canada and another to Hawaii.

The cruise was a contest prize, while other expenses were covered by their time shares. But all together, those vacations still cost the Petersons $4,000.

Matt concedes the vacations may have been unwise, given their dire finances. "OK, we need to be punished, I guess," he said.

Suzie, however, has no regrets. She saw the vacations as a way to bond with her daughters. "The cruise was my gift to my family."

'The Ship Is Starting to Go Down'

To help them dig out from under all of their debts, "20/20" introduced the Petersons to financial planner Robert Pagliarini, author of "The Six-Day Financial Makeover," a step-by-step guide to transforming your financial life.

After reviewing the Petersons' financial records, Pagliarini calculated that they were about five months away from bankruptcy. All of their debts translated to a loss of $200 each day.

Pagliarini, the president of Pacifica Wealth Advisors in Los Angeles, likened the Peterson's situation to the Titanic.

"You've already hit the iceberg," he explained. "The ship is starting to go down. That's the bad news. The good news is you still have a small window of opportunity to make some changes."

Taking Action

Pagliarini devised a six-month action plan to rescue the Petersons from economic ruin. First, he advised them to dump their expensive time shares, even though this will mean the Petersons will lose $46,000 on their investment.

Pagliarini hopes they can recoup some of those losses by also selling their home and their second rental property. He believes those transactions will net the Petersons about $113,000.

Pagliarini then wants the Petersons to use that money to pay off their $60,000 credit card debts. If they take all of these steps, Pagliarini believes, the Petersons will actually have a few thousand dollars leftover to save and invest.

The catch? It's an all or nothing proposition. "Do all the big things or do none of them, because if you just do one, two or three, it's not going to work," said Pagliarini.

Matt Peterson is excited by Pagliarini's plan. "We can't wait. I mean we literally can't wait," he said.

Suzie was less enthused, saying, "We have no place to live and $3,000."

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