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The Power of Freedom: Heather’s Story

Greetings, Frugal Farmer friends! Today we’re sharing a different kind of success story. Heather has a powerful story of how she overcame a rare cancer from a physical standpoint, and how her and her family financially survived the toll that medical debt can take on a family. Heather’s hope is to bring encouragement to others about overcoming difficult things, and to establish how important it is to manage finances well so that one can be financially prepared for any emergency that comes along. 

Hindsight is 20/20 is what they say, and that could not be more true for my family and me after last the 11 years. When I look back at my life, I have a series of financial suggestions that would have really helped me along the way to avoid a lot of headaches and sleepless nights, not to mention damage to my credit record that would follow me for years to come. Here are six things that my illness forced me to learn about money:

1. ALWAYS read the fine print.

All through my youth and young adulthood, I would say I lived very simply. My first introduction to credit was in my teen years with a music company called Columbia House. Anyone over the age of 40 probably remembers their advertisements on the back of magazines and in mailings. You could order any 11 CDs or cassette tapes for only ONE PENNY!  WOW! What a deal! Being 15, and in the early 80s, I jumped all over that offer! What I didn’t do was read the fine print.

See, you could get those 11 CDs for one penny but by doing so, you agreed to buy 10 more at full price in the next year or so. Full price was $17 each. Not a big deal, I ordered them, but when it came time to pay the bill, I didn’t have the money or resources to do so. I didn’t understand what ‘credit’ was.  I didn’t bother to ask my parents for money because talking about money was just something we did not do. I knew things were tight, and my parents didn’t have much extra, so I let those bills pile up. The nasty grams started coming and eventually they all get sent to collection. Not a great way to start a credit history before you even have a job! I did eventually ask my mom to write a check to pay off the credit collectors, but the damage to my credit record was already done.

2. Available Credit is Not Actual MONEY.

Years later, I was able to get a credit card through one of those banks that gives cards to anyone. They are great, until you don’t pay the bill. I looked at the credit card credit limit as available money. Um no. Just no. I didn’t understand that all that money had to be paid back with hefty interest. I know better now, but not without having to learn difficult financial lessons.

3. Learn How to Balance a Checkbook, Budget and Spend Within Your Limits.

I never learned anything about money management as I was growing up.  My mom, to this day, says one of her biggest regrets is that she did not teach my sister and me how to manage money. If I had the guidance to know how to balance my checkbook, pay bills on time and understand what credit was, my monetary situation might be vastly different than it was.

My parents simply did not discuss money matters in front of us. All I remember was that my normally relaxed mom would get very tense and start to cry a lot when she paid bills, so my interpretation of managing money was bad. My dad would spend; my mom would try and make ends meet.  We had many very lean years while I was growing up that I was mostly oblivious to it because my parents and sister did their best to hide it from me. Years later, my older sister told me that she gave her babysitting money to mom and dad so we would have food on the table.

4. Prepare for the Worst, But Hope for the Best.

This category falls under “planning for the future.” Most people don’t plan for the bottom to drop out of their life. They don’t plan on something happening that changes them on a foundational level.

11 years ago, both things happened to me. I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer called malignant pleural mesothelioma. I had just had my first and only baby 3 ½ months previously. Things were tight when I went on maternity leaves because in my line of work, a stylist in a salon, we didn’t get paid time off, much less any kind of maternity leave.

I worked on commission. If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. I had Lily in August, via c –section and had to return to work in 4 weeks because that is what was expected of me. Then in November I was diagnosed with cancer. My husband and I were faced with the very real possibility of losing everything: Our house, our cars, everything.

Had I done two things to prepare for something like this, it would not have been as stressful.

  • The first was to have an emergency savings account. The suggested standard is 3-6 months of living expenses put away. I had zero! Our income got cut drastically when I had to stop working because I was simply too sick to work. If we had at least 3 months of living expenses put aside, I wouldn’t have been so stressed about every bill that came in.
  • The second thing I wished I’d done is gotten disability insurance (like AFLAC), which would have helped pay those bills that just keep coming regardless of if your life is falling apart. If you are an independent contractor, own your own business, or even work for someone, short-term disability insurance can bring you a lot of peace of mind. I’ve seen it happen far too often when people who aren’t prepared end up with so much more on their plate than dealing with the illness. When you’re dealing with a major life-changing event, you shouldn’t have to deal with the stress of poor finances as well. The peace of mind that comes from financial preparation is well worth it.

5: Communication is KEY

I can’t stress this enough! I had to quit working when I got sick, which meant my family’s household income was cut by more than two-thirds. I had a car payment, a credit card payment and the big, bad student loan payment…not to mention a mortgage, a department store card and probably others I can’t remember.

Total debt without my student loan, car or mortgage was just under $10,000. My student loan was about $15,000. The first thing I did was call my creditors. I told them what was going on and that our income went way down. I didn’t hide, I didn’t shove the bills in a drawer to try and ignore them, I communicated with lenders. And you know what? The student loan people put my loan into immediate emergency medical deferment. Yes, I would still accrue interest, but it wouldn’t affect my credit.

The bank where my car loan was through took one month, and added it onto the back of the loan, and the bank that held the mortgage did the same thing!

The important thing was that I communicated with my creditors and in turn they were willing to go the extra mile for me. A couple of times they even called just to see how I was doing! I learned a very valuable lesson through all that. If I hadn’t communicated our problem to our creditors, we would’ve had to pay late fees on top of accrued interest, and my credit would have sustained extra damage as well.

I also communicated with my parents. I was fortunate that when I did get sick, my parents were very supportive. My husband and I sat down with them and we put all our debt problems on the table. I’m happy to say that my parents were able to pay off our credit card and store card debt, so we were able to start the journey with cancer under much less financial stress.

6: It is Never Too Late to Get on the Right Track.

As I said before, my parents were able to help us out and pay off some of our debt. The same parents who in my youth didn’t have two dimes to rub together. They had some serious money issues, but through perseverance, and being smart about money, they were able to pull themselves out of debt and started saving and living life within their means. It was because of my mom’s insistence and smart planning that they had a nice chunk of money set aside to help us out when we were in need.  Since that time, my mom and I have both learned how to manage money and I have learned from her how to save and prepare for the unexpected.

An illness like mine could have financially wiped my family out, and I’ve known far too many people who it does happen to. We were fortunate; I have great health insurance, which meant that I could get the medical care I needed. Good thing because by the age of 40, my medical expenses were close to a million dollars.  Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation… it all adds up.  Even though it’s been 11 years since I was diagnosed, I still return to my specialist two times a year for check ups. I have to travel from Minnesota to Houston, TX, and it gets expensive with hotels and airfare.

I now manage my money much differently. I make sure to budget ahead of time, so when I do have to go for checkups, the money is already there. It was making changes like these – and knowing that preparation is key – that made the difference between losing everything or being able to get through it.

I wish I didn’t have to go through a life threatening illness to learn about managing money, but it did help me to wake up and face my financial issues. I’m still learning the finer details of money management, but am happy to say that being debt free is no longer an unattainable dream.  It has been through hard work and educating myself that my family and I have been able to get to where we are.

Remember, there is no purse or pair of shoes that is worth carrying a credit card balance over month-to-month. The interest you pay will cost far more than what that stuff is worth.  Nothing feels as good as debt free, and as having money in the bank!

Heather shares her tips for overcoming adversity in illness on her website. Click here to learn more about Heather’s personal journey with mesothelioma cancer. 

8 comments

  1. Ah Columbia House. I remember them well. If you referred a friend you go 2 additional free CDs. Great tips Heather. The emergency fund is such an important piece of the puzzle. The “What if” or “peace of mind” fund as I like to call it. Continued success and health!

  2. I remember the Columbia House “deals” too!

    Heather, thank you so much for sharing your story. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to deal with your illness and the financial situation. And great advice on communication! Communicating with creditors, but also your partner and family is a necessity, especially when you have an emergency.

    “Nothing feels as good as debt free, and as having money in the bank!” I couldn’t agree more!

  3. Oh wow, what a journey! I’m happy to hear that you and your family made it through that tough time. I hope you’re in good health. 🙂

    My parents didn’t really talk about money in front of us, either. I was just given a debit card at age 16 and was told I could buy whatever I wanted with my parents’ money (no joke). I had zero money discipline.

    It really wasn’t until I graduated from college making $15/hr that I realized how precious money was. It was a trial by fire, but it definitely wasn’t necessary. I had the tools to learn about good finances all along, but I just didn’t reach out for them.

  4. Amy says:

    Wow! Thank you for sharing your story! My parents didn’t talk about money with me either. Even though things were often tight (I remember every Saturday my mom had a grocery list with the exact amount of each item), it was never something we discussed. I had terrible spending habits in college, and had to learn some financial truths the hard way. Now my husband and I talk about money often, and will be sure to include our kids in on the budget and how we are planning.

  5. Mackenzie says:

    I remember Columbia House and BMG too! Lol 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your story Heather. I pray that you continue to prosper financially and in regards to your health. Happy New Year!

  6. I had the same experience. My parents did not teach me money-related lessons, aside from saving a lil for short term goals. If I had known some of the at the very least common money lessons earlier, I would have had more savings and have achieved some financial goals earlier. Despite those experience, I am still thankful because it has taught me good lessons.

  7. Thank You, Heather, for your inspiring story. It must have been a real tough period and for you to open up about this is really brave. I have taken a lot of important points from your post about money discipline and I aim to apply the same to my life. Frugality is not something I would like to pay for in the future and your story has taught me that. Be strong, be money disciplined and inspire many more lives with your story. Hope you have an amazing year ahead.

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