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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Melody Hillam talks with KSL-TV about her finances with KSL-TV as part of "Imagine a Happier You" campaign.

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.

The unexpected happens, said Nelson, from medical to car repairs to job loss or divorce. "For some people, a trip to the emergency room can derail finances."

As for paying down debt, there are twin thoughts. If you pay the highest-interest debt first, you put more money in your pocket long-term, said Nelson. But paying the smallest balance provides a personal victory and feels like progress. So she tells people to pick what best motivates them. Just pay extra.

Leavitt, of Springville, admits she could "fall off the wagon at any time." So she's automated as much of the getting-ahead process as she can, at the suggestion of her mentor, Kevin Townsend of Merrill Lynch.

She has money sent directly from the paycheck she earns as a project manager at Novell into savings. She has money withdrawn for retirement and to attrack the company match. "I'm making good progress there," she said.

She also automated the contribution she makes to college funds. "It's a teeny amount we're putting in," she said, but it's more than they were doing. And she's bribing her youngest son, Jake, who is still in grade school. If he will take lunch from home, she plans to put an extra $1 each day into his college savings.

Also automated are the contributions to an emergency fund. That fund, she notes, has mattered this year. Their furnace died in December and last month they had a car crash. Neither went on a credit card. They used — and will then rebuild — the emergency fund.

And even helping daughter Eileen and son Jonah a bit with college expenses, she's been able to invest by sending a small amount — again automatically — to a brokerage. All while she and husband Jared knocked down 70 percent of the family's debt.

She's glad she decided to be publicly taught about money, she said. Asked how Jared, who is admittedly more reserved about such matters, likes it, she smiled. "There are still some things we don't agree on. But I asked him that the other day and he said, 'We could not have a financial conversation without you crying.' He's right. I'd burst into tears. It seems so easy now. We talk about money."

Her advice for those who want to gain control of their finances: "Really picture your mess. Then be willing to look at it again every day." The most frustrating thing is that it takes baby steps, she said.

She hasn't opted to take the "cash-only" route, though, to buy groceries and other things. She budgets and tries to be careful. And when things get a little off, she and Jared discuss it. Dry-eyed.

Townsend, her mentor, notes a "total transformation" when she gained some confidence in managing her money. "She's taken it very seriously and followed through on all the commitments," he said.

Just knowing where to go to find resources makes a difference, he added. And she's now good at ferreting those out. She can find "the how and why to do the types of investments she needs to do."

Hillam's been exercising her discipline muscle this year. The money issues aren't all resolved, she said. But it was a very good year. She and Todd took the kids — Kendra, 11, Allison, 8, Andrew, 6, Colby 4, and Ty, 1 — on a big vacation and did not charge a penny. Or rather, they did, to get cash rewards back from their card. But they paid every cent of it within the grace period and didn't owe any interest. She tracked carefully so they didn't blow their budget.

The little slide-the-card motion is not one Hillam, of Cedar Hills, enjoys. "I get a lot of anxiety with it; I don't like to slide the card," she said. "I hate being in debt. I hate going into the overdraft."

At one point, she took a 3 a.m. paper route to pay off a debt. But when they started this yearlong process, they didn't owe anything except for on their home and car. They even had $2,000 in savings. They just had to squeeze money extra hard to fit in the things they needed without tapping those funds and even a small need that was new was too much.

This year, they had their $3,000 vacation, budgeted in advance, put $7,500 in savings and paid off a $1,500 medical bill after one of the children ended up in the hospital. She's also "worked off some of the costs I couldn't come up with," like cleaning a dance studio to help pay for her daughter's dance lessons.

She dscribes herself as a little "baffled" by how well they're doing. But it's what happens when you put every extra dime, including the tax return, into savings.

"I'm sure not as stressed as I used to be," she said.

One of the first things her mentor, Cristie Richards, senior vice president of retail strategies at Zions Bank, did with Hillam was look for ways to cut expenses. That included reviewing cable and phone bills and being sure they had the right insurance. They even dialed down the water heater temperature and looked at light fixtures and fans to save a bit.

Richards noted that Melody and Todd Hillam, like so many Americans, treated their tax refund like bonus play money once a year. It could have been working for them all along, she said. "We adjusted their withholding and they got an extra $100 a month to spend."

She notes the importance of decision-making to control your finances. Do you want some in a college fund, or retirement? Put it there. "If you don't decide where it goes, it disappears," Richards said.

DMC's Willes hailed the gains made by Cameron, Hillam and Leavitt. "We appreciate the hard work the financial makeover women put forth in meeting and even exceeding their goal. We intend to continue creating programs to help women and causes which are important to them," he said.

There are lots of resources on personal finance available to help, from the Smart Women Smart Money conference to online sites and the next four-week Money Game course from the Utah Association of Certified Public Accountants, starting Oct 26. The class will be held at the UACPA, 220 E. Morris Avenue, #320. To register, go to UACPA.org website and type 412 or financial literacy in the keyword search.

Email: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco