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Related topics: debt, debt reduction, credit card, credit counseling, Donna Freedman

Travis Pizel and his family enjoyed 14 years of good living: a custom-built home, shopping sprees, dinners out, plenty of toys for the kids, splendid vacations, new cars every four years.

"We just got into a mindset of 'We deserve it. We're going to do it,'" says Pizel, of Rochester, Minn.

He and his wife had "multiple" credit cards; he won't say how many. When forced to confront the debt, he was "absolutely shocked" to find they owed $109,000 -- almost as much as they earned in a year.

"When I added it up in my head," he says, "it was always around $60,000 or $70,000."

A shocking money realization is often triggered by a crisis, such as job loss or a change in interest rates. It may also develop as a feeling that something isn't right: "I make a decent salary, so where did it all go?"

Image: Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

Or maybe it's a forehead-slapping epiphany: "If I'd signed up for the 401k when I got this job, I'd have three years of matched retirement savings by now!"

Your financial foul-up may be due to a simple lack of knowledge, i.e., growing up with no financial education or role models in handling money. The roots may be psychological, such a fear of money-related conflict. Or perhaps you simply followed the rampant consumerism you saw around you.

Whether you're overpaying for insurance or repeating your parents' financial mistakes, there's always a chance to start over. Read on to see how others dealt with their money blunders.

It's just hard to say 'no'

Pizel realized he was in the conflict-avoidance camp, unable to say "no" to anything his family wanted. "I didn't want to have that argument," says the 37-year-old computer programmer. "I didn't want to have that fight about money."

Then came a letter from the company that issued five of their credit cards, announcing that the minimum monthly payment would rise from 1% to 2.5% of the balances. This meant an extra $900 per month. Pizel knew they couldn't cover it.

He broke the news to his wife, who had no idea they owed so much, since he'd always handled the bills. This could have been a classic money-killing marriage issue. But they sought help from CareOne Credit Services, a debt management company. CareOne negotiated lower interest rates, and the Pizels are paying back the entire amount, at the rate of $2,489 per month for five years -- more than their mortgage payment.

Now, 18 months into the debt repayment program, Pizel has had a second shocking money realization: Overspending for 14 years meant contributing less, both then and now, to retirement and college funds.

"All those years lost . . ." he says.

These days, he shares their story on CareOne's "My Journey Out of Debt" blog. He wants others to learn not from their mistakes, but rather from their progress.

But I'm spending for the family!

Saying "no" can be especially hard when family is asking. Gwen R. gave her adult children money for 20 years. "Once you've helped them . . . it seems like they kind of expect it," says the coastal California resident.

She contributed thousands toward a grandchild's tuition because her son couldn't afford it. Until recently, she sent $500 a month to a divorced daughter with two children in college, stopping only because she felt the children's father should help more.

Gwen's daughter called with a suggestion that she said came from her attorney: Why didn't her mother give her money every month as part of her inheritance?

"I thought that was kind of tacky," says Gwen.

Now she gives money only occasionally -- and only if she feels she can afford it. "If I do it too much, they'll think that the Bank of Mom is open and they could get money any time they wanted."

Cynthia M., who lives in Southern California, frequently lent money to a daughter with a ne'er-do-well husband -- everything from a down payment on their first home to money for everyday expenses like utilities and groceries.

(Thinking of confronting a family member in a similar situation? Read this first: "Can you stop a money train wreck?")

"I could have done the tough-love thing, but I have grandkids who needed to eat," says Cynthia.

Five years ago, she decided the bailouts enabled her son-in-law to remain irresponsible. Ultimately the marriage ended; Cynthia's daughter, who held sole title to the home, sold it and returned every dime she had ever borrowed.

That money is now flowing back to Cynthia's daughter, to the tune of $1,000 per month -- the amount that the soon-to-be-ex-husband agreed to pay in support, but never has.

"She can't make it through the month on what she earns," says Cynthia. However, her daughter now has a careful budget -- if you need a simple one, try the 50-30-20 budget -- and she will stop accepting money as soon as she can make it on her own.

John Graves, a financial adviser to both women, says many of his older clients are besieged by their adult children. "Invariably, the money is never paid back," says Graves, of The Renaissance Group. He urges them not to disclose their assets, lest they be pressured into making such "loans."

Would you like debt with that?

Sometimes a financial drain is subtler. La Donna Bonner had two part-time jobs and three teenagers with extracurricular activities, so it was no wonder that money was tight. But she knew her money should have been going further than it was.

Two years ago, she decided to save her receipts for a few months. Adding them up, she got the shock of her life: She had been spending up to $150 every week on fast food.

"It was so easy to just take that Visa card and swipe," says Bonner, who lives in Marin City, Calif.

Burgers and burritos have become a thing of the past. Instead, Bonner plans her shopping carefully for healthy at-home eating, and pacs extra meals for her kids when they have after-school activities.

If you need to button up your own food budget, see "22 ways to slash your grocery bill," "How to get groceries for free" and "Save with scratch-and-dent food."

The money that Bonner is not spending on french fries now goes into three individual development accounts at EARN, a nonprofit that helps low-income workers move toward prosperity. These accounts will help her kids pay for college.

"We've replaced the money we spent on fast food for money on education," Bonner says.

According to EARN financial coach Saundra Davis, people often fail to link daily behavior with future goals. A dollar spent on fast food is a dollar that can't go toward debt repayment; money spent on a shopping spree can't go into a college fund.

"That's where the choice lies," Davis says.

Question every expense, advises Jeanette Pavini. For three years, she drove to her job in the San Francisco area, a stressful commute that cost $550 per month for parking.

Then one day it hit her: public transit. Pavini switched to paying $110 a month for a Caltrain GO Pass, saving thousands of dollars a year.

"It's something people don't think about because we're so used to driving," says Pavini, a household savings expert for Coupons.com. Read "The real reason you're broke" for more on the cost of owning a car.

'Why did you wait so long?'

Susan and her husband are now bankrupt and living cash-only, after following some bad advice from relatives: "Buying a home is always a wise investment" and "opening your own insurance office in a down economy is OK." In addition, she paid some start-up costs for the office with a credit card.

Her clients reduced or canceled insurance as the economy worsened. Her husband's hours on his construction job were cut by half. Susan believed they would somehow catch up, but finally they gave in and filed for bankruptcy in summer 2010. In bankruptcy court she was asked, "Why did you wait so long?"

Almost immediately, they began receiving credit card offers. But Susan vows they will never use plastic again.

"Living on credit and beyond one's means is not worth it," she says.

Getting help

Most financial problems, even longstanding ones, can be fixed. But they must first be acknowledged. And that means tracking your spending. Financial management sites such as Mint.com and Bundle make budgeting simple.

Obviously you'll want to reduce expenses wherever possible. But you need a plan. What do you want your money to do for you? Where do you want to be in one, five or 10 years? Write down the answers to these questions. Then look for help.

Hit the library for personal finance books by reputable authors, such as MSN Money's Liz Weston. Ask about financial education programs or classes at credit unions, nonprofits or community colleges.

Glean information from websites such as MSN Money, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and CareOne's "Tools & Tips" page.

You may be eligible for free financial coaching. Start by contacting 211.org to see whether the United Way in your area offers this service. Other potential sources for coaching are first-time-homebuyer programs, credit unions, housing advocacy groups, social service agencies, community development groups and other nonprofits. Ask, and keep asking.

The NFCC offers help with goal-setting and budgeting strategies. To find an NFCC counselor, call 1-800-388-2227 (for Spanish, 1-800-682-9832).

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You may be more comfortable hiring someone to help you. Make sure your adviser is a "fiduciary," someone who has a duty to put your interests first.

Keep at it, even if you feel it's too late in the game to make a difference. Mark Paradis was 23 when he bought his first car. With no credit history and little financial education, he wound up with a six-year loan for a Kia Optima. Recently he used a site called MoneyAisle to refinance the last two years of the loan, saving $100 month.

"I was a little mad at myself that I hadn't done this sooner," says Paradis, a Boston resident. "But I'm saving myself $2,400 over the next two years." (Even better, compare car loans online first.)

You don't know what you don't know. But keep in mind that there's information out there if you're willing to seek it.

"There are awesome communities and resources (online)," says Suzanne Coblentz of CareOne. "Every single day is an opportunity to start again."

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").