Aug. 19, 2010 -- Heidi Crum, a certified public accountant, staffing business owner and single mother of twin 9-year-old boys, made around $100,000 a year before the recession.
Last year, the staffing business tanked 40 percent, franchise sales became nearly nonexistent and the consulting work she had been doing for nearly a decade ended.
"Given those circumstances and the significant economic recession, I blew through my six months of short-term savings and put $60,000 on credit cards," she said.
A new study released by CareOne Debt Relief Services found that savvy, professional women like Crum were particularly vulnerable.
The study, "Women, Debt and the Recession: A Snapshot of the Changing Face of Debt in America" reported that 45 percent of women seeking debt relief assistance have more than $50,000 in debt -- up from 33 percent just two years ago. The study also reported a 38 percent increase in the portion of women seeking debt assistance with an annual household income greater than $60,000.
The recession left in its wake a new class of women, unaccustomed to significant debt and looking for help.
Those out of the workforce for many years had outdated skills and other women couldn't find new jobs in their fields after layoffs.
They were whipping out credit cards to pay for groceries, doctor bills, utilities and emergencies. "Once you're in debt, things can spiral out of control in a hurry if you don't have an emergency fund. Maybe you decide to get a personal loan to pay the mortgage. Once you start borrowing to pay your expenses, you're headed into major debt," said Beverly Blair Harzog, a spokesperson for CardRatings.com.
When it comes to debt, how you get out of it is just as important as not going there in the first place.
"Significant debt can be paralyzing, especially for women who are new to taking on large debt. It can be intimidating and overwhelming to tackle, especially if you don't know where to start," said Michael Rozbruch, founder of Tax Resolution Services.
Rozbruch said the key to beating debt is to take bite-sized baby steps.
Get the facts. Figure out how much you owe, what interest rate you're paying and how long it will take to pay off the debt using the stated monthly payment. Transfer balances to lower interest rate cards.
Other certified financial planners advise paying off the debt with the highest interest rates first and to design an action plan that will bolster income and lower expenses.
What you don't want to do, is get additional credit lines that will enable you to keep spending, though you can't afford it.
"Many people also fall into the trap of Band-Aid solutions and false promises, such as debt negotiation and settlement, which appear to be easy ways to make debt disappear, but, in reality, your credit is destroyed and fees are greater than expected," said Todd Mark, vice president of Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Greater Dallas.
If you decide to seek professional help, consider a non-profit credit counseling agency.
They can review your finances and get you back on course.
But be careful about where you go for help.
The Federal Trade Commission issued new rules last month cracking down on debt settlement companies, which have been criticized for their low success rates, high fees and fraud.
Last March, Crum sought help from an agency that helped consolidate her credit card debt and developed a plan that allows her to pay one monthly amount that will rid her of that debt in five years.
She has stopped using her cards and relies on cash. Her staffing business is moving back up and she has a couple of additional consulting clients, though at a rate of 25-45 percent less per hour.
"I was lucky that I didn't have to dive into my 401k and IRAs," she said. "I'm fortunate to still have my home."