Published: Jun 24, 2011 3:31 AM EDT
Updated: Jun 24, 2011 2:18 AM EDT

NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A North Fort Myers couple has conquered $80,000 in debt. How'd they do it? By turning it all over to someone else. Joseph and Erna Sullivan said its no secret they were trying to keep their heads above water after they realized they had racked up so much debt. Between credit cards and medical bills, they knew something had to be done and bankruptcy wasn't an option.

"Don't spend what you don't have," said Joseph.

It's a lesson the Sullivan family said they learned the hard way.

"I said my god do you realize how far you're in? I said no. I knew we were there but I didn't know it was that far. That kind of shook me up a little bit," said Joseph.

They began realizing things were bad when debt took over five years ago and they had reached a debt of $79,873.33

Nearly $80,000 in medical and credit card bills followed by trips to Denmark to visit Erna's elderly mother racked up the bills. They both retired and recently moved to Florida, when Erna broke her wrists and was out of work for some time. That's when they knew their options were simple.

"We said we were going to work it out and thats it. We never believed in bankruptcy," said Erna.

Bankruptcy attorney Carmen Dellutri said everyone is different but filing for bankruptcy should be a last resort if possible.

"If this individual has the ability to negotiate the credit card debt, then by all means go do it," said Dellutri.

Defaulting on credit cards can leave you paying interest rates of excess to 30 percent. It's why you can make a game plan.

"Put aside the fear. Go out and obtain the knowledge you need to make an informed decision," said Dellutri.

In order to tackle their money matters, the Sullivans got together with a debt counseling service

"Give em all your cards. Give us everything and then we'll work it out as see if we can avoid bankruptcy which we did," said Joseph.

They worked with the service for five years, chipping away, at every penny until they became debt free.

"Just to know that all that is gone. We never thought we could pay all that off," said Erna.

"Anyone who is in that kind of debt, forget your credit cards. Try to dump them if you can or at least just get it down to one," said Joseph.

The couple said they've learned quite a bit from all this. So much so, they've chosen to wait to visit family in Denmark this year because they don't have the money to do so.