It started with an $800 loan to replace their car tyres. Ten years on, Teresa and Lomitusi Fesuiai owe $70,000 and face having to sell their home to pay their debts.
The Porirua couple say the tyre loan from Finance Now in 2003 was followed by "$1000 here and $1000 there" to cover family events, gifts and other expenses.
By the end of that year, interest rates of more than 17 per cent, insurance and a swag of fees had combined to leave them with a total debt above $34,000.
"We were gullible, I admit that," Mrs Fesuiai said. "But we were taken for a ride.
"They had our house as the caveat on the loan, so they knew that we couldn't and wouldn't move. They had us over a barrel."
The couple, who both had steady jobs, managed to pay back $23,000 over the next three years. But in 2008 their loan was transferred to debt collection agency Southern Receivables.
In 2011, on advice of a local lawyer, they took Finance Now and Southern Receivables to court, claiming the loan contracts were "unjustly burdensome", and seeking damages and costs.
But they were almost "laughed out of the courtroom", Mrs Fesuiai said.
"The company's lawyers were drawing in their books, the judge was almost asleep. This lawyer just wasn't up to standard - we didn't have a hope in hell."
The court found in favour of the two companies, and ordered the Fesuiais to pay costs of more than $40,000.
They now live in hope that someone will buy their house in Ranui Heights so they can clear the debt. The Rose St property has a $250,000 RV. They still owe $120,000 on the mortgage.
"We have no choice," Mrs Fesuiai said.
"Our kids have grown up here, we have raised our family here. But we will have to make memories somewhere else now."
She admitted they had borrowed beyond their means, but bad financial and legal advice had compounded their problems and turned the past decade into hell.
A Crown lawyer who looked over their court case said they could have won, she said, but it was now too late to appeal.
"He said it was tragic that our case wasn't well presented. We can't do it again, we have no money, no nothing. It's too late for that now, we just have to go through the process.
"We have got to the stage where we feel like people just want a piece of us. They don't care how long we have worked, how long we have saved for. It's broken us.
"All we wanted was to get through this debt and to get on with our lives. This started when my kids were little - they are now in their 20s.
"I tell the kids now, if they don't have any money for something, don't get a loan. Just save up for it instead."
Finance Now has called for the couple to be made bankrupt, and Southern Receivables is pushing for a mortgagee sale of their home.
Finance Now chief executive Wayne Evans said it was in the company's interest to see people pay their debts and move on with their lives. It had tried to resolve the matter throughout the course of the relationship.
It was "more than happy" to accommodate the Fesuiais' request for the time they needed to pay the debt through the house sale.
Mrs Fesuiai said they had contacted Finance Now four times in recent years to work out repayments, but had been ignored.
"We are honest workers and hard workers who help our families whenever we can. The banks don't provide that kind of lending service, so that's where these companies step in and take advantage.
"Unless something changes with these companies, that's where families like ours will continue to turn."
IT STARTED WITH CAR TYRES
Early 2003: The Fesuiais get a loan of $819 from Finance Now to replace car tyres. Over the year they get six other loans for family events, gifts and other expenses.
December 2003: Their seventh advance is for a consolidation loan of $18,639 to settle the existing total and a $1000 cash advance.
The Fesuiais make regular payments until March 2007, and manage to pay off $23,000.
June 2007: On advice from a local community law group, they stop paying the loans and tell Finance Now in writing it has become "burdensome".
February 2008: The remaining loan balance of $11,000 is assigned to debt collection firm Southern Receivables.
October 2011: On the advice of a local lawyer, the Fesuiais take court action against Finance Now and Southern Receivables. They lose, and must now cover court costs of $41,000 for both firms.
Court costs, the remaining loan balance, plus costs for their lawyer mean they now owe $70,000. Their house has been placed on the market.
- The Dominion Post