By: Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis
VyStar Credit Union started the Money Makeover program in 2009 with one goal in mind: To help our members improve their financial well-being and achieve their personal financial goals. Rather than simply giving participants quick fixes to their money woes, our Money Makeover coaches provide practical financial advice and solutions to help members drive down debt, increase savings and improve their financial standing—the benefits of which can last a lifetime.
Kathleen Andrews of Saint Augustine, Florida, was one of the very first participants in the Money Makeover program. And now that it’s been 10 years since her journey with us, we caught up with her to see if her Money Makeover experience truly helped her in the long run. Read on to see what she had to say!
VYSTAR CREDIT UNION: Take us back to the days before your Money Makeover journey. What was your financial life like then?
KATHLEEN ANDREWS: In 2008, I was living in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. My daughter had gotten married a couple of years before, and I had helped my son through college, so I was still managing some of those expenses as well. From my perspective, I was living well, but I didn’t have as much in savings as I would have liked to have had—especially considering what was coming down the road, which was retirement.
I had a vague idea of what was going on in my checking account, but it was only vague. I knew how to balance a checkbook; I just chose not to. I just hoped at the end of every month there would be enough to get bills paid. It was the same with my credit card. I had a vague idea of how my credit card was being managed, but I wasn’t paying very close attention to it at all. So, I had to start managing that much better. And I needed to have a fallback, in case things didn’t go the way I expected them to.
I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to retire, because Social Security was always a nebulous thing. I knew that it wasn’t enough to get me by. So, I was going to have to be very energetic about saving money to make sure my month-to-month living expenses were going to happen. Under the scenario I was in in 2008, retirement wasn’t going to happen when I thought it would, and it was going to be very tight living. It would not have been happy for me. It was really scary, because I’ve been single for a while, and so I had to figure out how I was going to go into retirement and be able to enjoy it. I wasn’t in a terrible situation, but I had goals that I wanted to meet. I felt like I had a lot of work to do to get my financial house in order.
VYSTAR: How did you come to participate in VyStar’s Money Makeover program?
KATHLEEN: When VyStar advertised the program in 2009, I thought it was a great opportunity for me to start focusing on my retirement, which was looming large. So, I put in an application, and lo and behold they called me and asked me if I would like to participate in the program. And the bonus was not only would I learn how to manage my money, but I had the opportunity to possibly win $10,000.
VYSTAR: How did you like it?
KATHLEEN: The Money Makeover was a great experience. I really felt like if I could do this, maybe it would help somebody out there in the world that was in the same situation … or worse.
I had a great coach, [Gene Moore, who at the time was Vice President of VyStar’s Downtown Jacksonville branch, and is now Community Relations Representative in VyStar’s Marketing department]. We connected right off the bat. We saw where I needed to make adjustments—some of it was reducing debt, some of it was increasing savings. Gene worked as hard as I did, cheering me on the whole way, to get me financially healthy. But we had the best time doing it. And in the end, I really felt good even though I didn’t win the $10,000. I learned so much about how to manage my money, and I’ve retained that for the last 10 years.
The Money Makeover was very helpful in focusing me on not only getting and maintaining my debt down, but also getting my savings up and having a failsafe in case things go awry. It taught me to pay attention to what I was doing, where the income was coming from and where it was going. Working with Gene, meeting the others in the contest and working toward my financial goals moved me from foreseeing full-time work well into my retirement years to being able to retire in a timely manner, with enough financial stability to enjoy retirement the way I’d hoped.
VYSTAR: What were your biggest takeaways from the program?
KATHLEEN: I learned that if you manage your pennies, then the dollars will follow. I had to be very careful about the extras, and much more mindful of how I was spending my money and how I could conserve. One thing Gene and I used to say all the time during the Money Makeover contest (and which I have to remind myself routinely since) is, “Do I want it or do I need it? If I need it, how can I get it at the best possible price to meet that need? And if I want it, what’s in my plan to get it?”
I’ve got spreadsheets for everything: I know exactly every dime that’s going in and out. I continually monitor expenses, look for bargains in every product and service, and manage to increase my savings. Once a week I’ll go into my checking account, savings account and credit card and I’ll make sure everything is lining up and all the expectations I have are being met. And it’s worked well for me, because I was able to retire in the timeframe that I wanted to.
And have a goal. If I have a goal that I’m going towards, then it makes it much easier for me to stay disciplined and put the money aside. Probably the biggest thing I learned in the Money Makeover is diligence and restraint. But that doesn’t mean I don’t splurge once in a while. Spoiling my children and grandchildren is my guilty pleasure, but I budget to allow myself that indulgence!
VYSTAR: What’s your financial life like now? Is it what you hoped it would be?
KATHLEEN: It is. It’s actually almost exactly the life I thought I’d be living. My two goals for retirement were to volunteer and to travel. And because of the focus that I got from the Money Makeover program, I’ve been able to do both.
In 2012, I came to the realization that having a three-bedroom home was just not financially realistic nor necessary with retirement looming in the near future. So, I sold my house and found a lovely condo in Saint Augustine, at a time when the housing market was still rebounding. I set money aside that was earmarked for travel, and I’ve traveled a great deal since I retired in 2014.
I’ve traveled to the Florida Keys, New York City, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington D.C. ... I’ve covered the whole eastern seaboard. I’m a baseball fan, so I’ve been to two or three major league baseball fields, and that was great. I’m also a college football fan, so I’ve seen I can’t even tell you how many college football games in the past 10 years.
When I first retired, I gave myself a year to stay in bed in the morning, read books and go to the pool and do all that. And then I thought, I need to do something better. And I wanted to buy a new car, so I just got a little part-time job so I can pay for my car and I don’t have to take it from any of my other [savings] buckets. It’s really more fun than work.
VYSTAR: Any last words of wisdom you’d like to share with people at home?
KATHLEEN: I’m a big fan of VyStar, so that would be the first thing I would tell them. They are my go-to for anything that I need financially. My children now go to VyStar, and my grandchildren have VyStar accounts. We’re just big fans and we’ve always been. I love it. If you’re having any issues at all, they’re the people to talk to. They will help you if they can, in any way they can. I’ve recommended the Money Makeover program to just about anyone I talk to who has financial goals they struggle to meet. With VyStar’s help, I’ve been able to construct of satisfying life, build a nest egg in case of emergencies and have “escape valves” to meet the unexpected.
And just pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s just a matter of discipline. It’s not always easy to stay focused on our financial health and to make the tough decisions to get financially healthy, but it’s such a relief not to have to worry about money once the plan is in place. It’s a matter of paying attention to what’s going on and being willing to make the sacrifices you need to make to get where you want to go.
In my professional life, the risk/reward perspective when dealing with corporate sustainability made a great deal of sense. It applies to our personal financial health too. There’s a great deal of risk in not stabilizing our finances, and an equally great deal of reward when we take the time, energy and perseverance to set and follow the path. There’s an old British saying, “Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” True!
The content provided in this blog consists of the opinions and ideas of the author alone and should be used for informational purposes only. VyStar Credit Union disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information provided.