Meet the Winner of LearnVest Live: From True Love to Cancer—and Back

By Becca WildsmithLearnVest

As LearnVest has grown from smart financial content, to a whole-financial-life website with a budgeting tool, bootcamps and affordable financial planning, there’s been one thing that keeps us focused and grounded: you, the readers.

So when we started planning our first ever live event–a night of A-list stars, fun and personal finance, in New York City–we asked you to send in your stories about your biggest financial triumph for a chance to win a free trip to LearnVest Live.

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One story stood out to us, so we flew this amazing reader to New York City to share what she’s learned: From finding true love to receiving one scary diagnosis, see how her financial habits have shaped her life. 

I wasn’t born with budgeting smarts. In fact, it took me until my twenties to even learn the basics of personal finance.

I didn’t know to negotiate my first salary out of college, as a graphic designer at the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. I thought that if someone said this is how much they were going to pay you, you jump on it because (yay!) you have a job. So I started with a salary of $28,000.

Still, I was so excited to have what seemed like so much disposable income, with no real financial responsibilities outside of my rent and utilities. I went out every night for dinner with my girlfriends. I went shopping, buying Coach purses to treat myself.

Two years into my first job, I started looking into buying a home. That’s when I realized I had almost no savings, or any real financial security. What a reality check! I spent one solid day Googling and researching: What is a budget? What is retirement? That’s when I found LearnVest and subscribed to the Daily newsletter.

(By the way, I did end up buying a home that year, but that was in 2007, and I was able to get almost 100% financing. If I tried that again today and was in the same financial situation as I was back then, I don’t think I would have been able to do it.)

How I Saved Up $45,000

It was then that I made the decision that I would begin saving every penny I could. I started a budget that included putting away as much money into savings as possible. I canceled my cable and internet, started clipping coupons, cooking dinner in, and once a month I would purchase one thing to “reward” myself for working hard to transfer more money into savings. (Learn why you need to splurge on yourself.) I even started a freelance business to take on extra graphic design work in my free time, and negotiated several pay raises at work.

RELATED: 9 Ways to Make Money on the Side

Every extra dollar I made from freelancing I dumped into savings. And I was having fun doing it! I was having friends over for dinner which I found so much more fun and intimate than going out to a restaurant. I paid off my car nine months early, and drove it through the car wash to celebrate.

Four years into my job at the Symphony, a recruiter contacted me from Vanity Fair Corporation for a graphic design job, where I would be designing for brands like The North Face and 7 for All Mankind. This time, I was prepared. I negotiated my salary and got $18,000 more than I had at my previous job, and an extra week’s vacation. Just by asking! Even better, due to my hard work, I started my new job with $45,000 saved up in cash. (Editor’s note: That’s about double the emergency fund LearnVest recommends for someone who makes Becca’s salary.)

I felt like I was really on top of my personal finances. It was about this time that my college sweetheart, Tim, got back in touch with me. We started dating, and six months later we got engaged on a trip to New York. It was the final piece I had been missing. Now I just needed to plan my wedding.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans …

A Wedding—and a Diagnosis

My parents gave us $25,000 for our wedding, saying in effect, “This is our gift to you. We would love for you to have the wedding you’ve been dreaming of, but whatever is leftover is yours to keep.” Tempted by the prospect of plumping our savings further, we immediately dropped the money into our interest-bearing savings account, and then got to work planning a frugal, beautiful wedding. I was buying a dress, booking a venue and picking out what to carry–basically just wrapped up in the bananas business of planning a wedding.

And then I got the news.

It was two months after we got engaged and a couple days before Thanksgiving last year. Tim was traveling for work and was going to meet me at his family’s home in Minnesota. I was at work when I got a phone call from a nurse at my doctor’s office to follow up on a routine annual physical. “We’ve reviewed the results from your exam,” she told me. “You have papillary carcinoma.” She started talking about “next steps” and coming into the office to talk to the doctor, but I barely heard a word.

I hung up the phone and sat there for 15 minutes, and then started googling “papillary carcinoma.” And I called back and said, “I’m confused, are you saying I have thyroid cancer?”

“Yes,” she said. It was that moment that it really hit me. She went into further detail about what my diagnosis was and what it meant. It was a very treatable form of cancer, but would require surgery and possibly radiation.

I walked down into our lobby at work, sat down on a couch, and called Tim. He was as stunned as I was.

“Wait a minute, you have cancer?” he said. We both broke down crying for 10 minutes. But he was quick to say, “OK, we’re not going to be upset, we’re going to get through this.” We came to an agreement that we weren’t going to get down about this, and would stay positive.

There was one saving grace in all of this (besides my future husband being so supportive). I had prepared for that moment, when you get that curve ball, by saving up my emergency fund. During my first doctor’s appointment, with Tim and my mother there next to me, the doctor explained the procedures I would have to go through. I realized this would be more than just taking some medication, and I started seing dollar signs. I had health insurance, so I hoped I wouldn’t have to pay much out of pocket.

But even if I did, I would be prepared.

What I Discovered About Medical Bills

I still had more work to do, though. I researched my company’s Short Term Disability plan and re-evaluated my Flex Spending. I looked into what was covered by insurance ahead of time–it would cover 80% of most of the procedures and I would pay the rest.

So I requested estimates on all doctor’s appointments, biopsies, treatments and surgery before having them done. But I wouldn’t know until after my surgery whether the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and I would need radiation treatment, which would only be partially covered.

I went into surgery two days before Christmas. When I woke up, the doctors informed me that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and that I would need radiation, which would start in February.

I allowed myself some time to be upset, but Tim wouldn’t let me stay that way for long. Thoughout this whole ordeal, he was always able to pull me out of it when I was feeling down. Now, I needed to focus on my next steps to getting well and saving money to pay for the treatment. I didn’t want to dip into my emergency fund too often. That was pretty easy–I was sitting at home recovering, not going out or spending any money at all.

During this time I also made a discovery: You can negotiate medical bills. I got a bill for $2,500, but I didn’t really understand it. So I called the insurance company, who said there was nothing they could do about it. Then I called the hospital. The insurance department at the hospital said they would do some investigating. When they called me back, to my surprise, they’d discovered I had been billed twice for the same surgery and they owed me $250.

Before, I just assumed that if you had something done, you owed the money! It wasn’t until I started questioning things that I realized it was possible to save on medical bills. I also found out that if you prepay your copay, they’ll actually give you a break of 10% off your bill. For a $750 procedure, that’s a big chunk of change.

We recently sat down and added up all the medical costs associated with my thyroid cancer. Without insurance, it would have cost us somewhere from $40,000 to $50,000. With insurance, careful planning and lots of questions, it cost us just about $4,000. Incidentally, that’s about how much we had leftover from our wedding budget.

The Perfect-for-Us Wedding

We set our wedding date for mid-May. I was still in the middle of treatment, but we continued to plan for our wedding. Two things guided our decisions: our wedding budget, and the clarity this ordeal had given us on what was really important.

We wanted to be surrounded by all the people we love, so we invited more than 300 people. We also wanted beautiful photography, and a honeymoon where we could finally relax and celebrate. But everything else was secondary. If a question of paying for something came up and it didn’t reflect what was important to us, we nixed it.

We kept things really simple. We didn’t have a photobooth or live music. The favors and guestbook were as simple as we could make them. We picked a church that was magnificent already and didn’t need $3,000 of flowers to decorate it. We had friends do our music, the flowers and the wedding coordination. My husband and I designed all of the wedding invitations, programs and dinner menus (it helps to be a graphic designer!).

We held our wedding at the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Because I knew them and had worked there, they were terrifically flexible. We told them our budget and the number of people, and said, what can you do? We saved money by using the same menu as other events there that weekend and taking the most basic place setting and chairs.

RELATED: 48 Creative Ways to Save on Your Wedding

Wedding planning was so much fun, and it wasn’t stressful at all, because we were in the right mindset and we knew that as long as we were married at the end of the day, that’s all that mattered.

By March I was done with radiation and was taking hormone medication that mimics your thyroid function. But I wasn’t feeling well, and was getting nervous as the big day approached. Finally, two weeks before the wedding, I started feeling like myself again.

The wedding day went off without a hitch. For me, the most significant moment of the day was during our vows, which were the traditional “better or worse / richer or poorer.” When Tim and I got to the “in sickness and in health” promise, we both got emotional.

It hit us what we had already been through together, the magnitude of it, and how much stronger it had made us. It was those emotions mixed with the excitement of the future that lay ahead that made that moment really powerful for me.And, of course, it was just moments after we said those words that we became husband and wife. It was awesome. This week I have one final treatment. And early next week, I will find out if I’m officially cancer-free. Wish me luck, won’t you?

Wedding photography,  © 2012 Rachel Moore Photography