Wilmer Swerdfeger, 51, knows how to manage stress well. After all, he works as an emergency medical technician (EMT) with a 911 ambulance service in Tehachapi, about 40 miles southeast from his home in Bakersfield, California.
“You see it all, it’s pretty eye opening here,” he says about his work, which he started in 2008. His wife Kimberly, 56, works as a substitute teacher, but she doesn’t have steady work.
Still, they managed with their expenses and always paid their bills on time. Wilmer likes to maintain a high credit score, over 800. He had no idea how useful it would suddenly become until last year when he and Kimberly decided to make a rare splurge with a credit card—a $12,000 SteelMaster shed in their backyard.
“We’re going to make a workshop in it,” Wilmer said. Specifically, an art studio where their daughter, Brittany, 30, can work on her pottery and paintings.
They had saved up $5,000 for it, and put $7,000 on a Bank of America credit card, free of interest for one year. They planned to pay it off before the 12-month grace period.
Suddenly, though, a series of events caused them to pile on more debt, just as that one-year deadline started to loom. First, Kimberly started having blurry vision.
Wilmer took her to the eye doctor and discovered she had a hole in her retina. She needed surgery right away.
Wilmer’s insurance covered 90 percent of the cost. Kimberly needed two procedures on her eye for $30,000 each. That brought the cost down to $3,000 each — but now they owed a total of $6,000 for the eye surgery.
“You don’t want to mess around with your eyes,” he said. “You handle that quick. Whatever the cost, you just pay it.”
He drove Kimberly home only to find that their air conditioner had stopped working. Daily highs were around 110, typical for that time of year in Bakersfield. There was no alternative—they had to buy a new air conditioner right away.
“Within a matter of months I’m $15,000-16,000 in credit card debt,” Wilmer said.
“I thought, ‘We’re going to be swimming with the sharks if we don’t do something,” he said. They started looking for ways to consolidate their debt, but Wilmer says the banks he turned to only offered high interest rate loans.
“Life throws stuff at you,” he said. “You think everything’s going great and all of a sudden you get something thrown at you.”
Now he was struggling with the stress. But recently Wilmer checked his mailbox and found a laminated advertisement from Figure. He didn’t know anything about the company but decided to call and see what offer he could get. Turned out Figure offered his best option — a $24,000 HELOC at 5.75 percent.
Wilmer says other companies told him to take out extra money to go on a trip or get a new wardrobe.
“That’s terrible advice!” he said, outraged. But Figure recommended he take out only what they needed. “The others really wanted me to tap into my equity,” he said. “They wanted to fulfill their needs, not mine.”
With the Figure HELOC, he paid off his debt, and the Swerdfegers even had some left over to finish paying off a new roof they’d put in over their house.
One can hear the relief in Wilmer’s voice. Rather than have a bunch of different bills to pay, Wilmer only needs to make payments on their mortgage and their Figure loan.
Despite substitute teaching only providing occasional work, Kimberly now has the freedom to dedicate most of her time to helping the homeless through two ministries. One is called Poverty Fighters and the other is Mansion of Life, which helps single moms on the street.
Of course, Wilmer can’t stop thinking of ways to further streamline his life, and his finances. One idea is to buy some land up in Tehachapi and move his family closer to work. That would eliminate most of his commute—and allow them to rent out their Bakersfield home for extra income.
“That would be perfect, both for the finances and the credit score,” he says.
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