Australian flag
It looks like you're located in Australia.
We have an Australian version of our website.

Please confirm your location and we’ll send you to the appropriate site!

Erin Realized That Retirement Was a Possibility

“The way credit cards are handled in YNAB is, I just think, a miracle …”

In this episode of Debt Stories, we meet Erin, a 59-year-old living in Flagstaff, Arizona. By day, she manages an IT support team at Northern Arizona University and, in her spare time, she has a second job teaching business communication—something she really enjoys (which is handy, considering the cost of living in Flagstaff).

Still, even with the second job, Erin found herself in debt to the tune of $35,000, and that didn’t even include her mortgage. Tune in to find out how she turned things around:


Jesse: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Debt Stories: Real People Beating Debt & Winning Financially.

Today, we meet Erin, a 59-year-old living in Flagstaff, Arizona. By day, she manages an IT support team at Northern Arizona University and, in her spare time, she teaches business communication—something she really enjoys (which is handy, considering the cost of living in Flagstaff) …

Erin: Flagstaff, it’s a higher cost of living. The median home price right now is somewhere in the 300,000’s—higher than Phoenix and Tucson. A lot of people with second homes. Not a lot of industry or jobs. You live here you’re going to be working a couple of jobs.

Jesse: And that’s exactly what she does.

… now, let’s go back to the beginning of Erin’s debt story:

Erin: Let me tell how I got into debt. For years and years I didn’t make enough money. But you don’t realize that. You go, oh things get bad. You don’t have any money in savings. Something happens, oh dear, I’ve got to, you know, credit cards. Then you buckle down and you try to really limit your costs but it’s always really hard when you realize you’re just not making enough money and there’s not a lot of side jobs you can do. It’s just taken for granted that of course you’re going to have debt.

Jesse: Erin was experiencing the all-too-common phenomenon: too much month at the end of the money and, bit by bit, her debt was accumulating.

Erin: Hey, I like to eat out. I like to buy a book. I like to go to the movies or see a show or something along that line. I just never have been really good with money, but I think part of it was just trying to ignore the real issue that I just wasn’t making enough.

Jesse: Erin’s income has climbed—something she’s grateful for—but, even as more money started coming in, she still struggled. In 2003, Erin took out a second mortgage on her house to consolidate her consumer debt …

Erin: And of course, you don’t change the behavior, you’re still doing it, and then you end up with new debt, new credit card debt and you’ve now got a second mortgage and the first mortgage. I actually sold that house because I knew that I was going to lose it, so I got out of it. So I went on Miss Frugal mode. My credit was wrecked and I really began to make a difference for a while, but it was just because I was forced to. During that time period, I also got some major raises and some good things happened. I got my master’s degree and then I started teaching part-time too.

Jesse: When she sold the house, Erin needed a dog-friendly rental to call home with her rescue pups. That’s when she settled into the little apartment that she affectionately refers to as the hillbilly shack … and she lived there for five years, until 2013 when she bought her second home.

Erin: I could finally afford something in this town. Looking at where my financial situation was, I shouldn’t have bought it. All the extra costs that they talk about having the house, oh yeah, there’s a lot. All these old trees, somebody has to come out and trim them and it’s going to cost $2,000. What?

Then of course, well I needed new furniture. I needed a new TV because I had an old one. I needed all these things.

Jesse: We all know how this goes. When it rains, it pours.

Erin: Then sometimes it was like other expenses. The vet, my dog ended up needing to, he had bloat and we did an operation, there’s $3,000 or $4,000. It was just a sequence of events and it’s like, I’m going to be fine. As long as my credit card is below whatever, I think I put $10,000, I was going to be fine. Then it gets over $10,000.

I want what I want and I got it and now I’m paying for it.

Jesse: Looking for a solution, Erin turned to a con-solidation loan.

Erin: What eventually ended up happening is I’ve got all this debt, let’s move it to something cheaper; let me get a loan. And it’s an installment loan and it was like, you know, to consolidate, I think I had two different credit cards at the time. Wasn’t that the smartest thing you could do!

I would never, I will never run up my credit card again. I will never, never, never, never, ever, ever do it again, and yeah, what happens. I run up my credit card again and I got the consolidation loan and new things happen. It’s just like, how can someone making my money, you know, I’m not super, super wealthy but it should be okay. You know. But when you’ve got that debt load, it just gets hard.

Jesse: Erin was standing in financial quicksand. The more she struggled to gain control, the deeper she sank.

Erin: So I had the installment loan. My credit card went higher. Then I think, well I’ll move some of that to a zero balance and then I ran up my credit card again. So now I had three different things going on. Just amazing! I mean, I’m not dumb.

It’s where your awareness is. YNAB makes you very aware and you see the picture.

Jesse: She hit the nail on the head. Erin isn’t dumb, not at all. She was just struggling—like so many of us do, at one point or another—to account for the big picture.

As she rightly pointed out, one of the most important ingredients to financial success is awareness! Of course, staying positive helps, too:

Erin:  I was always negative, thinking this is how I’m always going to be. This is how it’s always going to be. Things will get better, then they’ll get worse. They’ll get better, they’ll get worse, and there will always be this debt load. I read about money. I love to read about personal finance and everything. I just couldn’t put it into sustainable action. I could do good a month, two months and then it was just too much work.

Jesse: But that all changed when Erin stumbled across some comments on the Internet …

Erin: One night, I was reading about people who lived on their last month’s income, and there’s that moment there of, oh God, that would be so nice.

Somebody recommended what they use something called You Need A Budget. I kind of scoffed at how enthusiastic they were. Then somebody else replied, yeah, I use it too. I was like, these people are crazy. You Need A Budget — I hate the word budget.

I absolutely hate that word, because I could never stick to one, it was restrictive, it made me unhappy, so people who were really into budgets were just weird.

But I was curious enough, I went to your…they mentioned it, so I went to the website and I read all the four steps. I’m going well God, it’s a free trial. What’s it going to hurt? In my brain I even said, this is going to last two weeks and then I’m going to get bored with it.

Jesse: Serendipitously, Erin had stumbled across YNAB just before one of those elusive “three paycheck” months, plus she had a little extra from a part-time teaching gig.

Erin: It was like a game then. What am I going to do with all this? I was able to put all this into place and I saw some immediate victories.

Jesse: She was off to a strong start.

Erin: I didn’t overdraft. You know. It was just a common thing, to get to the end of the month, I would just charge some stuff up and I’ll pay it off the next couple of months, not a problem. And I stopped doing the overdraft. And I used credit cards, but I didn’t add any new debt since I started with you guys.

And because Christmas was coming up and I had that extra money, instead of just going “Ooh, what do I want to buy for me with this paycheck,” it was like my true expenses, I’ve got this, I’ve got that, let me put this towards Christmas. Let me put this towards my prime accounts in January.

And, you know, paying debt down. I can see what I’m doing with my credit card, having the money set aside. The way the credit cards are handled in YNAB is I just think a miracle to me. So I can visually see it. Then seeing the numbers, it just really helps.

Jesse: Erin was looking at roughly $35,000 in consumer debt, not including her mortgage.

Erin: I had three debts basically. My credit card was about $16,000. My consolidation loan was about $9,000 and my other credit card that I had moved, was a balance transfer, was about $9,000. What I had to do was find a sustainable way. When I teach or when I have that extra paycheck, after the true expenses are filled up and my buffer is really in good shape, then I will put it towards debt, and that’s been working for me.

Jesse: Indeed. Within a year of starting to budget, Erin paid off $11,000 of that $35,000 total—driving her debt down by a whopping THIRD!

Erin: And I can see the light! My loan now is down below 5,000 and that’s now my focus.

Jesse: She’s focused, but she’s human. The urge to spend still strikes, the difference is how Erin handles that impulse:

Erin: If I am going to be selfish and go I want to do this and I don’t care. Alright, go ahead. What are you going to take it from? Where are you going to wham it from? Where are you going to move it from? Okay, you can still have it as long as you don’t create any new debt, yeah, fine, and you can pay your bills, fine. But then again, the car is going to need some work so you’d better go ahead and make sure you don’t take it from there. Christmas is getting closer; don’t want to take it from there. It becomes really like a game.

Jesse: And she’s not playing the game just to find loopholes to spend—she’s playing to win!

Erin: I think YNAB is really good for me, seeing numbers. Perfect example, I had some extra money I could throw at the loan, and I was going to go, I could throw 150, maybe 200 is what I was thinking I could do. It might pinch a little bit but it’d be fine. But then I looked, when you see the number right there, what was it at $5271 and it’s like, can I get $272, so now I’m down in the 4,000-range. … Yeah that is what motivates me.

Jesse: Looking at where she’s cut back to tackle all of that debt, Erin cited a common culprit: her food budget.

Erin: The month before I started, it’s always a crazy month right before the semester and I think my eating out, when I looked at it prior to YNAB, I went back to see how much should I budget, and it was $700, which is ridiculous. So my goal is to keep it in the $150.

Jesse: To keep her dining out budget down to $150, Erin only eats out about once per week, allows herself just one coffee-on-the-go per week, and springs for the spontaneous special meal out if she has friends in town. She’s also tapped into the art of adjusting her budget for times when life keeps her away from the kitchen.

Erin: What I have learned is next year. I’m definitely, in August and September, right at the start of the semester, budget more because with the long hours.

Jesse: Erin’s really mastered the art of awareness. She says …

Erin: I don’t import. I manually enter everything. Sometimes I’ll wait a couple of days and I’ll have to get on the bank’s website and make sure I’ve entered everything. It really does make you very aware of wow, do I really want to enter this? Maybe I shouldn’t buy it. And even if you say, okay, I want to go out and get something to eat, does it have to be the real fancier place and can you keep what’s acceptable as a lower price option.

Jesse: All of those little decisions have added up big:

Erin:  I should be out of consumer debt not this year, not the coming year, then following year, end of the following year. Then, it’s plowing more into retirement and more paying down the house. I could see retiring.  I really swear that by doing this and following the budget and seeing what’s happening with my money and seeing that yes, I could get out of debt, yeah. I was thinking, oh my God I was going to need a million or so dollars. It’s like no, no, I can get by with half of that.

Jesse: Through budgeting, Erin realized that she could comfortably retire on half of the amount that she previously thought. Retirement had seemed like an impossibility, but it’s well within her reach. Another example of awareness in action …

Things are looking pretty good for Erin, these days. She’s got a house she loves, the debt is shrinking by the day, and she’s on track for retirement. In the meantime, she totes her dogs around Flagstaff in her ‘94 pickup, minds her dining out budget (mostly), and enjoys the peace of mind that comes with a budget …

Erin: There’s nothing better than taking one of your books, going out to eat a breakfast and having somebody keep pouring you coffee. There’s nothing better on a Saturday.

Read more about Erin’s story

Subscribe and Share!

If you enjoyed Erin’s interview, subscribe to the YNAB podcast for more Debt Stories. Find us on iTunes, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts, and please leave us a review!

Do You Have a Debt Story?

Wanna know what’s better than an amazing debt makeover story? Several debt makeover stories! If you’re a YNABer and you’d be willing to let Jesse interview you for a future episode, write to us at In your email, include a short paragraph or a few bullets about your financial hurdles and how you overcame them.

Related Articles
Erin Realized That Retirement Was a Possibility