A silver lining to a storm of financial challenges

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In 2012, Jennifer Hutter, now 37, faced an enormous emotional and financial hurdle: an end to her 12-year marriage and a transition from being a stay-at-home mom of two young kids to a working parent. “The stress was indescribable,” she says. But once she was in a new rhythm, she figured, life would settle into a comfortable routine. Instead, the next four years brought an avalanche of surprising events—and expenses.

First, a happy surprise. Jennifer found love again with Bryant, who brought two children of his own into their family. He was recently divorced as well, and between the two proceedings the new couple had accumulated $50,000 in legal fees. They had little savings, and Jennifer worried that their new family foundation was getting built on a mountain of debt.

Then, an accident struck: Wanting to treat her teenage son to an adventure, Jennifer took him on a zip lining trip. While dangling 60 feet above the ground, she slipped and came crashing down, shattering multiple bones and sustaining serious injuries. Jennifer spent the next several months alternating her time between surgeries and bed rest. And on top of it all, she had financial stress due to months out of work and medical bills.

From bad to worse … and reactive to proactive

This stress reached another level when Bryant was laid off. “I was in a complete tailspin,” Jennifer says. Between legal fees, medical bills and the day-to-day challenge of raising four kids with a smaller paycheck, Jennifer realized that she’d been living in reactive mode for four years.

“I needed to stop reacting and start making a plan. Instead of asking questions like ‘Why does this always happen to me?,’ we needed to start asking how we could grow in a positive way.”

Jennifer and Bryant used to take a month-by-month approach to stretching their paychecks across the family’s expenses. But this time, they sat down and made a detailed budget—one that accounted for things like holidays, summer trips and emergency car repairs.

Jennifer used a budgeting app on her phone to track every dollar. She increased her 401(k) retirement savings, and signed up for more expansive insurance coverage. “I didn’t think I could afford to do it, but more importantly, I couldn’t afford not to do it,” she says. And the short-term pinch of skipping a meal out or a weekend getaway was worth the peace of mind she got from knowing her family would be covered if another crisis hit. 

“This changed the way I think about money forever,” Jennifer says. “I try to learn more about my finances and teach what I can to my children by scheduling time to read insights from financial leaders and keep up on financial news.”

Jennifer—who is now back on her feet and fully mobile—says her family still enjoys splurges big and small. A day trip to a waterpark, a family vacation to California—as long as they’re accounted for in their financial plan. “We’re still able to have lots of good times now,” she says, “while still working toward our long-term goals.”

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