Think you can’t pay off your debts? Meet the Ramages

Wendell and Linda Ramage could give Congress and the Obama administration some lessons on paying off massive debt.

As we watch our leaders debate over the federal government’s debt ceiling, I can’t help but admire the story of these two retired teachers from Florida, both 71, who sacrificed and went without so they could pay off $50,000 in credit card debt they had accumulated because of medical expenses and overspending. Certainly their debt situation isn’t as complicated or as large relative to the federal government, but it’s the couple’s resolve to buckle down and pay off their bills and stop living beyond their means that should be a lesson for our government.

The couple was honored recently as client of the year by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

During an awards ceremony in Denver, Wendell explained why he began running up credit card debt. It was after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001 and told he had about four years to live.

“I think, inside, I felt that having terminal cancer entitled me to get whatever I wanted, and so I was reckless with credit cards,” he said during a video that was played.

But his cancer went into remission. And it was then he realized that, no matter what, he didn’t want to leave an inheritance of debt to his wife. The couple recently celebrated their 49th anniversary. He recalled the sandwiches his wife would make for him each day and how on top she would place a love note.

Once their debt reached $50,000, they started paying $100 over the minimum payment each month. “We soon realized … it was going to take us many years to pay off all of our debt,” Wendell said. “We also knew that retirement was around the corner for both of us, which would mean a significant reduction in income.”

The Ramages decided bankruptcy wasn’t an option — not because they wouldn’t qualify to erase their debts or that it was wrong to seek relief. They just felt an obligation to pay their debts. So they contacted a nonprofit credit-counseling agency — the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Middle Georgia — and were put on a debt management plan in 2008.

Ah, but life got in the way again. Soon after starting the plan, Wendell was diagnosed with a more advanced stage 4 prostate cancer — again with a prognosis of four to five years to live. He was no longer able to keep up with his duties as a teacher and so he retired after 32 years. Then the school where his wife had been teaching for 32 years closed. She too retired. The bad news kept coming. In January, Linda was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

With their income reduced, the couple worked with Nicole Caldwell, their credit counselor, to rework their debt reduction plan. The key is they didn’t stop trying. “We would not let life get in the way of us finishing,” Wendell said. “We had to make a lot of sacrifices, many of them hard, but it was necessary.”

They ate a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup during the home stretch of their debt payment plan, Caldwell said during the awards program.

Their debt management plan had them repaying nine credit cards with a total debt of $50,957. Their monthly payment was $1,081, and the average interest rates were reduced by 9 percent. With the return of cancer and reduction in their income, it became difficult to make their original monthly payment. Working with creditors and the counseling service, they got the payment reduced to $768 in 2012.

On May 6, the couple dropped off their last debt payment.

“Even with difficult life situations such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and reduction in income, Wendell and Linda always exhibit a positive attitude and dedication to pay off their debt,” Caldwell said.

Wendell, with Linda by his side, accepted their award and their story left many of us in the audience in tears.

“We made it,” he said, his voice shaking. Then he gave a thumbs up.

The couple is now doing great financially. Wendell even started a job at a prison teaching inmates and preparing them to take the General Educational Development (GED) tests, which, when passed, allow people to earn a high school equivalency diploma.

The Ramages are a real inspiration for paying off debt, and their story should serve as a lesson to us all.

Michelle Singletary: michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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