Sometimes the Only Way Out of Debt is Up

On the first day of classes, the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus and its towering “Cathedral of Learning” welcome thousands of new and returning students. Among them this year is Tiffany Landis, a 33-year-old mother of three. Tiffany went from being a stay-at-home mom and military wife to helping make ends meet by becoming a real estate agent. Now she has gone back to school to get her degree in social work and the career she has always wanted. For her family, she hopes the new career will also mean a better salary, but because she was a late acceptance, she is scrambling to sign up for classes.

High School Sweethearts

Tiffany married her high school sweetheart the year after she graduated. Her husband joined the military and she stayed home to raise their children. Over the years, they grew to a family of five and were able to travel all over the world together. They lived in Germany for a while as well as Florida, and now Pennsylvania is where they call home. But it has been a bumpy ride.

While her husband was still in the military, Tiffany’s son was diagnosed as autistic and needed specialized care. He was covered by her husband’s military health benefits, but much of what the boy needed wasn’t covered. At one point, her son needed surgery that cost $65,000; the insurance paid just $7,000. The other children had their own issues too, like a badly broken arm that required a complex setting, costing the family thousands of dollars even after insurance kicked in. Over time, the medical bills mounted. Tiffany had very little credit card debt; she only owed a few hundred dollars here and there that had been charged more out of convenience than necessity. But as her children’s medical bills became due, it got harder to pay her credit cards off each month.

Looking For That White Picket Fence

When Tiffany’s husband left the military, they had money saved from his deployment but no new income. He needed short-term disability, which the Veterans Administration was taking a long time to approve. The family was hopeful he would find work with a decent salary after his years of service, and felt they were finally going to fulfill their dream of a house with a white picket fence.

The family had $30,000 in the bank and a plan. They moved to their hometown, a small railroading city in rural Maryland, where living costs were low. However, for a family of five even $30,000 doesn’t last forever, especially when one of the children has special needs.

Within nine months, they had to start using credit cards to get by, and their debt kept mounting. They missed a few payments, which made it even harder to keep up.

“My credit tanked. From 715 to 588,” said Tiffany. “[My husband] couldn’t work and I had never worked before. And that lasted for almost a year.” It was 2010 and the job market was tight.

To make ends meet, Tiffany started working as a bartender. The hours were long and late, so she didn’t get to see her children as much as she would have liked, and the pay wasn’t great. Her husband’s aunt was friends with the owner of a local real estate office. When real estate classes started, she asked Tiffany if she would like to join. Tiffany used her credit cards to fund the courses and obtained her real estate license after a few months. The local real estate market was stable so soon she was earning enough to make ends meet, but it still wasn’t quite enough.

An Eye On The Future

Despite her best efforts, things just weren’t going right. Her husband was receiving disability payments and getting better, but he was having a tough time finding a paying job. He saw that he needed a degree if he was going to be able to support his family, and Tiffany knew she would need one too if she were going to be able to contribute a meaningful amount to the household finances. In the end, she and her husband decided to go back to school to get the degrees that would warrant the salaries needed to repair their credit situation. That’s when things started to turn around for the couple and their family.

Without taking on any new debt, they were able to take living stipends from their student loans to pay bills. Their son with special needs qualified for a state medical card that will cover his care, and even though they are not paying things off, Tiffany and her husband are able to maintain a level of comfort while they study for their degrees. She has been working with the Veterans Administration in a work-study program and is on track to get her degree in social work in a few years. Her husband is involved in engineering and works as a research assistant while he studies for his Ph.D.

“One day, our salaries will be high enough that we can afford to take care of everything. For now, we are maintaining,” said Tiffany. “We can afford everything we need and most of what we want with a little planning, and that’s OK with us.”

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