Valerie is More Than a Number

This is the latest in our “More Than a Number” series, which profiles individuals and shows how each person is truly more than just their finances. Please leave a comment or question for Valerie below! And if you’d like to be included in a future profile, please email us at

ValerieMy name: Valerie
My biggest goal in 5 words or less: Eliminate ALL credit card debt!
My biggest challenge in 5 words or less: Sticking to my payment plan.

Can you tell us who you are?

I’m a native Californian, public servant, cancer survivor, and mother to a son, age 10, and step-daughter, age 9.

What’s your general financial philosophy?

It’s a combination of “you can’t take it with you” and “always be prepared for a rainy day.” I grew up in a fairly traditional middle class American household. My mother was a teacher and my father worked for the local telephone company. They worked hard, lived simply, and were very prudent about saving for their retirement. I received scholarships to go to college, which helped relieve some of the financial pressure of paying for my education. I learned most of my money lessons from my father, who took advantage of his company’s retirement matching funds, contributed to his 401K and now, with my Mom, enjoys a very comfortable and happy retirement. Growing up, I was always told “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” and Dad’s first response to spending money on something was usually “no.” I don’t feel like we were deprived of things, but once I started earning my own money, I was more inclined to say “yes.” Like Dad, I started early with saving towards my retirement. As a public servant, in addition to the money I have saved on my own through my 457K, I will enjoy a generous pension, and finally, my son’s father has already set aside money for our son’s college education.

Even before I was diagnosed with Stage III cancer in 2009, I also adopted a somewhat contradictory attitude regarding spending. While I was saving for the future on one hand, I was spending for today with the rest of my money on the other. When I got sick, and not knowing whether or not I would survive my illness, it was even easier to justify spending on things like travel, clothing, and eating out. Carpe diem ruled the day. When I remarried in 2011 after being single for nearly six years, my attitude about spending did not improve. With a second income to now share the costs of non-fun things like the mortgage and insurance, I felt I had even more money at my disposal! As my personal credit card bills mushroomed, and I began to grasp the reality of my financial situation, I was shocked and incredibly embarrassed by the extent of my irresponsibility. When I finally got a handle on things, I was $26,000 in debt and too ashamed to let my husband in on my scary financial secret.

So, now I am back to the basics. Always be prepared for a rainy day, and money doesn’t grow on trees. Dad was right!!

What has been your biggest financial hurdle or challenge?

Coming to terms with the extent of my debt problem, realizing it would only get worse if I did not change course immediately, and taking steps to control my spending and develop an aggressive debt payment plan.

What are some of the strategies or lessons you’ve learned from taking on this challenge?

The main strategies I used to get a grip on my situation and to achieve my debt reduction goals are: (1) started tracking my expenditures to see how much more than my net income I was spending every month (talk about shocking!); (2) cleaned up and organized my living space – I went through my entire home and kept only things that fell into three categories – useful/functional, meaningful, or intrinsically beautiful – and in that process, I got rid of bags and bags full of perfectly good clothes, which helped me really see how much money I was wasting; (3) took advantage of my good credit to consolidate my debt onto two cards that offered 0% interest through 2015; (4) took a hard look at my spending habits; (5) removed myself from all deal sites such as Groupon, zulily, and retailers; (6) established a realistic budget; (7) began paying with cash for as much as possible and using credit cards strictly for BUDGETED purchases requiring secure payment; (8) developed an aggressive, detailed, and completely realistic debt payment plan that I am tracking on a monthly basis starting in 2014 and ending in December of this year, when the only debt I will have left will be my mortgage and $3,000 left on my car loan.

Do your finances control you or do you control your finances?

I feel like now I am in control of my finances, but three months ago, I would have said the exact opposite.

What is the hardest expenditure in your budget to maintain at a reasonable level?

Eating out – my job is busy and demanding, and I have very little time to prepare lunches.

What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time and talk to “you” from ten years ago?

Think about money as energy – there is limited supply and you should be very thoughtful about how you expend it.

Where do you want to go from here? What are your goals for the future?

I am focused like a laser beam on eliminating my debt by December 2014. If I am able to stick to my plan, I will achieve this goal. I’m motivated by what this also means for 2015 and beyond. $26,000 is a lot of money! With my new-found financial freedom and better spending habits, it’s exciting to think about what I can do with that additional disposable income in the future. Pay off my mortgage? Go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef? Remodel my master bathroom? So many great possibilities!

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