Mark and Jessica Stone


Then: Renters in February 2008, the Stones wanted to buy their first home and save for their retirement. That was a stretch on Mark's $68,000 public teacher's salary (now $69,000) with two children at home and another child on the way. The planner recommended that they buy through a short sale or foreclosure and that Jessica increase her monthly income from teaching dance to children to $1,000 from $300. She urged them to continue living very frugally.

Now: Jessica, 32, gave birth to the couple's third child, and the family bought a town home in Huntington Beach through a short sale for $294,500. Their low income qualified them for an affordable loan from the state. The Stones cut back their spending even further, paid off their credit card debt and built up an emergency reserve of $10,000. Jessica has stopped teaching dance but plans to resume doing so eventually.

New habits: Mark, 33, gave up his cellphone and began carpooling to work. They rely on friends at church to help out with child care for their kids. They halved their monthly tithe to their church and cut out most movie-going. They spend their free time at parks and the beach. Jessica does many errands on foot. Every month, they put $25 a month into a college savings plan for each child. The Stones also save $100 for their retirement.

"It seemed like it worked out perfectly for us," Mark Stone said. "We feel pretty blessed."

-- Ann Marsh

Lesley Hawks

Then: Hawks, 48, had made as much as $400,000 a year as a franchise consultant but was laid off shortly before her money makeover in June 2007. The single mother didn't have time to attend to her finances. She didn't open bank statements and couldn't say whether her bank account contained $10,000 or $100,000. She had lost 16 years of appreciation in one $100,000 retirement account by not managing it.

With only $180,000 saved, she needed much more to retire. The planner urged her to go back to full-time employment for the benefits and matching 401(k) contributions. The planner also wanted her to stop renting an expensive home and buy a smaller place.

Now: Hawks traded freelance income for a reliable salary with a large company. She retained a planner to help negotiate a return to full-time employment at an annual income of $200,000. That package contains all the benefits the makeover planner wanted her to have, including a 401(k) match.

To maintain stability for her son, Hawks did not take the planner's advice to move and stayed in her home.

New habits: Hawks keeps track of her finances regularly. She outsources some work to an accountant because of her busy schedule.

"I now have a sense of what is where," Hawks said. The makeover "has been a catalyst for some really positive change."

-- Ann Marsh

Gabriel Medina

Then: In June, Medina, 26, was aggressively saving $800 a month for retirement but only had $1,700 in regular savings. That wasn't enough to achieve his goal of buying a first home, especially with $1,100 in credit card debt. The planner advised him to redirect his retirement savings temporarily and build up $15,000 for a down payment. The planner also told him not to buy a home for more than $350,000. She urged the rookie Los Angeles police officer and Iraq veteran to apply his experience in strategic planning to his finances.

Now: Medina took the planner's advice to heart. He canceled plans for a trip to Italy with his girlfriend and diverted his retirement saving toward the house fund. He worked overtime hours and paid off his credit card debt. Adding in a $5,000 signing bonus, Medina saved $17,000 quickly.

Less than six months after his makeover, he bought a three-bedroom home for $352,000. It has become the unofficial home base for his extended family. More than 20 people celebrated New Year's Eve there. The home also enabled Medina to adopt two rescue dogs.

Medina is building his savings account back up and hopes to take advantage of the depressed real estate market by buying a second investment property before the end of the year.