How these South Africans achieved financial freedom in six months

The six 2020 Money Makeover candidates.
The six 2020 Money Makeover candidates.

The Absa/City Press Money Makeover boot camp has come to an end. This year has been undoubtedly the most challenging for contestants as they grappled with the fallout of Covid-19 and the associated lockdown. In this edition, Maya Fisher-French recaps their journey and hopes that it inspires you to create your own financial freedom plan

During this most challenging series of the Absa/City Press Money Makeover boot camp yet, four of our contestants experienced a drop in household income, yet they still managed to meet all the goals they set in January. They are proof that the power to change your financial circumstances lies within you and that you do not have to wait for a “miracle” to achieve financial freedom.



Catherien, this year’s Money Makeover winner, with her husband Jan and their children, photographed at the start of this year’s competition. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Catherien is an executive PA, and is married with three children. Her biggest challenge was that she and her husband Jan were not on the same page when it came to managing money. Jan earns an erratic income and didn’t feel it was possible to budget. This put a great deal of pressure on Catherien financially as she felt responsible for finding the money to pay for extra bills through her side businesses. She also faced an enormous emotional challenge as her 16-year-old son had a brain operation at the beginning of the year and will most likely require further surgery.

Our whole attitude towards the word ‘finances’ has changed

She worked with Absa financial adviser Riette Visser, who helped her draw up a realistic household budget. She and Jan completed a Money and Marriage questionnaire to understand their respective money attitudes, and the Money Makeover team created a plan to help Jan better manage his cash flow.


Despite the challenges of her son’s health and Covid-19, Catherien succeeded against all odds. By understanding each other’s perspectives and putting a plan together, the couple’s relationship changed. While Catherien had to accept that her grocery budget was unrealistic to feed a family of five, Jan had to accept that he could not work with credit cards. He agreed to close two of the credit cards and keeps only one card with a credit balance for emergencies. Jan is also paying himself a set salary from his business so that he can commit to the family obligations.

“I can honestly say that, even through Covid-19 and its huge challenges, my husband and I are now on the same page and we can have uplifting positive discussions regarding our finances. Our whole attitude towards the word ‘finances’ has changed.”

Unfortunately, Jan lost income during lockdown, but Catherien was able to make up the shortfall by working hard on her two side businesses.

We actually have various accounts with positive amounts and no debt! I have to pinch myself to believe what we have achieved in the last six months – even with the Covid-19 challenges

The couple bought their first home in January, which was a real “fixer-upper”. Without spending any money, they have managed to find ingenious ways to renovate.

“When the plaster fell off the wall, we just took the rest of the plaster off and left it as is – it looks beautiful. We were so aware of keeping within the budget that we refused to spend money. A friend gave us some paint and we used what we had; we even borrowed a heat gun from a neighbour. When I think back, we literally saved ourselves thousands, which we would have spent if someone else had done the job,” says Catherien.

  • Improved credit score by 17 points;
  • Closed two credit card accounts, with new orders placed with Jan’s business post-lockdown, as well as a withdrawal from their home loan. However, they are paying R6 000 a month extra into their mortgage to settle the drawdown within a year;
  • Jan built up a salary fund so he can guarantee payments to the household;
  • Bought their first home and paid all additional house purchase costs with cash – no debt;
  • Catherien generated additional income through her two side businesses.



Nono was the runner-up of the 2020 Money Makeover boot camp. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Nono works as a TV producer and married Vusi in December. She has a teenaged daughter who lives with her parents in KwaZulu-Natal and, in February, discovered that she is expecting her second child in September. Nono has a side business selling her own body care products. She wanted to get her finances under control by paying off her car and the revolving loan.

“I had just spent all my savings on the wedding and, after 12 years of working, I was starting from scratch. I had debt to settle and no savings to speak of.”

She worked with Absa financial adviser Steven Williamson, who created a plan for her to target her debts. This meant that the “lazy” money that she was spending unconsciously went to settle her debt.


Nono exceeded all her timelines in paying off her debts. She has already settled her credit card account and revolving loan, and will pay off her car by December.

Surprisingly, the little or leftover money I had previously regarded as only spending money made the most difference in paying off debt

Just by packing lunch each day rather than buying at work, she was able to increase her mortgage repayment by R500 a month.

Nono brought her extended family into the competition by creating a family WhatsApp group and sharing her knowledge and goals with her siblings. This was a great help when lockdown started, as two of her siblings had a drop in household income.

“We have changed how we approach birthdays as a family; instead of gifts, we have decided to deposit R500 into an account where the birthday person has debt or deposit money into a 32-day savings account.”

Nono created many clever savings strategies, including opening a “nappy fund” for the new baby, a family stokvel so the family is not under pressure at Christmas, and a gratitude jar where the couple keep their spare change to give away at the end of the year to people to say “thank you”.

  • Paid off credit card and revolving loan;
  • Built up an emergency fund;
  • Set up multiple savings plans;
  • Set up a family finances WhatsApp group;
  • Improved credit score by 12 points.



Bellah has separate budgets for her business and family. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Bellah is an entrepreneur running her own construction company in Pretoria. Despite having a significant turnover last year, she had no idea whether her business was making a profit. Although she received large lump sum payments from projects, Bellah never seemed to have enough money to meet her living expenses. As a result, she had taken on significant debt.

Bellah made significant inroads into her debt and has started to diversify her client base

Bellah worked with Absa financial adviser Stacey Coulson, who immediately recommended that she start paying herself a regular salary from her business every month. She worked with Elton Govender, a senior enterprise development specialist at Absa, to help her understand her business.


Bellah separated her personal and business finances and paid herself a monthly salary. She created and stuck to a budget, which included paying off her personal loans. On the business side, Bellah kept an income statement on each project to fully understand her expenses and profits. She now employs her own team rather than sub-contractors. This has improved her margins considerably. When she received lump sum payments from her projects, rather than going on her usual spending spree, she reinvested it straight into the business – paying off debts and building up capital to fund future projects.

She started a Facebook page for her business and has completed three projects from leads from this source. Bellah made significant inroads into her debt and has started to diversify her client base.

  • Paid off R175 000 of business and personal debt;
  • Built up a salary/emergency fund of R45 000;
  • Took life cover to provide for her children and started an education fund;
  • Achieved this despite not working during lockdown.



Colen has reduced his electricity bill by installing prepaid meters. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Colen is a married area manager with a family of three children. He has focused on building a property portfolio made up of various properties, including flat rentals. While he does not have significant consumption debt, he was very stretched on his property debt.

Colen worked with Absa financial adviser Jean-Pierre van der Merwe, who immediately identified that he had no will and that the way his property portfolio was structured would leave them with a significant tax bill. Colen also worked with Absa property expert Miguel Martins, who advised him on creating a proper plan to grow his property portfolio.

Somehow, I didn’t care or wasn’t bothered by my debt as long as I was able to pay the instalments each month


Colen discovered that he was not using his money effectively to pay off his property debt.

“Somehow, I didn’t care or wasn’t bothered by my debt as long as I was able to pay the instalments each month.”

By using money sitting idly in his transaction account, Colen paid off a significant amount of the property debt and improved his cash flow. He achieved this despite a salary cut and loss of income from one of his rental units.

He also discovered that there were many expenses related to his properties that he could have claimed from the taxman. Colen also reduced his property expenses by R7 000 by installing pre-paid electricity meters.

  • Created emergency fund of R91 000;
  • Reduced property debt by R50 000;
  • Kept the original bond repayments on his properties, despite the interest rate cuts;
  • Implemented a full estate plan with a will and life cover.



Mishack has learnt to budget better over the past six months. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Mishack works in communication in government. He is a married father of a nine-year-old son and two-year-old twins. Over the past few years, Mishack has been hit with a great deal of misfortune that has negatively affected his finances. It started when he helped his mother buy a home and put many of the expenses on his credit card. In the same year, his wife gave birth to twins and they had to buy another car to fit the family.

“I would do it all over again because my family comes first,” says Mishack, who entered the Money Makeover Challenge with substantial credit card debt. His goal was to stabilise his debt and create a better future for his wife and children.

Mishack worked with Absa financial adviser Johan Frouws, who provided him with an Excel budget template and a debt repayment plan.

We would go to the shopping mall to pay accounts and have a meal and do more shopping


Sticking to a budget for the first time allowed Mishack to identify where his money was going.

“We would go to the shopping mall to pay accounts and have a meal and do more shopping.”

By paying those accounts online and targeting his debt repayments, Mishack paid off all three of this clothing accounts. Because he had paid off his store cards and started paying off his credit card, his credit score improved, so he was able to qualify for a debt consolidation loan at Absa. This means he has been able to pay off his credit card with the loan at a lower interest rate.

One of the biggest challenges was saying “no” to friends who asked to borrow money. Previously, Mishack would draw from his credit card and, even if his friends paid him back, it was without interest. This led to the credit card spiralling out of control.

  • Settled R29 000 in credit card debt;
  • Paid off three store cards;
  • Settled his wife’s medical bills;
  • Put a will and estate planning in place for his family.



Peter has built up an emergency fund. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Peter is in his early forties and left his well-paying corporate job to join a start-up. Having given up on the large corporate salary, the family relied on credit to meet expenses. When Peter joined the Money Makeover Challenge, he found that they spent more than their combined income.

We ended up using our credit card facility and, while we can make payments towards the card, the amount we owe seems to bounce up and down without ever being cleared

Peter worked with Absa financial adviser Leighanne Decker, who helped him analyse his debts, reviewed his budget, and also identified that one of his investments was inappropriate for his needs and would be better served to help settle his credit card debt.

The Achievement:

Despite Peter’s wife Helen’s loss of income during lockdown, the couple managed to stick to their stringent budget. Peter became a guru at finding special deals at grocery retailers and started a blog called Frugal Family.

If the pandemic had struck earlier, before we were a part of this process, we would have been in a dire situation

He has brought his children into the competition by teaching them budgeting through games that he is sharing on his blog. He has managed to pay off debt, start an emergency fund and even resume his contribution to his retirement annuity.

“Thankfully, our documented budget allowed us to work out what the impact of Helen’s loss of income would be and adjust accordingly. If the pandemic had struck earlier, before we were a part of this process, we would have been in a dire situation,” says Peter.

  • Reduced spending by R5 000 a month;
  • Settled credit card debt and started an emergency fund;
  • Actively used social media to share his journey, and offer tips and on his blog;
  • Improved insurance cover through a healthy lifestyle.

To find out about the contestants’ journeys to financial freedom and read their motivational letters, go to Facebook @CPMoneyMakeover or Twitter @CPMoneyMakeover.

You can also view all the lessons and tips that will help you achieve financial freedom on the Money Makeover special report page here.

Watch the final event and see the contestants tell their stories and get their prizes, including R5 000 each from City Press


Maya Fisher-French 

Personal Finance Editor

+27 11 713 9001
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park

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