Regaining control — ‘Imagine a Happier You’ campaign helps 3 women

Published: Sunday, Sept. 25 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Melody Hillam talks with KSL-TV about her finances with KSL-TV as part of "Imagine a Happier You" campaign.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — You can have five kids and still improve your financial picture. Or you can send a kid or two off to college with some degree of financial support and find it's still easier to stretch the family's dollars. You can even weather a divorce, which means two households supported by what used to be one household income, and still manage your financial future.

To do any of it, though, you have to take control of your money and work the steps that bring financial freedom.

That's the lesson learned by Melody Hillam, Stephanie Leavitt and Sandra Cameron, the three Utah women who have undergone a yearlong financial/education makeover. That was courtesy of Deseret Media Companies' "Imagine a Happier You" campaign and its partners, AAA Fair Credit, Merrill Lynch and Zions Bank, who each mentored one of the women. Their year will be recapped briefly as part of Zions Bank's Smart Women Smart Money conference on Wednesday, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Salt Palace. Actress Geena Davis is the keynote speaker.

"We decided to create 'Imagine A Happier You' because of our deep respect for women and for the power they have to change," said Mark Willes, president and CEO of Deseret Media Companies, which includes the Deseret News. "We asked a committee of women from our DMC companies to find a way to help as many women as possible. They decided to focus on helping women conquer their financial problems through an engaging and interactive campaign. We are proud of the work they have done in creating a program which educated, elevated and connected women throughout the year."

When she first met with a Megan Nelson of AAA Fair Credit, Cameron was the married mom of two little boys. She and her husband, who are divorcing, had purchased a fixer-upper close to downtown in Salt Lake City and had put a lot of the cost of the repairs on plastic. Though they were doing most of the labor, it's an expensive process and they had racked up nearly $30,000 in credit card debt and also had a personal loan of about $7,000.

Cameron said she took their debt seriously but didn't know what to do about it. What did she learn?"Your whole life can be chaos, but once you get organized, things have to change. ...Managing finances is very much an ongoing kind of thing. If you have a good grasp of where you are in the back of your head, it makes it easier when things pop up. The stress level drops exponentially if you know where you were last month and this month and ...."

She has not added a penny to her credit card debt, she said proudly, since she started meeting with Nelson. And she and Ian paid off a fair amount of it before they separated. That process will continue.

A flight attendant, Cameron has increased the number of hours she works and she puts every extra dime on the debt that has the highest interest rate. The Camerons have opted to split the debt they accumulated and they will do the same with the equity in their house in 18 months. They plan to share custody of their boys, Clayton, 7, and Connor, 4, as well as Sadie, the Irish setter.

Cameron now rents an apartment and "our sons and dog-ter" go back and forth in an amicable arrangement.

She still has to avoid the temptation, Cameron said, to lose track and spend too much. So she has her bills paid out of her checking account but uses cash for groceries, clothing and anything else she buys, as well as entertainment.

"The little bit of work it takes to keep your financial house in order is so worth it," she said.

Nelson, her mentor, said they had to adjust goals as Cameron's life changed. One focus became not adding to debt through the divorce process; another was continuing to make consistent payments on existing debt.

"It's taking a little bit longer than we mapped out. That's part of the personal finance process," said Nelson.

Cameron's spending plan included building an emergency fund, a periodic-expense fund for things like car licensing and a longer-term emergency fund.

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