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

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.

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?

(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 seeing 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 

We’re very grateful that Becca has opened up to us and shared this very personal story. Please respect her willingness to share and be sensitive in your comments.

Correction: In our original version, we implied that Becca found LearnVest in 2007 when the site launched in 2009. In fact, she’s been a LearnVest reader for two years. 

UPDATE: Becca informed us on Tuesday, October 23rd that she is officially cancer-free!

Love reading other people’s financial tales? Check out more great LearnVest-exclusive personal stories.

  • manhattanette

    Wow, what an amazing story. Thank you for sharing!

  • Amber

    God bless you! I pray that you are cancer free! Thank you so much for sharing your story – definitely the best LV article I have ever read.

  • Joceysweetp

    I think Becca is an amazing girl.  She is inspirational.  But its due to a positive attitude.  Life throws curve balls, but she chose to enjoy the game.

    I pray Becca will have a complete and total healing, and a wonderful long, healthy and full life.

  • http://www.littledailyreflections.com/ Kira

    Amazing story, and inspirational on SO many levels. Good luck, Becca!

  • Mkelly10

    Good luck!!!

  • Kat

    Thank you for sharing Becca!  This is a wonderful story and best wishes on a bright future with your new husband.  

  • Vicky

    Best of luck!!!

  • Tonia

    I love it!  She is a “true” inspiration…not just because of the cancer, but because she was frugal before the tragedy

  • andreamnyc

    Great job learnvest!  beautiful and inspirational story!  please keep us posted on Becca!!! 
    Becca- thank you for sharing something so intimate.  good luck and keep up that great attitude!!!

  • WisconsinGirl

    OK… I’m confused. The article says looked up Learnvest in 2007… but on their own press page it says they launched in 2009. I am also confused about what happened to the 45k saved when the article says that they spent 4k on medical bills was leftover from the “frugal” wedding. 20k for a wedding is frugal?? How does no one else notice that none of this adds up? And there are no college loans to pay off? 
    The story is inspiring but not financially so I just don’t see how it fits on this website. 

    • AldenWicker

      Hi there, 

      We’ve corrected the article to reflect a more accurate timeline. Becca has in fact been a LearnVest reader for two years. But she still has her emergency fund intact–she managed her medical bills specifically so she wouldn’t have to dip into it. 

      Thanks for commenting!
      Alden

      • WisconsinGirl

        Thank you for clarifying!

    • was.disgusted.slightly happier

       Thank you WisconsinGirl. I wrote the same thing a minute after you. LearnVest – people think that Becca wrote this. It clearly states, as told to Alden Wicker in the byline, but it still coming off her writing.

  • disgusted

    This story is inspiring, but I wish LearnVest wouldn’t fabricate parts. This woman clearly did not save money because of LearnVest in 2007, as the article claimed. LearnVest launched in 2009. I feel like this is a very cheap thing for them to do – take this woman’s story and claim that she was able to pay for her cancer bills and her wedding BECAUSE OF THEM. It’s a lie and they should be ashamed. Becca, however, should be proud and I wish her all the luck. Hopefully they are compensating her for using her as advertising.

    How do I know it’s a lie? Quote:
    “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.)”

    If she started saving the same year as she bought her job (2007) then LearnVest had nothing to do with her success.

    -Disgusted.

  • Rebeccal2004

    I am praying that Jesus will bless you with a complete healing and bless your marriage. It sounds as though you have a great relationship. Put Christ in the center and nothing else will come between you, not even cancer. Kudos to you for your disciplined savings plan as well. :)

  • Bsasse1234

    God Bless them both. What shining examples of what Love and determination can do!

  • Lindsay

    What an AMAZING story of strength!  You are inspiring!  Thank you for sharing your story with us!

  • YP

    Wow, awesome story and all the best wishes in the world to you for a cancer free diagnosis.

  • bmoss

    Thank you for sharing your story..it reminds us all to keep a positive attitude when faced with challenges. Many happy years to you and your new husband!

  • Anna

    Congratulations.

    I live in Austalia where healthcare is publicly funded and I cannot believe that someone on her salary would have to pay out d their own pocket for CANCER treatment. Our public hospitals are world quality and cover anyone anytime any where. America you need healthcare!

  • Lovely Pictures

    If you haven’t already done so, be sure to click on the ‘Rachel Moore Photography’ link at the bottom as there are really lovely pictures of the wedding + reception.  All the best to you and your husband Becca!  I hope there will be an update on Becca’s cancer being in full remission when that news is received…

  • Carole

    Becca:  I hope your results are Cancer-free.  Both my husband & I are survivors.  In my case, I chose to live life, a glass half-full instead of half-empty.  No one should have to face what you’ve faced so early in life, but you did with grace and class.  

  • Pchong2007

    What an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing. You are the level headed and positive young lady that I would lover my daughter to grow up to be. All the very best to you and your husband.

  • Cynthia Tanon

    This is an amazing story, good luck and lots of health and happiness to you two!

  • Lmericle

    I wish you luck!!!

  • Adrienne Houghton

    great story & best of luck!

  • Tina

    I am crying too! Way to go Becca! Won’t you please keep us posted to your progress? Sending prayers for a speedy and full recovery your way.

  • j

    you’re such an inspiration!

  • http://twitter.com/CowleyAssoc Cowley

    What a beautiful story!  Thank you for helping so many.  I thoroughly enjoyed your LearnVest LIVE event and can’t wait for the next one.  I shared this to my followers on my blog: http://www.cowleyweb.com/blog/learnvest-live    Keep up the great work!  - Gail Cowley, Cowley Associates

  • Kimphi68

    From one survivor to another – a big cheer for your cancer-free news!

  • Janice232

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful, inspiring story!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LJAPNSXUKLLLVCCGC53JZ43HWE Jaye

    Great story!

  • Nnn

    wow, great story. lots of love and prayers for you both.

  • DaPeace

    Praise God! She’s free of cancer! Becca thank you for sharing and opening yourself to the world, your story is really inspiring, and I wish you and your husband and family all the Best, and God’s blessings! :)  

  • Jrzegrl

    Thank you for sharing your amazing and insightful story. Congrats on being cancer- free :D

  • Hankol53

    I went through throat cancer, my disability insurance was my pension. I was unable to work for 6 months. The bills for surgery, radiation, and chemo plus trips to hospital would have been over a 250,000 my share ended up being around 16,000. This is when you realize health insurance is more like co insurance. And if you end up unable to work then you realize that disablility insurance is important. Without health insurance the cancer would have bankrupted us.