Nadia* is one tough cookie. The North Carolina native left home at 17 and fought to put herself through college, graduating with a manageable $23,000 in debt. Now 25, she's a part-time producer for a National Public Radio affiliate. "I like public radio because it's a service," says Nadia, who'd like to endow a scholarship someday. "I want to leave a legacy."

I applaud that sense of purpose, but after reviewing Nadia's finances, I told her what I've told so many women: Before you take care of someone else, you must first take care of yourself.

Getting Real

Nadia has three part-time jobs (along with her radio gig, she's a nanny and works at a local community center). Together they generate $1,250 in monthly take-home pay. That's a lot less than the $1,800 she needs for living expenses, payments on her high-interest credit card debt (which is $3,300 and growing), and, eventually, her student loan. (Nadia earns so little that her loan is in forbearance, which means she's able to postpone her $265 monthly repayments for up to a year.) Instead of figuring out how to overcome this deficit, she's been haggling with her doctor about paying $25 a month to settle a $2,300 bill for an appendectomy. (Most of the $40,000 cost was forgiven because Nadia was uninsured.) This effort will do little to help her overall financial situation.

Picking Up the Pace

Nadia is by no means a spendthrift. (For her, ordinary toiletries are a splurge.) She just makes too little to cover her expenses, let alone build up an emergency fund. But between Nadia's three jobs, she works 40 to 50 hours a week. At her age and with her limited means, she should be grinding away for up to 60. If she could increase her hours or land a full-time gig at the station, she could earn enough to solve her problems.

I'm not oblivious to how hard it can be to turn a freelance assignment into a permanent position. Nadia must be willing to do anything and everything asked of her, and there are no guarantees—but one thing she's sure to get is a great reference.

Looking Ahead

I advised Nadia to resume repaying her student loan. Interest continues to accrue during forbearance, which only increases the amount owed. (And unlike other types of debt, student loans usually can't be erased by filing for bankruptcy.) Adding at least 40 hours of paid work every month should net enough after-tax income to cover her monthly payments.

She should also contact a nonprofit like the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies ( This group offers debt management advice and can help consumers reach better terms with credit card lenders, including lowered interest rates and monthly payments.

Nadia bought health insurance after her surgery, so she won't ever face another huge medical bill. (Note to the uninsured: Unless your policy was canceled, you need to sign up for coverage by March 31, or you could face a penalty.) In the meantime, she should pay her debt in full. (She'll be better off taking the standard deduction on her taxes, but taxpayers can deduct medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of their adjusted gross incomes and recoup some of their costs.)

Once Nadia gains control of her debts, she'll finally be able to start saving. That's the only way to secure her financial future.

A few weeks after we spoke, Nadia reported that she had requested more hours and begun applying for full-time positions. "In the past, I got stuck in my challenges instead of conquering them," she told me. "I'm about to become stronger than ever."

Suze Orman's latest book is The Money Class: How to Stand in Your Truth and Create the Future You Deserve (Spiegel & Grau).

*Name has been changed.

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