Jean Reilly is a recovering addict; she was hooked not on heroin but on plastic. Her highs came from buying designer clothes, eating in gourmet restaurants and going on exotic vacations, all the while crying happily, "Charge it!" Reilly, 32 and single, an office manager for a Phoenix government agency, lived far beyond her means and didn't think twice. She didn't have to. Just as she would reach the spending limit on her more than two dozen charge cards, new ones would arrive in the mail. "They're like pushers, "she says, "and you don't turn them down anymore than a junkie would turn down a free fix."

Reilly hit bottom in 1984 when all her bills seemed to come due at once. Rather than endure the humiliation of bankruptcy ("I was a slow pay, but never a no pay"), she sought help from the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a nationwide nonprofit organization that, for a sliding-scale fee, helps people budget their money and pay their debts.

According to John Erickson, head of the group's Phoenix branch, Reilly is just one of thousands of Americans on the brink of personal financial ruin. "This year will be the year of credit card Armageddon," he predicts, "because the credit reins will be tightening and a lot of people will be left with a life-style they can't support."

Reilly vows that she will never again be among them. She spoke with correspondent Lee Wohlfert about the long struggle to regain her financial footing.

I learned the trick of getting credit cards in the winter of 1980. I had just arrived in Phoenix and was working part-time as a waitress and as a secretary. I applied for a couple of cards, and even though I was making only $12,000 a year, they came. So I began sending out applications en masse. These companies don't have the staff to check out every application for duplicates, and anyway, what they want is the 18 or 20 percent you pay in interest. So they send you a credit line for five grand and see how it goes.

This was the first time I had ever been on my own and managing my own finances. I just got carried away with the status that went with having these cards. They made me feel very responsible, that I had everything under control. Moreover, the plastic and the things it made available provided a certain sense of self-worth that maybe I didn't feel at the time. I thought, "Look at this power you have. You must be worth something if all these people keep giving you all this money." In the back of my mind I had every intention of not screwing up. If I bought something, I'd think, okay, I'll be able to take care of that one next month.

Eventually I had about 28 cards—five Visas, two MasterCards, one American Express, one from Tiffany, five airline cards, plus accounts at I. Magnin, Broadway stores, Goldwaters, Diamond's, two mail order houses, a few specialty jewelry stores, that kind of thing. My biggest charges were for day-to-day living. Clothes were a real downfall. I'd shop at I. Magnin, one of the most expensive places in town. At home I always had a lot of exotic flowers. I thought nothing of ordering $100 arrangements. My bed is a four-poster antique I bought at a yard sale for $125. It came with its own mattress and box spring, but I had to have new ones, which cost $1,000. And I had to have them that day, which was another $60. Those extra charges meant nothing to me.

It got to the point where I couldn't even eat at McDonald's. For that you need cash, and I didn't have any. I always paid my rent and utilities, but what was left from my paycheck just barely covered the minimums on my cards. Sometimes I'd pay one credit card off by using another.

By 1984 I knew the end was coming. I was kiting, writing four or five checks beyond my limit, hoping they wouldn't be cashed until I had gotten my next paycheck. I was in over my head, but that just made me say, "I'm going down in a big way, I might as well enjoy it," and I proceeded to indulge in my most extravagant spending. In the spring I took a 3½-week hot-air ballooning trip in Europe. I paid for that with a couple of cash advances. While I was there I bought a silver perfume vial for $700, and later back in Phoenix, I went on a shopping spree with a friend. In three hours I spent $2,000, including $150 for a silly cotton skirt. I was making only $1,000 a month, but all I could think was, "I need that skirt."

It was a downward spiral from then on. One day I went into a jewelry store thinking, "I need diamond stud earrings." I didn't see any earrings I liked, but I did find this $500 gold watch. At Christmastime, I did all my shopping at Tiffany, even for my 2-year-old niece.

Then one day, about a month later, I came home to find a stack of about 30 bills waiting for me. They all arrived at the same time. In all, I owed $22,000. Soon afterward collection agents started calling. They'd call me at work all day long and shriek at me over the phone. At home the phone would ring until 9 at night. They have to stop at 9. Thank goodness. Whoever made that law was a human.

Even worse than the financial crunch, though, was the emotional crisis I was in. I couldn't believe how low I had sunk. I felt I was worthless, absolute garbage. I locked myself in my bedroom, crouched in a corner and seriously contemplated suicide. I considered bankruptcy, but the lawyers I called explained that that wasn't an easy process. It would have cost about $700 just to file for it. Then there's the blow to your self-esteem. I figured, I got myself into this, it was up to me to get myself out.

Looking back over the past few years, it amazes me that there was no one who even tried to stop me—not the stores, not the banks. They'd always figure some way to extend my credit. I could have just stopped at my minimum, charged no more and paid off my debts. I actually went to a shrink to try to find out why I didn't. He said, "We could stay here for about 20 years and try to figure it out, or you could just not do it again." I chose the latter.

Through the Yellow Pages I found the Consumer Credit Counseling Service. They have been my saviors. The first thing they did was take all my credit cards and cut them up. I went into a serious depression afterward. Rehabilitation has been horrible, as bad as any heroin addict getting off, except in my case they don't give you methadone. You don't get half a card. You just go cold turkey.

One of the first things I did was sell all my camera equipment and jewelry, at least those things I could find buyers for. Then, with the cooperation of my creditors, CCCS put me on a program, taking three-quarters of my salary to pay my bills gradually, leaving me $500 to live on each month. Every time I make a payment, I try to think about something nice that I spent the money on. That makes it a little easier.

Fortunately, most of the clothes I splurged on were good investments, but a lot of them are sitting in my closet wadded up into a ball because I can't afford to have them dry-cleaned. In the beginning the budget was so tight that I'd have to take a vacation day before payday because I would only have enough gasoline to go to work one more time. That had to be on payday.

My boss knows everything, and he's been great. I've worked hard and have gotten raises, so I now make $28,000 a year, which certainly helps a lot. For the first year, though, I worked as a phone solicitor until 9 at night just to make some pocket money. It's taken me 3½ years to get to this point, about as long as it did to hit bottom, and I still owe $1,000.

My life-style is very different now. I do date, but I'm not an easy woman to get along with. I never go dutch. My mother has taken over my $3,500 student loan, and I no longer do Christmas. Now everyone just gets cards.

The hard part is knowing that the American dream is no longer a reality for me. I can't even think of things like a house or a vacation. After I pay everything off, I'll be at ground zero, just beginning again. And even now I have incredible urges just to run plastic through a machine. I hope the counselors at CCCS will give me a hand on how to handle things when I have money again. I don't want to just throw it away.

  • Contributors:
  • Lee Wohlfert.