No one wants to hear the words “cancer” or “you’ve been let go,” but it sometimes happens. And after recovering from the emotional shock, the financial strain soon starts to set in.
Sonja F. had to face both a cancer diagnosis and a job loss—all around the same time. And while she was still in the middle of one of the scariest seasons of her life, she felt at peace.
“I had all kinds of darts coming at me from all directions. And going through all this would have melted some people to the ground,” Sonja said. “But first, I know the God I serve. And second, because I have financial peace, I have peace.”
That’s all because many years earlier, Sonja began taking steps that would help her family weather the storms that she’s facing today.
A Rocky Start: Hard Work Pays Off
Growing up in a small town in southwestern Oklahoma, Sonja graduated from college in 1996 as a single mother with three kids. Dreaming of a better life for herself and her children, they packed their things and moved to Oklahoma City, where Sonja pursued a teaching career.
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But Sonja fell into a trap that many recent college grads fall into. She got a new car. She found a nice place to live that was a bit more expensive than she could afford. And she quickly realized it costs much more to live in a big city than she originally thought!
Between trying to keep the lights on and putting food on the table for her kids, Sonja was soon drowning in a sea of bills and debt payments. At one point, she was juggling four different jobs—from mental health services to childcare at a local church—just to keep her finances afloat.
Still, she pressed forward. She put in hundreds of hours working alongside volunteers in order to qualify for a new home through Habitat for Humanity, which helps families in need of affordable housing. The experience gave her a heart for those who are less fortunate than her, leading Sonja to volunteer countless additional hours helping to build homes for others through Habitat for Humanity since then.
“It was important for me and for my children to see that hard work does pay off, that you can work towards whatever goal you have and reach it if you just get out there and do it,” Sonja said. “It was very inspiring to have people who didn't even know you come up and work side-by-side with you to help you have something for your family.”
“It was important for me and for my children to see that hard work does pay off, that you can work towards whatever goal you have and reach it if you just get out there and do it."
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Student Loan Interest: The Last Straw
Sonja and her kids lived in that home for three years and, during that time, she met her future husband, Darrin, through a health agency they both worked for. After they got married, they both brought their debt into the marriage and struggled to make progress financially.
And they were getting tired of living that way.
“We would work, pay our bills, eat up all the money, and repeat,” Sonja said.
The last straw came when she called to find out how much she owed on her student loans. She originally borrowed $8,000 and paid the minimum payment every month for eight years, just like she had been told to do. But she was stunned to find out she’d barely made a dent. She still owed nearly $6,000. That revelation was the spark she needed to make a change.
That’s also when a friend told Sonja about Dave Ramsey. Sonja began to listen to the radio show every day on her way home from work and, on one drive home, she passed by a church promoting a Financial Peace University class. It was the push Sonja and her husband needed to sign up.
“I had all kinds of darts coming at me from all directions. And going through all this would have melted some people to the ground. But first, I know the God I serve. And second, because I have financial peace, I have peace.”
“I had never heard of FPU until I started listening to Dave, and [then I saw] a billboard two miles away from my house talking about it,” Sonja said. “I knew the Lord was trying to tell me something. I had no idea how much it was going to help me. But now I look back at that, and I think those were steps being ordered for us.”
From the get-go, the FPU class helped Darrin and Sonja realize they had to give every dollar a name, and they quickly found some places where they could cut spending from their budget.
“We were spending $500 a month eating out,” Darrin said. “And we looked at each other and were like, ‘That is too much.’”
Most importantly, the class gave Sonja and Darrin a plan for their money and helped them dream again about what could be.
“I didn't imagine being able to have our house paid off, having no debt, and being able to invest in real estate and doing things like that,” Sonja said. “I just didn't see that as being a possibility before Dave Ramsey.”
“I didn't imagine being able to have our house paid off, having no debt, and being able to invest in real estate and doing things like that. I just didn't see that as being a possibility before Dave Ramsey.”
Saving for Retirement: Taking the Next Step
Sonja and Darrin worked their way out of debt, built up a full emergency fund, and—for the first time—they were excited about the possibility of building wealth. They just weren’t sure how to start saving for retirement.
“I knew how to pay my bills, but I didn’t have more knowledge than that,” Sonja said. “Growing up, we didn’t have much money. Grandma used to say, ‘Hide it under your bed!’”
They used the SmartVestor program to connect with investing professionals Charlotte and Gary S. And while Sonja and Darrin were skeptical about trusting someone with their major financial decisions, their fears quickly disappeared after meeting Charlotte.
“We knew right off the bat that Charlotte was in it for us and for anybody that came to her,” Sonja said. “She had our best interest in mind, and she showed that to us over and over and over again.”
After understanding all their investment options, Sonja and Darrin began aggressively saving for retirement to catch up. Having someone in their corner who would be there to answer any questions gave the couple confidence to navigate through changing life circumstances and milestones.
When Darrin, who was in the National Guard, was about to be deployed to Iraq or when Sonja turned 50, Charlotte met with them to discuss their financial situation and help them work through their options.
“Anytime things change, [Charlotte] would always meet with us. It didn't matter where it was,” Darrin said. “We got to a point where we'd increase our savings to where we were maxing out what we could put toward our retirement. We were all in."
“Anytime things change, [Charlotte] would always meet with us. It didn't matter where it was. We got to a point where we'd increase our savings to where we were maxing out what we could put toward our retirement. We were all in.”
Life’s Hurdles: Prepared for What Comes
In addition to working through Darrin’s deployment a few years ago, last summer, Sonja F. received news from her doctor that no one ever wants to hear. She was diagnosed with marginal zone lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the system that removes waste and toxins from the body.
“Whenever you hear the word ‘cancer,’ it’s very scary,” Sonja said. “It was devastating news to hear.”
After six months of chemotherapy, she started feeling stronger and more optimistic about her future. But, then, more bad news headed her way. Sonja, a teen pregnancy counselor, was told that the program she helped run for more than 13 years was being shut down due to budget cuts.
Thankfully, the steps that Sonja and Darrin took years before allowed them to fight their new battles without having to stress over finances. They have the right insurance in place. They’re completely debt-free with a paid-for home.And they’ve been consistently building their retirement nest egg for more than a decade.
Sonja knows there are many people facing a medical emergency or a job loss who aren’t in the same position. According to a recent study by the American Journal of Medicine, about 42% of cancer patients completely drain their entire life's savings within two years of their diagnosis, leading many to declare bankruptcy.1
“Because of the decisions we made back then—going through Financial Peace University, learning how to save, and starting to invest—we’ll be okay,” Sonja said. “It taught us how to prepare for when Murphy comes. Because Murphy's been hanging out at my doorstep for a while now. So that gives us a peace of mind.”
While Sonja and her family still have a long road ahead of them, she’s fighting the good fight—armed with unshakable faith, peace and hope.
“I think that strength came from my mom's strength and my grandmother's faith and my family and people around me always praying for me,” Sonja said. “They knew God had something in store for me. And He still does. He's not done with me yet.”
Take Your Next Step!
Like Sonja and Darrin, you never know what life will throw your way. But you can take steps today to make sure you and your family won’t have to worry about finances when Murphy comes knocking at your door.
Having a financial advisor who you can turn to for help—like Sonja and Darrin did—is a great place to start. Our SmartVestor program can help you find an advisor in your area who can help you save for retirement and navigate through any financial questions that come your way.