How This Librarian Fixed Her Budget After Taking a Pay Cut to Serve Her Community

A mother and son hug one another.
Griffin Smith, 11, hugs his mother, Ayanna Gaines, as they walk to the public library in Camarillo, Calif., Dec. 9, 2018. Gaines uses the Empower app to track her spending, establish a budget and keep track of her balances. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder
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Ayanna Gaines is a woman who decided to change her story.

Gaines, 46, had spent the bulk of her career in academic libraries. But what she really wanted to do was help young people and those with nowhere else to turn when they need information. She made the move from academia and became a public librarian.

“I was meant to be a librarian,” she says. “I love helping people.”

Gaines quickly realized, though, that the accompanying lower salary meant she was also going to have to help herself. After a divorce in 2016, she compiled a fair amount of debt by using store credit cards to refurnish her life.

Gaines struggled to make ends meet. She has 11- and 17-year-old sons, who she only sees on weekends, and a new job that came with a substantial pay cut. Overdrafts and a lack of budgeting discipline were constant antagonists.

Gaines, however, was determined to be the hero of her own story. She found the Empower app, which helps her track her spending, establish a budget and keep track of her balances. Basically, it’s a financial assistant in an app.

Gaines says it had great reviews in the App Store. Like Luke Skywalker’s Obi Wan Kenobi or Harry’s Dumbledore, the Empower app became Gaines’ trusted adviser on the quest to get her budget under control.

A New Job and New Expenditures

A mother and son act out a book at a library.
Gaines reads a book with her son, Griffin, at the public library in Camarillo. She took a lower salary when she transitioned from working in an academic library to a public one. The Empower app became Gaines’ trusted adviser on the quest to get her budget under control. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

After the divorce and the resulting debt, Gaines knew taking a job that paid less was going to be a difficult transition. Regardless, she knew it was the right move for her.

“Public libraries are open to everyone,” she says. “In a way, they are one of the last bastions of democracy. I’m particularly fond of working with young adults and children.

“Unfortunately, librarianship, as a helping profession, gets short shrift when it comes to monetary compensation. And public librarians are paid less than academic librarians.”

Although she enjoyed her new job and coworkers, she found her finances spiraling out of control. Her new job paid less than her previous one, and other factors at the library contributed to her debt.

“A lot of it is at work,” she says. “There is a ‘going out to lunch’ culture. At first, I was a big part of it and would go out to lunch nearly every day of the week.”

The cost of lunches and other impulse purchases, including frequent stops at Starbucks for iced tea, dwindled her bank account down. Then a bill would come through with an automatic deduction and cause an overdraft. The cycle continued.

“I was paying $30 to $60 each month in overdraft fees, totaling about $360 to $720 per year,” she recalls.

This App Was a Game Changer

A person shows her recent expenses on Empower.
Gaines tracks some of her recent purchases on the Empower app. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Gaines knew she needed something to help with her budget. Family members urged her to try traditional budgeting software like Quicken, but that wasn’t going to work for her.

“I need to use a system that works for me and works with my brain,” she says. “I need to be able to pop into an app.”

That’s exactly what she found.

The Empower app is a powerful budgeting tool that helped her figure out how she was spending her money and effortlessly develop a budgeting plan to keep her on track.

Gaines linked the app to her bank accounts, and it tracked her spending for her. She was able to set monthly spending limits for a variety of categories, including dining out, pet bills or groceries. Empower showed her a graph any time she wanted, which told her in one snapshot just how she was doing for the month.

“I saw exactly how much money I was spending on carryout food, and I was like, ‘Wow. That really hurts,’” she says. “I set Empower up so that I track all of my food purchases. When I hit my limit, it will give me the very disappointed emoji face.”

That disappointed face made it a lot easier to skip the expensive purchases.

Now, Gaines goes to McDonald’s for her iced tea most of the time, spending just over $1 instead of $3 each time. Instead of going out to eat every day, she lets herself enjoy lunch with her coworkers once each week.

A Nice Dinner out Is a Big Reward

A mother and son eat lunch together at a cafe.
Gaines eats lunch with her son, Griffin, at Basil and Mint Vietnamese Cafe in Camarillo. Once she started to save money, Gaines was able to treat her sons to eating out more. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Getting her budget under control was about more than her own story. Gaines’ sons were also seeing the pinch. Weekends with their mother would be spent doing things at home they could do for free and either dining in or dining cheap.

Once she was saving money by not overdrafting her account, she was able to plan better, so she could treat her sons to a nice dinner out every so often.

The app took the work out of deciding when she could or couldn’t afford to spend.

“I’m really visual,” she says. “I love that everything [in Empower] is color-coded. The colors [in the spend tracker] will change the closer I get to the amount of money I have to spend. It goes from green to yellow to red. I love it when my budget stays in the green.”

Gaines estimates that the app has helped her save up to $720 in overdraft fees as well as another $200 to $400 by improving her spending in the year and a half that she’s used it.

“It means I can take my boys out for lunch or dinner on occasion,” she says. For a single mother, that’s a happy ending to her struggles.

“It truly does empower you,” she says. “It helps you get a better control over your financial situation. It’s adulting in a less painful way. “

Empower Can Help You Be the Hero of Your Story, Too

A librarian poses for a portrait inside the library she works at.
“I was meant to be a librarian,” Gaines says. “I love helping people.” Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

When asked what people should expect from Empower if they were to check it out like a book at her library, Gaines was quick to answer.

“If Empower were a book, it would be a magical book from Hogwarts that would link directly to your bank account at Gringotts, and it would speak to you in your chosen parent’s voice every time you opened it up. Sometimes it would scold you about wasting your wizarding gold on a bubble-gum wand; other times, it would praise you for your wise spending on bills. And it would yell at you for really stupid purchases, or if you become overdrawn.”

Librarian, mother and hero of her own story, Ayanna Gaines is happy to help others while helping herself along the way.

Tyler Omoth is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder who loves soaking up the sun and finding creative ways to help others. He’s always been more of a goofy sidekick than a hero. Catch him on Twitter at @Tyomoth.