Helen Langan Digs Herself Out of $20,000 Debt

In many respects, Helen Langan had her life together.

At 22, she was living in Washington, and working in the White House where she rubbed elbows with world leaders and jetted about on Air Force One.

While Langan was living a dream, she was also hiding a nightmare. Her spending was spiraling out of control, and she quickly accrued $20,000 of credit card debt.

"I was starting out and knew I would incur some debt living in an expensive city," said Langan, who is now a graduate student in Salt Lake City. "I was not buying things like shoes. It was more eating out with friends and buying plane tickets home or even to cover groceries."

Langan is not alone. Americans now owe about $800 billion on credit cards -- up from $273 billion in 1992. In fact, U.S. households with at least one credit card carried an average of $9,498 in credit card debt, nearly twice the level of a decade ago.

Although Langan told her parents that money was tight, the fact that she had been amassing credit card debt and owed $20,000 was a secret.

"I definitely did not tell my colleagues because I was in a professional setting and did not want to seem irresponsible," she said. "I was working such long hours that there were times I did not even open my bills. That meant I had late changes plus higher interest rates."

Langan said her debt was spread between three or four credit cards and when she moved back to Salt Lake City, she started to get calls from debt collectors. This affected her credit rating and made it difficult for her to even rent an apartment. Her friends, though, never suspected that she suffered financial woes because she got a great job doing public relations for Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

"It was very stressful," she said. "I finally approached a childhood … friend who is good with finances and told her I did not know what to do. She sat down with me, and we collected all my bills and worked out a spreadsheet of what I owed and a budget I could stick to and start to pay off my debt."

Langan, now 29, has paid off $15,000 of her debt, has a stellar credit rating, and is keeping track of her finances.

Her advice to others in debt is to bring your dirty little secrets out into the open as soon as possible.

"You can get out of it," Langan said. "But you have to really discipline yourself."