Doug Hamilton

Doug Hamilton is pictured at Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware. He is a consumer working his way out of debt. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna / January 3, 2012)

After his mother's death six years ago, Doug Hamilton says, his financial life spiraled out of control. He spent freely, didn't pay his bills on time and had creditors calling him at work.

Marlena Clay-Boone says her financial problems started as her marriage fell apart. Eventually she racked up nearly $69,000 in credit card debt.

Both Baltimoreans have spent more than a year digging themselves out of debt. And both have agreed to share their stories, figuring their experiences might encourage others to tackle debt problems, with or without assistance.

"Whether it's small or big, the debt can be deadly," Hamilton, 49, says. "It's like a cancer that can devour you. The advice is: Don't be afraid to ask for help."

As holiday credit card bills roll in, this is the time of year when many consumers vow to gain control of their finances. Nationwide, consumers have made a big dent in total debt since the recession began in late 2007 — paying off $150 billion of a $942 billion credit card bill.

Debt experts urge patience: You probably didn't fall deep into the red overnight, so you can't expect to eradicate debt quickly either. It may take years of budgeting and faithful payments to get on track.

You can do this on your own, and many have. But others need help. Hamilton and Clay-Boone, for instance, turned to Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware, based in Catonsville, to get their finances in order.

The nonprofit offers free budget counseling and sometimes refers clients to social services to address underlying problems such as drug and gambling addictions.

About 20 percent of the agency's clients enter a debt-management plan, in which a counselor negotiates more favorable terms with card issuers. The client is then put on a repayment schedule that can last up to five years. Consumers pay a program fee of up to $35 a month, although that's sometimes waived. To qualify, clients must have enough income to pay bills, with some left over for emergencies.

Jim Godfrey, president of the counseling agency, says the number of people enrolling in debt management has fallen by one-quarter in the past year or so.

"People are so far in the hole that it's difficult to do anything for them," Godfrey says. "We have referred more people to seek legal assistance."

That can mean filing for bankruptcy.

Hamilton and Clay-Boone say that wasn't an option for them.

Hamilton, a sales representative, has been downsized twice in his career. He now works for ADT Security Services in Columbia and is paid only through commissions.

"If you're doing well, you make a great amount of money," says Hamilton, who says he earned about $70,000 last year. "If you're doing poorly, you could make no money."

Hamilton says that he never had great financial planning skills and that things only got worse after his mother died.

"It made me not care about a lot of things," he says.

He spent lavishly on friends, eating out and traveling. He was late paying bills, and penalties accrued.

"It was a horrible snowball rolling down a hill," he says.