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Debt-Free at Twenty-Three

How One YNABer Increased Her Net Worth by 141.6% in One Year

Emma Vonder Haar is a 23-year-old communications coordinator who lives in St. Louis, and we like how she communicates. A quote:

I sound like a walking commercial for You Need a Budget but, really, this program has straight-up changed my life.

Her Amazing Financial Feats…

How, you might wonder, could budgeting software change your life? Keep reading.

It turns out that Emma was pretty financially-savvy to begin with. Before using YNAB, she’d already taken her parents’ advice to heart and squirreled away an emergency fund—a total of $7k in just ten months—with money from graduation gifts, plus paychecks from full- and part-time work.

She’d also wisely sidestepped student loans by forgoing an education at her first choice school—a private university with an $80k price tag.

Emma says, “I think this may have been the smartest decision I ever could have made at age 17,” and we agree. Instead, she went to an affordable state school on full scholarship.

But, once Emma added YNAB to the mix, things really start to get crazy. Some of her more notable achievements include:

  • A fully paid-off car—a $16k Honda Civic with a 60-month term loan that she paid off in just 21 months (great work!)
  • Trips to Rome and London
  • A growing 401k—with 15% of her salary invested towards her retirement plan
  • Plus, maxing out contributions to her Roth IRA ($5.5k in 2017)

Sounds pretty impressive, right? And it is. But what’s truly amazing, is that YNAB’s biggest impact wasn’t even financial …

Freedom to Choose

The thing about Emma that really struck my interest, is that she’s managed to accomplish such hefty financial feats on a particularly modest salary. You might even feel a bit envious, except that she’s so, super-duper, likeable.

See, Emma could earn more money with her skill set, but she really loves her work.

“ … I get to work with kids in foster care, homeless teen moms and their babies, at-risk pregnant women, and adoptive couples and birth moms. I know that I could have a higher salary if I took my career in another direction, but YNAB has given me the financial freedom to choose to stay in my position, without the necessity of moving to a corporate or agency position … that freedom means the world to me.”

Hoping For The Best…

Emma admits that budgeting wasn’t always her strong suit, “Budgeting was one of those things I always planned on getting around to but, in reality, I was just checking my bank account a few times a day and trying to plan from there.”

In college, it worked out OK, but the little things, like unexpected expenses or forgotten purchases could cause problems. It wasn’t until she graduated and started working full-time that Emma really got serious about her money:

“All of a sudden, I had ‘real life’ bills, as well as things like insurance and retirement accounts to think about. This was also around the time that my freelance design and calligraphy career was beginning to take off, so I had variable income on top of figuring out adult finances.“

Room for improvement? Yes. But, still, this new graduate was already thinking about retirement—take notes! (This is how magic happens.)

…Versus Flexible Control

Fueled by her goals (meaningful work, travel, be debt-free, save for retirement—oh my!), Emma tried a few different budgeting apps and programs, but none of them seemed to stick.

“I was overwhelmed with other budgeting programs that seemed super-complicated or too stuffy. I stuck with YNAB because, once I figured it out, it was like everything clicked. The flexibility of YNAB is key.”

How Did She Pay Down Debt?

After college, Emma kept her lifestyle similar to when she was a strapped student. She didn’t allow her expenses to inflate just because she was earning a full-time salary. And she made some tough decisions, including:

  • Moving in with her parents (saving a ton on living expenses)
  • Cancelling her gym membership (as she points out, running outside is free!)
  • Quitting the mall (new clothes are not a priority right now—and not in the budget)
  • Cutting way back on her “going out” budget
  • Cultivating a “side hustle,” offering freelance design and calligraphy services

At first, her friends rolled their eyes when she politely declined invitations out, or offered to just tag along, if they wanted to eat out. But they adjusted: “Now my friends and I go on walks, to parks, or free activities, instead of going out to dinner or for drinks.”

And, even though it’s tough to move back home as an adult, Emma’s grateful to her parents for “very, very graciously” allowing her to live at home and recognizes what a huge financial boost it provided.

“I lived at home for 1.5 years, which was hard to do after being on my own (but I’ll be moving out soon, thanks to YNAB!). I can’t remember the last time I bought brand-new clothes, and I’ve had to hustle a lot with my freelance and side jobs … but it was all totally worth it!”

Focus on What Matters Most

For Emma, defining goals is everything. Now that she’s paid off her debt, she’s got her eye on future travel and financial security.

“ … two things that are important to me: building memories and broadening my worldview through travel and preparing for a secure retirement … [these goals] are what guide my big financial decisions.”

For aspiring budgeters, Emma stresses that accountability is the most important thing.

“YNAB was kind of intimidating at first. It’s scary … But having that knowledge, and knowing exactly where each dollar in your budget is going, is SO empowering.”

A Winning Formula for Paying Off Debt

Here’s a little glimpse into what kept Emma motivated, particularly as she paid off her car 39 months early

“I realized that if I tightened up my budget for a few months, I could pay off my car before my 24th birthday [which I did] … I just really liked the idea of the phrase ‘debt-free at age twenty-three.’

She picked a goal, set a deadline and focused on the prize—with a rhyming budgeting mantra, no less! How about you? What could your next financial success story be? Set a goal and write yourself a mantra. If you do, I’d love to hear it! Email me at

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Debt-Free at Twenty-Three