Tisa McGhee and family
Photo: John Loomis
"I'm just not sure what happened to my money," says Tisa McGhee, a 39-year-old consultant from Miami. "I couldn't have imagined that my finances would turn out like this. At one time it all seemed so manageable."

Three years ago, Tisa was doing fine financially. Married and the mother of two daughters, then 9 and 13, she had a $76,000-a-year job working for a nonprofit and had just completed her doctorate in social work. She and her husband were keeping up with the mortgage payments on their Miami-area townhouse, had paid off their credit card debt, and were building up a nice emergency fund. Tisa had started saving for her retirement, and she and her husband had even begun investing money for their daughters' college educations. They were doing a lot of things right.

Then Tisa's personal and financial life began to deteriorate. In 2007 she divorced and began having trouble handling the monthly mortgage payment on her own, especially when the adjustable interest rate jumped from 7.2 percent to 10.2 percent. She was in a car accident in her leased Audi and didn't have insurance to cover the damages. When she arranged for another car, she rolled into her new lease the amount she owed on the previous one. She borrowed $2,500 for the down payment, putting it on a credit card offered by the dealership, and assumed a $516-a-month payment. The lease is up in the spring—but then she'll need another car. To make matters worse, student loans that Tisa took out when she was in college and graduate school grew from $65,000 to $86,000. Most of her tuition had been paid by scholarships or employers, so she'd used the loan money primarily to help cover living expenses. "I didn't need to take out those loans," Tisa says now, with regret. To get some breathing room in her budget, she deferred payment on the loans, and the capitalized interest is what pushed up the balances by $21,000.

Next, Tisa's credit started to slide. After the divorce, "I did a lot of emotional spending," she says. "I would buy things for my girls to make up for the sadness their father and I had caused." Finally, in August 2009, she lost her job.

Today her savings are depleted, and she has about $8,500 in credit card debt. "It is hard to understand what to do when your finances seem overwhelming," she says. With two master's degrees and a PhD, Tisa is clearly an intelligent woman. She didn't spend lavishly, but she let a lot of things slip. "I consider myself savvy, but financially I'm lost," she says. "I want to be able to teach my daughters how to take care of themselves."

Tisa wrote to O for help, and the editors turned to me. I'm a nationally syndicated financial columnist for The Washington Post, and I've helped hundreds of clients straighten out their financial lives. It's common for smart people, just like Tisa, to make bad decisions and end up dealing with multiple problems—excessive debt, job loss, a costly divorce—all at once. Even though Tisa's finances are challenging, she can still get back on her feet. First she needs to get a job. She has great earning power and has started building her own consulting business. But I also advised her to make some short- and longterm changes.

Singletary's step-by-step guide: Tisa's long and short-term financial plan

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Michelle Singletary is the author of The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom (Zondervan) due out in January. For more information visit MichelleSingletary.com

From the January 2010 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.