LOGAN -- When Erica Abbott's husband lost his job in 2010, she said it didn't feel like the end of the world.
But it would have had it happened a couple years earlier, back when Abbott and husband Reuben were carrying $20,000 in student loans and consumer debt.
"It was the least-stressful thing," said Abbott, now 25, who recently taught two Utah State University workshops on Financial Planning for Women (workshop schedule, www.usu.edu/fpw).
"We didn't have to worry about paying on student loans or credit cards. We had some savings, and we just spent on the basic necessities. There was nothing else we needed to worry about."
Her husband found another job within a month or so, but Abbott still enjoys telling her story to inspire others.
"It's freedom," she said, of clearing her debt. "I just wanted to yell at the top of my lungs and tell everyone that this is possible. It takes some time and effort, but you can do it. There are small things you can do, baby steps, but they add up, and you build on your small successes."
The talk was about PowerPay (www.powerpay.org), a free online debt-elimination program developed by Utah State University Extension agent Dean Miner.
The site has more than 100,000 registered users. People can create a personal account with password, then use a form to type in a list of their creditors, credit rates and monthly payments. No personal information or credit card numbers are used, so there is no risk of financial information getting into the wrong hands. You can even use code words for your creditors, if you're worried.
The program then makes a chart listing how many monthly payments it will take the user to clear the debt, assuming:
* You will make the same minimum monthly payment as now even as your balance drops, even through your creditor's bills will say your minimum payment has been lowered.
* Once a creditor is paid off, the full amount of payment money that becomes available will be applied to the next creditor, then the next, and so on.
* No new debt will be incurred by further use of the credit cards, except in cases of true emergency and with the knowledge that paying off debt will take longer. The PowerPay website recently added guidelines to help people build funds to cover common financial emergencies.
* Applying any extra money from decreased living expenses (the site has a budgeting feature), increased income (perhaps from a second job), money gifts, tax returns or other sources, will speed up debt elimination.
* The program user can decide which debts to pay off first. Debt clears faster if the accounts with the highest interest rates are cleared first, but some people like to pay off minor debts first because the "small victories" help them stay motivated, Abbott said.
* Once debt is paid off, payment money can be used to build savings quickly.
Miner now works in Utah County USU Extension office, where his specialties include finances.
"The key to its success has been that people can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Miner said. "They can see the projections of what will happen if they follow the simple guidelines, keeping total payments constant, and rolling money over, and not incurring new debt. They see the debt repayment calendar, and how quickly they can get out of debt and save on interest costs. It greatly increases the chances they will follow through."
For those who adhere to the rules and don't add to their debt, the original debt can be paid off months or years earlier than it would without PowerPay.
The website shows participants the time difference.
Miner said the program is based on timeless principles that are well known, and that similar programs are available online, but the PowerPay program brings all the principles together and offers the service for free.
He helped create PowerPay about 20 years ago, Miner said.
"It was a spreadsheet template first, then we did a CD version that we made available mainly to financial counselors to use with clients. About six years ago, we decided to make it available to people who wanted to create their own self-directed debt elimination plan."
The CD version was made available to personnel on 150 military bases, Miner said.
"I still get contacts every now and then from Turkey and Okinawa," he said. "I've had dozens of people send me emails saying they had cleared $10,000 to $40,000 within a few years. A lot of them say they became financial counselors on their own, to help other people."
Miner said a lot of people print out their original debt repayment schedule and check off each monthly payment they make.
"I see old printouts with coffee stains, or oatmeal from the kids' breakfast," he said. "They pay off their debt over a three- to five-year period, and they become very invested in the program and in that first piece of paper."