Molly McKenna started the year celebrating—she was finally debt free. After years of hard work and careful budgeting, she had paid off the last of her student loans. She even had a wedding approaching that she was going to pay for in cash.
And then her plans fell apart in a single day.
We’ll get to that part. But first, let’s start at the beginning.
A few years ago, I decided to finally get my financial life in order. I started using YNAB on a recommendation from two financial planners from The Art of Finance in Austin—Philip Lorenz and Julia Lorenz-Olson. They actually took the time to walk me through using YNAB and how to set up my budget. It clicked right away. They talked about living on last month’s income and seeing how much was left over each month—it all made so much sense to me.
I was looking at my pile of student loans from grad school, and I decided I wanted to pay them off. With $21,000 to go on the debt, I set a goal to pay it off in three years. I was throwing everything at my loans. Some months I made $700 payments, some months I would get a bonus and put thousands toward these loans. And I did it! I remember the feeling when I got that email from the loan servicer saying it was my last payment. I was stoked, I just thought I was the coolest person.
And then about a month later the surgery happened.
The Emergency Surgery
I’d been having pain in my abdomen. One day, I went to see a doctor and had an ultrasound done, but they didn’t see anything. I was told if it gets worse to go to the ER.
By 11pm that night, I was screaming in pain. My fiancé took me to the 24-hour clinic a half-mile away. I gave them my insurance card, had a CT scan done, got some pain meds—the usual bit.
Then the doctor said I needed to be transferred to the Round Rock facility in the next town over. An ambulance came and whisked me away. They took my insurance card and gave me more pain meds. It was very early in the morning when I arrived in Round Rock, and I was slipping in and out of consciousness. At this point, I found out I would be needing surgery.
They operated soon after and the surgery lasted about an hour. The doctor and staff at the facility were amazing and kind, and I was sent home that day for a long recovery.
The Bad News
After three weeks, I got a call to schedule a post-op with the doctor. The scheduler said she wanted to give me a heads up: the post-op would cost $175 because they were out of network. I paused. Was I out of network for the surgery? Yes, she said.
That’s when I found out my hospital bill was $40,000—even though I had insurance.
I just cried. I had just paid off my student loans, and now this. It was devastating.
What I Did Next
After a few tears (and then a few more), I contacted my insurance broker. She was very confident we would work this out. The hospital (a very prominent organization) is in our network, she said, and there is no reason they should be saying they’re out of network. She told me stories of other medical debts going from an $80,000 bill to $2,000. It was the glimmer of hope I needed.
But, over the next eight months, that hope dwindled.
As it turns out, the hospital had temporarily dropped out of my network for the month of January. My surgery was January 14.
My case manager took another position and my case got lost in the shuffle.
And the bills started rolling in.
We Changed Our Wedding Plans
During this time, I was engaged and my fiancé and I were thinking about what our wedding would look like. Weddings are expensive, and we had started saving for our big day and had a wedding category set up in YNAB. We had about $3,500 in the category saved up.
Then, I got the bill from the emergency clinic for $12,000.
My fiancé and I talked about our wedding. We had imagined one thing, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad—maybe kind of nice even—to have a smaller, more intimate ceremony.
I called to pay my $12,000 bill and put on my negotiating hat. I asked if they would take $3,500 in cash today to cancel out the bill. She said “Ok, I’ll take it.” It was our wedding fund.
I moved the money from my wedding category to my medical category in YNAB and paid out my bill. We decided to elope.
The Last Big Bill
I had one bill left, and it was the BIG bill. I owed $27,000. When I called to negotiate, they weren’t budging much. My options were to pay a $20,000 lump sum payment to settle the bill or go on a payment plan of $785 a month for three years. That was a tough pill to swallow.
When it comes to medical bills and insurance, I don’t agree with how this was handled. But, the thing is, I had surgery—these doctors and nurses saved my life. I received excellent medical care, and I know I need to pay for that.
On the Money Front
Without YNAB I don’t know where I’d be—I’d probably be crying in a ditch somewhere. When you don’t have a handle on your finances, you just feel like your life is out of control.
The first thing I did was add a medical debt category to my budget in YNAB. That was really tough to swallow. But you know what, you have to roll with the punches and I had to see this number in front of my face.
I just started putting everything I could into my medical category. I paid the physician bill, I paid the ambulance bill.
My Eat, Drink, Play category got drastically slashed—anything that wasn’t necessary. Getting my nails done, my hair done, those are just luxuries you give up. It might be 3-5 years before I do those again, but I still have money for my car insurance. I can still live a productive and healthy way. I can wake up grateful every day for those around me. But, I’m probably going to be on a payment plan for the next five years.
The CBS Breakthrough
I hit the end of my rope a few weeks back. I was getting more frequent calls from collectors harassing me to pay this bill when I saw CBS was running a series called “Medical Price Roulette.” They told a woman’s story and it sounded very similar to mine with the surprise bill. They asked for stories and I wrote in, not thinking anything would come of it.
To my surprise, a producer called me a few days later, and Anna Werner—a National News Correspondent—flew into Austin the next day to interview me. We talked for hours.
My story ran multiple times on air. You can watch it here.
The CBS story turned out to be a real blessing. I ended up getting calls from wedding vendors around the country after hearing I cancelled my wedding—it was really beautiful. It restored my faith in humanity at that point.
After CBS ran the story, I was contacted by the hospital and they offered me a 50% discount ($13,500 down from $27,000). After days of back-and-forth negotiations, we settled the bill at $6,000. I am over-the-moon excited that the hospital discounted the bill by 75%, and I’m eternally grateful to CBS for telling my story. And of course—THANK YOU YNAB for making a $6,000 bill seem totally manageable!
The healthcare system is still out of control, but I feel like I won one for the little guys.