Jackie Vitas lived paycheck to paycheck.

“I’ve always had credit issues and have a history of poor financial management,” she said. “I’ve always been broke. Finances have caused numerous issues in my life and affected both romantic and familial relationships.”

Single, living alone and in her 40s, Jackie moved to Missoula in December of 2020. Although she had good financial role models as a child, college marked the beginning of her money trouble as she began to accumulate student loan debt.

“I thought about it as someone giving me free money and didn’t consider the ramifications of taking on that debt,” she said.

Jackie also engaged in emotional spending.

“For me there are lots of emotional entanglements with money,” said Jackie. “‘You don’t feel good? Go fix it with a dinner out or some retail therapy.’”

Physically unable to donate blood plasma, a source of income on which she depended, Jackie had worked herself into a debt situation in which she could no longer pay her rent on time. As a result, she applied for Montana Emergency Rental Assistance, or MERA. MERA was a temporary federally funded relief program designed to support Montanans who experienced financial hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic that caused them to become at risk of housing instability.

Through that program, she also learned about other resources, including Homeword’s free Financial Skill Building class. Ready to make a change and learn how to manage her money effectively, Jackie signed up for Homeword’s Financial Skill Building class.

“Taking Homeword’s financial skill building class is probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my finances,” she said. “I feel hopeful and not so alone. Before, I felt like I was the only one out there struggling, but in class I realized other people go through the same things I do. I’m not the only one to have a financial crisis.”

After completing Financial Skill Building at Homeword, Jackie met with Homeword financial educator Katie for individualized, one-on-one financial counseling. These sessions gave her the tools to navigate her complex financial world.

“It put me back in control of my own life,” she said. “I control my debt, not the other way around. I can see the whole picture instead of being zoomed in on the worst thing all the time.”

Together Jackie and Katie worked on a budget, went over debt repayment options and strategies and pulled a credit report. As Jackie flexed her money-saving muscles, learning how to strengthen them, she felt her perspective begin to shift. Her debt no longer seemed overwhelming, and she felt that budgeting and saving was beginning to become second nature.

“I would recommend the class to anyone,” said Jackie, “even if you’re in a good place financially. I don’t think it’s just for people who are struggling. I wish they taught classes like it in high school or college so that before you ever start out on the path you at least have a map! If I had learned these things 20 years ago, I might not be in the situation I’m in today.”

In the months after completing class and financial counseling with Homeword, Jackie made steady progress toward increasing her savings. She also set aside enough to cover all her expenses while making a career transition and her move into a new rental home.

Now Jackie pays $400 less each month in rent and lives somewhere she feels suits her much better.

“It’s never too late,” said Jackie. “There’s a better way to live.”