By Bev O'Shea

NEW YORK ( — Paul and Joan Ostroff went into debt trying to give their son, Andrew, a shot at getting past a learning disability so that he might be able to go to college.

Joan, a preschool and elementary teacher, knew something wasn't right and that their son had some learning delays. She had the public school evaluate him when he was 4 and 5, and the Ostroffs learned that he had an auditory processing disorder. However, Andrew didn't score low enough on tests to qualify for special education services, Joan said. They decided that he needed small classes and accommodation for his learning disability -- and that they would find a way to pay for the schooling that could give him the help he needed.

The first year, the tuition was $4,500, and it was close to $16,000 by the time Andrew, now 37, graduated from high school. The schools wouldn't take credit cards for tuition, so the Ostroffs paid that out of their salaries (deposits came from Paul's pay for summer camp for Army Reserves). Meanwhile, they put their living expenses on a credit card... and applied for more cards . By the time they went to Consumer Credit Counseling (now run in Philadelphia by Clarifi) for help in 2010, they owed $88,000 on about 20 credit cards.

Stretched to the Breaking Point

Though they had managed minimum payments for years, they couldn't quite do it anymore -- even with an annual income of about $90,000. Joan said the phone rang about every 10 minutes. "We couldn't have anybody over . . . It was embarrassing." Paul said letting the calls go to the answering machine was no solution either. They'd have to listen through many, many debt collector calls to find out if they had a message they needed. They felt like prisoners in their own home. "We couldn't give them the amount they wanted," Joan said. "It was causing depression and problems in our marriage" as both were on edge and looking for someone to blame.

Their credit counselor helped them add up all the debt. They hadn't known the total, just that even the minimums were more than they could pay. "He had to take it home with him," Joan recalls. But the counselor came up with a debt management plan. It involved monthly payments of $2,105, and the Ostroffs knew that two missed payments would mean they were out of the program. And, with credit scores in the 500s, the old "solution" of borrowing more was out of the question. They never missed a payment, Paul said.

Joan said they got a statement each month, and the first, listing every creditor, was four pages long. The debts were paid from highest interest rate to lowest, and they watched the statements shrink as bills were paid off.