Head Knowledge to Behavior Change: One Family's SmartDollar Journey

If you had asked Steven, 25, of St. Louis a few years ago what he thought about the idea of using an employee benefit to manage his money, he would probably have laughed.

“I never thought I’d be one to regularly take advice on money,” he says. “I used to tell my sister-in-law I thought it was silly for her to pay to attend seminars about how to save money. But now I get it. Being smart with money is easy stuff, but it’s also something you’ve got to plan carefully.”

Using the employee benefit of SmartDollar, Steven has made the jump from head knowledge to big-time behavior change. These days he’s learning as much as he can and finding smart ways to apply his knowledge in real life. Careful planning and steady intensity have allowed him and his wife to experience a dramatic turnaround that’s strengthened their marriage in unexpected ways.

“I take a half-hour lunch break daily and log in to my SmartDollar account,” Steven says. “Whether I’m watching the lessons or listening to debt-free screams, I’m gaining knowledge. It’s easy to understand and motivating to participate.”

Last year the benefits of SmartDollar arrived right on time for Steven and his wife. They moved to St. Louis for a new phase of life and each took new jobs. Although they’ve been together for nine years, they have never been big savers.

“In all our years together, my wife and I had never had more than a few hundred dollars saved. Then in September 2016, my company, Emmaus, provided this benefit for all team members. It just took a few weeks for things to start happening.”

As much as Steven enjoyed watching the SmartDollar video lessons on his lunch breaks, he soon realized it was time to share all he was learning with his wife.

“One video impacted me a lot when it talked about how this stuff will never work unless you’re on the same page. I said, ‘I have to get my wife on board.’ We started watching the videos together and decided to cut back on some things. We took a look at how much we make, then looked at our bank account and we both wondered, ‘Where is all the money going?’”

That was a turning point for them both. They made a plan as a couple and got proactive about their money.

“In October we met Baby Step 1, building up our first-ever savings account of $1,000. That felt so good and was such a relief! And then we started rolling our debt snowball. Things were going really smoothly, and we even paid off two of my student loans. We moved on to paying off our moving expenses and were working on our credit card debt.”

Then in January, Steven’s wife was laid off.

“We had just moved into our new home, and hadn’t even made our first mortgage payment. I think that qualifies as an emergency.”

It’s a lot easier to handle a job loss from out of nowhere when you already have a plan in place to keep it from setting you back for long financially. Because of their quick work last year paying down student loans and a lot of their credit card debt, this couple was in much better shape when the blow fell.

“We had about $80,000 in debt when she was laid off and were down to just my income. If we hadn’t started saving, I don’t know what would’ve happened. But having that emergency fund built up, we didn’t even worry about it! The progress we had already made with the Baby Steps saved us so much and we both realized how quickly we could have fallen into so much more debt.”

The news got better. Steven’s wife was able to get another job after just two months.

“Instead of being panicked by it, we just felt like we hit a bump in the road,” Steven said. “We paused our big debt payments for a bit, then this past March we started tackling it again.”

Today the couple has made amazing progress on their debt and have a plan to be completely debt-free within the next two years.

“We are really excited to get near that next step. When my wife’s car is paid off, we’ll move that $330-a-month payment onto the last remaining student loan.”

Being on the same page with his wife about their money and goals helped them through a tough time and brought a new unity to their marriage.

“At first my wife told me she didn’t think she was going to like this program,” Steven said. “But now that we’re on the same page, it’s like we’re dating again. We both like finding an inexpensive way to go do stuff, because we know we only have to do this for so long.”

The new unity also has them thinking about the future. Later this year they’re expecting their first child.

“Before we were introduced to SmartDollar, we had planned to take a big 10-year anniversary trip to Italy,” Steven said. “But we changed it to be a weekend float trip. Sure it’s a smaller trip, but we’re only in our 20s. It’s so much better to do something we can afford and give up the big expensive debt-ridden vacation. I would rather go on four vacations a year when I’m 50 than do something big now and go into debt. What I really can’t wait for is the day we get to Baby Step 5 where we’re saving up for our new baby’s college fund!”

Just like Steven did, you can improve your financial outlook today. SmartDollar participants, start by taking our wellness survey. Once you have your score, review the Baby Step lessons that can get you moving in the right direction, putting some healthy distance between yourself and the edge. If you have trouble logging in, please visit our Help Center.

If your company does not offer SmartDollar as an employee benefit yet, read more about bringing SmartDollar to your organization here.