When Wendall Ramage was diagnosed in 2001 with prostate cancer
and given five years to live, he initially thought the news
"entitled me to anything I wanted," he says. Resentment over his
cancer diagnosis fueled a spend-like-there's-no-tomorrow spree.
Wendall and his wife Linda hadn't been big spenders before, but
credit cards soon became a means of paying for dinners out,
electronics and concerts. Oh, the concerts: The Ramages took in
acts ranging from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to the Rolling
By 2008, the couple's credit card balances topped $50,000.
Although the Ramages were paying about $100 more than the minimum
required, it was clear they still faced many years of
So the couple took action. They began working with Consumer
Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Middle Georgia to come up with
a repayment plan. Five years later, despite another round of cancer
treatment, additional health issues and two sooner-than-expected
retirements, Wendall and Linda Ramage are free of credit card
Their achievement is so impressive that the
for Credit Counseling
has awarded them its Client of the Year award, given out Tuesday
night at the organization's annual meeting. The organization gives
the honor to individuals or couples who overcome great odds to pay
off their debt.
The Ramages, who live in Forsyth, Ga., are now both 71 and just
celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary. They began dating while
attending Georgia Southern University. After graduating, both went
into teaching. Linda taught elementary school for more than 30
years, while Wendall taught a variety of subjects in high school,
including philosophy and drama. And both Ramages were extras in the
movie, "Fried Green Tomatoes." Along the way, he was designated a
Star Teacher a dozen times, and his students' productions of
several one-act plays he'd written won multiple state
To come up with a payment plan, the Ramages met with CCCS
counselor Nicole Caldwell. "They definitely stood out," Caldwell
says. "A lot of people in their shoes would give up and walk away."
After all, the Ramages were in their late 60s -- an age when many
people had already retired. "Instead, they made no excuses and made
changes in their lifestyle" in order to pay off the debts.
"Credit cards weren't the fault," Wendall explains. "I was."
Even so, Wendall says he "panicked for a moment" when it came
time to physically cut up their credit cards. "It was hard to
relinquish the cards" when they'd been using them for so long, he
To make ends meet without credit and on a drastically reduced
budget, the couple eliminated dinners out, entertainment expenses
and extraneous purchases. "I was starting to wonder, how many
shirts or pairs of trousers does one person need?" Wendall says. He
also became a master at checking prices and switching to store
brands at the supermarket.
Dealing with misfortune
Their challenges were compounded when, shortly after starting the
payment plan, Wendall's cancer returned. This time, the disease had
advanced to Stage Four. His treatment included surgery, several
rounds of radiation, and then a combination of hormones and
chemotherapy that continued for several years. Wendall makes light
of the grueling course of therapy, saying it gave him greater
sympathy for the ways in which hormones can play havoc on one's
body temperature. "When you start feeling like a volcano is spewing
hot lava out the top of your head; well, that's no fun."
That wasn't the only setback, however. In 2009, Linda's private
school closed, which meant the loss of her income.
Wendall continued teaching despite the physical toll his
treatment was taking. One reason he got through, he says, was the
support of his wife. "For years, every day when I opened my lunch
at school, there was a love letter from my wife." The gesture
helped him maintain his enthusiasm in the days after his cancer
diagnoses and while slogging through the debt repayment
By 2012, however, Wendall no longer was able to continue
teaching. Making the decision to retire was difficult: It meant
another reduction in income and Wendall knew he'd miss interacting
with his students.
Apparently, the students missed him as well. Groups of them
would show up at his house on weekend mornings to handle yard work
that Wendall no longer could manage.
One more blow was yet to come. While the Ramages had suspected
Linda had Alzheimer's disease for a while, she was officially
diagnosed in early 2013.
Perseverance in the last mile
Also around this time, the combination of income reductions and
medical expenses made the monthly debt repayments nearly
impossible. While both Ramages remained committed to paying off
their debt, Wendall negotiated a modest reduction in the monthly
It was his lowest point, Wendall says. The support of his wife
and others -- the Ramages are on several prayer lists -- helped him
get through. Fortunately, they were far enough along in the
repayment plan that the change extended their time frame by just a
In fact, Wendall made the last payment in May 2013. The peace of
mind from having paid off the bills "truly is a relief," Wendall
says. "I found out I could live without credit cards."
Disclosure: CreditCards.com Editor in Chief
Daniel P. Ray
served as a judge in the award.
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